Grief is the ocean and hope is the sky

I have become acutely aware of the universality of grief in this world. Since the death of my son, I have naturally become aware of the number of other people whose children have died from miscarriages, SIDS, freak accidents, cancer and other illnesses, suicide, drug accidents, and murder. I feel each death that comes to my attention like a stab and say a prayer for the family and for the soul of the departed one.

Millions of us are aware of how grief swells and subsides like the ocean and never goes away. Perhaps the ocean with its vast area on this earth is the physical symbol of grief, the constant companion of the human race. Maybe that’s why our tears are salty. Only God knows how all the pieces of the human story fit together, but I believe our personal histories – how each fits perfectly into the story of humanity will become clear, probably sooner than later.

This past weekend, Saturday really, my grief swelled to tidal wave proportions. For a while, perhaps a month or so, I had been able to keep the grief at bay, keeping busy with my new projects and trying to “move on” – but there is only so long such a roiling ocean can be kept quiet. I can either let it vent a little each day or I can dam it up for a while and then drown when it forces its release for a day.

By Sunday the storm had died down a bit. But Saturday I could do nothing but let myself be drenched in pure wordless grief. I could not write or work on my Etsy store or read a book or clean house. I could not image any immediate future – only that distant one, beautiful but shrouded in mists. The sky that day was stunning – with giant thunderhead clouds as far as the eye could see in different shades from brilliant silver to blue-grey to nearly black against a deep blue sky. The clouds were so varied and so layered that they looked like vast landscapes of mountains and lakes, only more beautiful than even the most scenic on the earth. I was only able to stare at the sky and wonder at God’s glory, how He designed this exact sky with its ever-changing configurations of clouds and heavenly objects specifically to speak to His human creatures.

I failed to take a picture of the sky that day. This picture, taken in the mountains about a year ago by Aaron Apple, is nearly as beautiful.
But was it saying? The sky speaks to me of things that are beyond human language. On that day of grief I did not try to reason with God or make sense of Jesse’s early death. I did not seek “growth opportunities” or try to comfort myself with thoughts of eternity. I am clear that the eternal is real and Jesse is still Jesse and I will see him again. All that. But the ocean of grief is what I was experiencing in the present. I just let it wash over me. I had no choice. I could do nothing else.

Whatever human beings are in the eternal realm, God made us in this life and in this world to know each other in these bodily forms, and the bodily form I gave birth to and cherished for 23 years and eight months is gone. There is nothing that can reason away the grief of that. You have to go through the storm and though eventually you will come out on the other side, you will not emerge unchanged. The grief will have permeated every molecule of your being. God tells us through scripture that grief will be turned to joy. That is the blessed hope but it is not the current experience. If the joy to come is in proportion to the grief of the present, then many of us have something magnificent in our futures.


We know so little about heaven, earth, and each other

What can I say about Jesse that hasn’t already been said? I can say that I am sure he has experienced more wonderful things since he left this life than he did between birth and that day 10 months ago when he left the earthly plane.

“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”
Corinthians 2:9 (New King James Version)

As long as I can sustain that belief, I can achieve some measure of peace and happiness, but the minute I let unbelief slip through a crack in the door of my heart, it sinks like a ball of lead.

I guess I knew my son as well as anybody, but I also know he was an iceberg, the kind of person who has massive depths but shows only a tiny portion of himself to the world. That is why he was able to continually surprise us. Just seven days before he died he showed me a new website for his campaign for mayor of Portsmouth. This was very surprising and I worried a little. He was only 23 and had no political experience and as far as I knew. In fact he had always been the most non-political person I had ever known – in the sense that he never played anyone to get what he wanted. If he wanted anything he stated his desire directly, and only after he had thoroughly thought it out. His yes was yes and his no was no.

Somewhere on that “Jesse Apple for Mayor” website he wrote a little post. I can’t find it now – much to my dismay – so I will try to remember it: “I know I am young and my chances of being elected are slim. But I want to run anyway. I have lived or worked in Portsmouth since the age of fifteen and have studied politics since long before that.”

Until I saw that post I did not know he had been studying politics since childhood. How I wish I could talk and laugh about the politics going on now. We talked and laughed about the crazy election last summer and then he didn’t live until election day. I know his observations would have been priceless.

