This interview is different from others I've posted here. I hope you'll stick around and read the whole thing; it's that valuable.
A few years ago, I had the fortune of crossing paths with Jenny Hess and being able to read a draft of the manuscript that would become a published memoir about her young son's sudden death and the journey of grief that followed.
Every year, I read a lot of books and manuscripts, but few stay with me the way Jenny's book has. Years later, I still think of her, her son Russell, and their story, with regularity.
Sometimes it's when I'm out for a run and I remember the time Jenny was out running early one morning shortly after Russell's death. (I won't tell you what happened, but trust me; you won't forget it either.) When I hear an ambulance siren, I think of the trip Russell took to the ER and what happened there.
But I also think of Jenny's story when I see someone in pain. Someone grieving. I remember it when I face my own struggles. And when I discover someone else who has gone through a sudden loss and the subsequent grief. I like to think that learning of Jenny and her journey through pain and loss has taught me how to be more compassionate with others (and with myself). It's a story of pain, but it's also one of hope, joy, and, eventually, healing.
It's a book everyone should read, whether or not you've experienced something similar. This mortality thing is rough; chances are, you still may undergo a sudden loss. Chances are even better that you know someone who already has or who will soon go through a traumatic time and who must grapple with the grief that follows.
Here's our interview about her remarkable book.
AL: How would you describe your book: memoir? How-to? Other? And why?
JH: I would definitely describe my book as a memoir and not a how-to. Grief is an intensely personal experience to a deeply individual loss. People are given a disservice and tend to bristle when told how to grieve. In His Hands is simply my experience with the grief of losing my son Russell, and I hope it gives a grieving reader the validation that these strong, profound, overwhelming emotions are normal and that they are not alone in their pain.
AL: What prompted you to write about your experiences surrounding your son’s death?
JH: I was having so many conflicting emotions—the deep, dark, ugly wretchedness of missing Russell along with the holy, sacred and beautiful new insights into the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I felt these needed to be chronicled before they were lost in the fog I was engulfed in. But really, I began writing because through an
honest misunderstanding I’d inadvertently led my two-year-old son to believe Jesus kidnapped his older brother. I think I’ve resolved the issue, but I kept thinking then, that, if as a teenager, Joey wondered why deep down he didn’t like Jesus, I would have it there for him in print—that it was my fault.
AL: What was the writing process like? How long did it take? Did you always plan to publish it?
JH: I was writing Russell’s biography when I knew I needed to write this book. In His Hands is a book that tells how the loss affected me and my family, previous life experiences I felt prepared me for the loss, and the heavy and holy experiences of grief I experienced later.
Some days I wrote feverishly, the words just pouring out. Other days I wrote timidly, tip-toeing through painful memories. Some days I couldn’t write—not for a lack of material, but because it was just too much to handle.
I was really just writing for me and for my immediate family. Especially for Joey, so he’d hopefully have a vibrant and faith-filled relationship with our Savior. It seemed to take forever to write, but I think it was mostly done within six months of starting it. I hadn’t intended to get it published, but some close friends
encouraged me to try.
AL: What makes your book on the topic of grief different?
JH: This book is different than any other grief memoir I’ve read. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough in the LDS/Christian market, although I’ve noticed more being published lately. While they maintain a belief in God that’s uplifting and inspiring, most seem to be written years after the loss, and the grief experience has lacked
the rawness of new grief. This diminished the significant emotions that were overwhelming me and left me feeling alone and misunderstood.
In contrast, secular memoirs I’ve read tend to open up and share the vivid and intense pain of grief. This validated my bleeding emotions and helped me feel like I’m not crazy. But a common theme to these books is the question, “How could a kind, loving God allow this to happen?” and it breaks my heart and sometimes my spirit to read how their faith is not only questioned, but seemingly crushed and broken beyond repair.
I know how a kind, loving God could allow this to happen, but I still felt so despondent that I could barely function. In His Hands is a realistic, faith-promoting look into the abyss of grief with a loving Heavenly Father at my side.
AL: Who do you think would benefit from reading the book?
JH: Surprisingly, I’ve received feedback from people of all backgrounds telling me they’ve benefited from reading this book. We’ve all experienced loss to some degree, whether they be through death of a loved one, debilitating health issues, abuse, divorce, or even the loss of not having the life you imagined you’d be living by now. While those losses differ, many of the emotions are the same.
People who haven’t experienced much loss have expressed they learned from reading about the inner turmoil of my grief and as a result, gained a better understanding and compassion for friends and family who had.
AL: What is the greatest/most important lesson you’ve learned as a result of Russell’s death?
JH: My testimony of Jesus Christ has deepened and strengthened through the death of my son. My love for Heavenly Father and my appreciation for His plan have grown in immeasurable ways. I’ve always known They love me, but now I’m starting to see how much.
I’ve learned through the kind acts of others how important it is to “mourn with those who mourn,” and how I may feel lonely at times, but I’m never really alone.
AL: What would be your advice to someone facing a big trial, whether it deals with the death of a loved one or something else?
JH: In His Hands was written during my worst grief. I’m still grieving the loss of Russell, but I’m not experiencing the profound grief that you’ll read about in the book. I’m in a much better place now. Please remember that while time itself doesn’t heal, it takes away the sharpness of the pain. It’s easier to see answers to “Why?” and lessons learned after—sometimes years after—the experience.
Trying to understand these lessons before they’re apparent is frustrating and breeds doubt. Just hold on through this. It will get better.
We recently marked the six-year anniversary of Russell’s death. For the first few years, I was just surviving. Don’t overdo things in the beginning of a difficult trial—it’s harder to survive that way. Sometimes you just have to slow down and feel. It’s painful. Healing from a traumatic wound usually is.
Around year three, I was back in a regular routine. I was able to function in a seemingly normal way. To the naked eye I was a “regular” person, although I still felt broken. I still broke from time to time, but I found my inner strength was able to usually get me through challenging situations.
Around year five, I realized I still wasn’t happy. I could experience happy moments, but I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t always depressed, either, which was good. So I gave up trying to be happy. I just tried to enjoy and appreciate. I figured I wouldn’t reach the level of “happy” until I was with Russell again. Letting go of the unattainable goal of happiness allowed me to enjoy moments even more.
One average day, about 5 1/2 years after Russell died, I realized that I was feeling more than happy moments. I was feeling happy. Just in my everyday life. I was even happy to be alive. It just sort of snuck up on me.
And while I fall back down into the hole occasionally (especially during the time of year of his death), I’m still happy. And I know I’ll eventually make my way back out.
Grief is a long process, and it’s different for everyone. Please don’t lose hope if you can’t make your way through as fast as you’d like. Just hold on. There are good days and better times ahead.
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Jenny Hess was born in Boston, Massachusetts. She is an avid quilter and loves the outdoors. After serving a mission in Denmark, Jenny graduated from California State University Long Beach, where she met her husband, Kirk. They have five kids—four living on earth and one living in Heaven. As a family, they love spending time together surfing, camping, hiking, biking, exploring, rock climbing, and canyoneering. Jenny's story can be found on Mormon.org, and a video vignette detailing how the scriptures helped heal her is currently being shown at the Los Angeles Temple Visitor's Center in California. Jenny is the Grief Group Facilitator for her stake and spends time helping grievers on their path. Visit her at jennyhess.wordpress.com.
Buy the book HERE.