Abstract thought. By Jesse Apple.

10 Months Later: Sorrow and Joy

Jesse’s passing has been an intense spiritual journey for me. All my life I have considered myself to be on a spiritual journey, but the death of my son dramatically deepened and accelerated it. The grief is still always there but sometimes lifts a bit and sometimes crashes down like a ton of bricks.

Yesterday my heart felt sodden with sorrow all day, the floods ever threatening to spill out of my eyes. I was a little confused. Just when I have become more sure than ever that this life is a mere blip in our eternal existence, only a threshold – and as either C.S. Lewis or another guy says, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience – instead of being freed up to feel the joy of this truth, I am once more cast into to hard grip of sucking sadness.

But now the sadness has taken on a different quality than it had in the weeks and months immediately after that horrible day. Rather being focused on the loss of Jesse, it is a more diffused sort of sorrow for the plight of humanity – all the ugliness, coldness, violence, fear, and suffering in a world that God made to be a human paradise. Why is this beautiful world of sea, sky, mountains, and trees not a paradise? The earth is made to provide humans with all we need to live and be happy and yet we choose to fight, kill, grasp at possessions, and do harm to each other.

I believe that “Your will be done, Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven” means pretty much what it says: that one day earth will be restored to its original glory. I believe this fully and deeply and I feel assurance in my spirit that Jesse exists in that other dimension where he is safe from all harm, and a part of my soul is able to rejoice. And yet what I feel most intensely and pervasively is utter sorrow.


sunset on road to pulaski
Sunset on the road to Pulaski. Makes me think of sorrow and joy.

I take great comfort from the verse that says I will be comforted: “Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted.” I believe this comfort will be more joy than I can possibly now imagine. It will be a complete healing. It will involve a reunion with Jesse but much more. I take great comfort in the whole fifth chapter of Matthew. Another favorite is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled.” To me this is Jesse’s verse. Few people knew his heart as much as I did and I know his young heart yearned to make things right in the world, or at least better. I believe he is now working with the Lord to make it happen.

I am sure some people will think these thoughts are the crazy imaginings of a grieving mother. So be it. I believe my thoughts are the feeble stumbling imaginings of a mind that cannot begin to conceive the beauty and joy that await all who seek God and His truth.



It is well with my soul

It has been a while since I wrote something here on my Jesse blog. I am pretty sure I have been going through the depression stage of grief and for me this means that when I sit down to write the spirit to do it is absent. I wish I could write. I have things I want to say. But I cannot seem to do it. I find would rather lay down on my bed and watch apocalyptic conspiracy theories on YouTube.

I had the intention, sometime after starting this blog, that I would scan the hundreds of pictures I have of Jesse and honor his life by writing about the wonderful memories. But right now it is difficult for me to deal with the photos. I am trying to clean the junk out of house, get rid of all that is unnecessary, and in my cleaning I keep running across photos – and report cards and certificates and t-shirts, all kinds of mementoes of the 23 years he lived as my son. I just sigh and put the photos and things aside. There has been a Shiny Computers t-shirt in my laundry basket since before his death and I have not been able to bring myself to remove it. I am trying to get functional and am trying to avoid falling into these caverns of loss.

I have to breath deeply and remind myself of the basic facts:

  • This world is not all there is. It is a speck in the ocean of eternity.
  • Jesse lives in eternity. He now lives in the presence of our Father in Heaven and His son Jesus Christ.
  • Jesse was not perfect – none of us are – but he was saved from damnation by the death and resurrection of our Savior. So he is alive now, fully himself as created by God.
  • I am still here on this speck. I have to try to live the rest of my life as well as I can, which means I must give each moment to God and do each thing as to the Lord.
  • Soon enough I also will be in Heaven where I will be reunited with Jesse, as well as my parents, in-laws, and many others.

I was not a perfect mother. I did many things wrong, sometimes out of flawed understanding, sometimes out of fear, sometimes out of selfishness. I am most devastated by this last thing. But as I will discuss in a moment “….my sins are nailed to the cross and I bear them no more.”

Horatio Gates Spafford, from Wikipedia

These words come from an old hymn that I heard this morning on my way to work: “It is Well with My Soul.” Of course I’ve known this song for many years and used to sing it with choirs, but it touched me this morning even more deeply than it usually does. The hymn was written in 1873 by Horatio G. Spafford. Spafford wrote the hymn on a ship bound from New York to England where he was travelling to meet his wife after she had survived a horrible shipwreck. Their four daughters however – Annie, 11, Maggie, 9, Bessie, 5, and Tanetta, 2 – had all drowned.  Two years earlier the Spaffords had also lost a 4-year-old son to scarlet fever. Interestingly, Jesse also came down with scarlet fever at the age of four, the only serious childhood illness he had. What happened to the Spafford child is a reminder that many of us get to live longer lives due to the blessing of modern antibiotics.

The part of the hymn that touched me the most today was the third stanza about his sin being nailed to the cross and bearing it no more. This is because when you lose a child you tend to dwell minutely on every mistake or possible mistake you made as a parent. This self-blame makes a heavy burden even more tortuous. He was the one who had sent his family ahead of him to England on that ship. He could have unreasonably dwelt on that fact, searching for fault in himself as to why he did that, but instead he chose to dwell on the fact that all sins, all errors, are truly washed away by the blood of Christ.

It is Well With My Soul

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

It is well with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!

And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

Grief and hope after five months

I am having such a hard time getting back to all the writing projects I used to think were so important. And yet I still think writing has something to so with my mission in life, so I still do it every day. I just can’t seem to squeeze out much I want to share with the public. I used to write about books nearly every day, and in fact, I am still reading quite a lot, but my books and my life seem to melt into a blurry puddle and I cannot seem to extract a clear enough thought to shape into words.

I go about my life, going to the office, grocery shopping, cleaning house…. but when I sit down to do my life’s work, writing, I find that my spirit has melted into a lump of grief, all smooshed into a gray ball that is trying to find its way to the light. As you see I am doing a lousy job of expressing this in words and even if I could, who would want to read it? What good are words when it comes to knowing the truth? The truth is beyond words. Words can only capture the general direction of it.

The world seems so full of heartbreak now that grief is as common as breathing. Yesterday I read about a 21-year-old guy killed in a car crash on Route 58 near my house and I thought about his parents and said a prayer for them. I dread the thought of the horror they are now going through. The guy’s crashed car ended up hanging from a tree off the highway. Every day someone is facing the loss of a child, the regret, the guilt over every harsh work, every argument, every time you didn’t give them enough attention, every time you could have spent with them but chose to do something else, like pay a bill or go to work, or God forbid, do something just for yourself like read a book or go out with your girlfriends.

Blessed are the oblivious. I wonder at how oblivious I once was to the grief that permeates this world. How can this be given that I had lost all four of my grandparents, my own parents, and my in-law parents? But all of them departed with life in the right order: grandparents first and then parents. I was supposed to be next.

Sometimes an acquaintance would lose a child and I would think how horrible that would be, in fact unthinkable. So unthinkable I didn’t think about it, at least not in terms of such a think happening to me. We all witness death practically every day on the news and in the movies and on TV. We get used to seeing death as a remote fact that happens to other people on glass screens and cannot touch us. When it happens to someone we know it hits home and makes us think; but in a week or so, or 24 hours, we file that thought and continue on in our belief in our own immunity. We are so practiced in putting death in the glass box, a sanitized wall between us and the messy blood and grief of it.

It is now just over five months since Jesse’s death. Not long enough to recover from the mere shock when I see all those hundreds of photographs of his radiant face, usually such an innocent and trusting face. Not long enough to get my mind around the fact that though Jesse still exists, that particular life in the photographs is over.

When he was barely four he asked me if he was going to die. I told him everything that lives will die but he did not ave to worry about that for a long long time. “But what if some people don’t want to die?” he asked, starting to cry. “It’s just like going from one world to another,” I said.

And I am convinced that is the truth. But why are we so blocked out from that other world into which we so easily slip when we leave our body? What is it about these bodies that makes us so blind to the eternal reality? According to the many near death experiences I have read, the minute we leave our bodies, we see the expanded reality and what is going on in this world too. It’s like our physical body is a locked room with the shades drawn.

Here is what I think I understand about it. There is very little we actually understand about the nature of reality, either in this world or the next, but it seems there is an element of choice. Just as I might decided to concentrate my pen on a single piece of notebook paper or limit my attention to a single book I have committed my attention to living this material life with its full set of natural laws as a resident of this material body. The body is  the bottom line of the contract. When the body can no longer house the spirit, our contract with this world ends.

Our bodies and minds come with certain limitations, and some souls live in bodies with more limitations than others. When the spirit leaves the body it also leaves the limitations. Jesse’s brain had some issues with the processing and organizing of information, issues that he struggles with most of his life. He did an amazing job of compensating and overcoming his limitations.

He researched ADD and knew his condition well. He found workarounds, many natural and lifestyle oriented, but also found that certain drugs seemed to help him function better. He wanted to be a productive person so he used the drugs, and as far as everyone knew, used them carefully with close attention to safe dosages. But apparently he make a mistake with drug combinations and this led to his early death. There is recent research that says people diagnosed with adult ADD have a greatly increased risk of premature death. I did not know this until afterwards.

I believe that when Jesse left his body he experienced freedom from his information processing issues. I believe he found that his full intelligence was free to explore, understand, experiment, understand, and do whatever project or mission God had in store for him. That’s what I truly believe he is doing right now – his next project, one perfectly suited to a soul with his curiosity, desire for adventure, and intellectual abilities.


Looking at a new year without my son in it

I have always loved starting a new year. I love a new beginning, a fresh slate, and was always a resolution maker, even an enthusiastic resolution maker. This new year feels different. I am not so enthusiastic about making resolutions, at least in the old sense. I will try to explain that shortly. This year, 2017, is the first year in 24 years that has not had Jesse in it. He was born December 10th 1992 but was very much present with me the preceding nine months. I had a book called A Child is Born by Lennart Nillson that showed beautiful pictures of how a fetus looks at each stage of development and I studied those pictures, imagining the child within me. I felt enveloped in a bubble of magic throughout my whole pregnancy. Jesse was already there.

Before he was born I spent my whole life with a sense of not really being connected to the world. I felt like a free radical floating around, not clicked in to any culture or system. I got along okay, but felt like an alien trying to pass for a natural inhabitant of the earth. When Jesse was born I lost that sensation for the first time in my life. I was the mother of a child on this earth. I clicked in to the world and worked hard to help my son grow up as a healthy happy member of the human race. I had the underlying fear that he would inherit my alien tendencies and didn’t want him to feel that horrible sense of disconnection and not belonging.

I think maybe he did inherit some of my tendencies, but he was very intelligent and able to find coping mechanisms and was smart about adjusting to his circumstances. When he was young I worked with him on social skills and he was a willing student. I had a sense of what he had to work at and what came naturally to him. What came naturally was sharp intelligence, wonder, the desire to learn and experiment, and a wild urge to build and create. What did not come naturally was complying with arbitrary societal rules and interacting with others just to fit in. But he was willing to work at those things and became quite a friendly helpful person, finding much humor in the human race, and developed a real capacity to care for the wellbeing of others. He was never arrogant. He seemed to have a desire to be pleasing and did not like to stand out in a crowd.

When Jesse died, in a real sense I died too: the “me” who was invested in this earthly life died just as surely as my son died physically. The future I imagined I had in that life was swept away like a sand castle in the surf. How can I say that I am dead to this world, I ask myself, when I have my other beloved son and my husband still living? I know why. It is because Jesse’s death laid bare the truth that we will all die, that this life is a vapor, just as that verse in the Bible says. (“…For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” James 4:14 (NKJV))

I see now that I was floating in an infinite ocean on a twig, thinking the twig was the whole world and building castles and making complicated plans, all balanced on that twig. Jesse was one of my established anchors around which I built the plans and castles, and then one day that anchor got swept into the vastness of the universe, and my soul followed, looking for him, calling for him, reaching every sinew of mind toward him. Where was he now? What was he now?
Through prayer and meditation messages came to my mind and I experienced the blessing of knowing that God’s angels had taken him safely to his new home. I am still floating on that old twig, but now I see it for what it is. I cannot build castles on it anymore. All that I build from now on must be for that other place where Jesse is and where the rest of us are destined to join him. But I am shaky and uncertain as to how to do go about it. I suppose that whatever I build must still be built on the twig with the materials available on its tiny surface, yet knowing that it must also somehow prepare me for my departure from the twig. It is the puzzle of being in the kingdom of God and yet still operating in this world, perhaps what is meant by “in the world but not of the world.” Actually I cannot find those words in the Bible but I think John 2:15-17 (NKJV) captures the idea:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.

I think this is why I am having so much trouble writing. I believe that writing is what I am called to do – but I have to redirect my purpose and focus. I am feeling my way to working in this new paradigm, this awareness that I am not working for anything in this world but for the promised world where my son has gone ahead of me. So my new year’s resolutions must be different this year. I still might have earthly goals, but they look insignificant in the new perspective of the vast universe I see myself in.

I cannot build my new life around getting my body in shape or publishing a story. Even if I want to publish a story or improve my health, the goal must somehow relate to the bigger picture. How does it bring me closer to God and His truth? How does it serve His purpose for me and those with whom I share my life? How does it glorify God and reflect his love? How does it bring his kingdom to earth as it is in Heaven? So far my only resolution this year is to contemplate how to live and write in such a way. For all I know that may be all I do for the rest of my earthly life, and unless the Spirit directs me to “do” something more, that is good enough for me.

I used to write Christmas letters

I used to write those letters every year, summing up the life of the Apple family in the past 12 months. I remember the joyful one I wrote in 1996, the year Aaron was born. I remember bits of several them: “This year the boys started kindergarten and third grade” or “This year the boys were in fifth and eighth grade” or “This year Jesse started high school…” or “Aaron pitched for Pony League this year and Jesse ran cross-country and track” or “We enjoyed a fun bicycle trip to Lancaster….”

I haven’t written one of these letters in the past few years. I got off track. I had a few Christmases in which I lacked Christmas spirit. Shame on me. It seems so silly now not to appreciate all the blessings I had each and every year. What would I write in a year like this one?

“Dear Friends,

It started out as a fantastic year. We were feeling hopeful with the guys busy embarking on their exciting careers. Things changed the day Jesse died in August. The last four months of 2106 were a blur of grief. My life fell off a spiritual cliff but fortunately I was caught in the arms of the Lord Jesus before I hit bottom. The rest of my life must be a matter of trusting Him to lift me up and eventually reunite me with my son. If I fail to trust him I will crash and burn in the pit of grief; therefore, if I want to experience any more light and hope in my existence I have no choice but to trust him.”

That’s about it. I have made my choice. Between light and hope and crashing and burning, I guess I choose light and hope. Sadness is heavy like lead and there is nothing on this earth that can really lighten the weight. Only God in the person of his son Jesus Christ has the strength and the promise and the ability  to relieve the sadness and redeem the fact of death. I used to think the idea of dying – as in ceasing to exist – was intolerable and therefore I sought to believe the one who said he came to overcome death. But if I thought my cessation would be intolerable, the idea that my child could cease to exist was 1000 times more so. If I believed Jesse had ceased to exist I would want to cease to exist myself just stop the agony of that thought. In that direction lies the abyss, annihilation, and darkness. I don’t want those things especially because I believe in my heart they are lies. The truth is an existence of love and everlasting life. The truth is light as in not heavy and also light as in not dark.

I could wish that it were more generally accepted that our loved ones live on, that we are conscious spirits who do not die when our physical bodies die, that we simply transition to a new level of existence. Everybody says they believe that and yet they feel sorry for me that I lost my son. I appreciate the love and sympathy because losing a child is hard and the death of the body and the end of the life as we knew it is horrible. All death is horrible. But I wish we all really believed that our loved ones are absolutely as alive as we are, far more so. I wish we all accepted that as established fact.

That way when I run into someone in the grocery store they could talk about their Johnny in college and I could matter-of-factly talk about my Jesse in heaven and no one would feel awkward or sad, once the initial shock of the great transition had passed. It is also sad to say good-bye to your kids when they go away to college or into the military too. It’s just that it may be a little longer before I get to see my son again. But even that is not certain.