Surviving the Worst Thing Possible: A Book Review

IMG_5398I have always had an active imagination. And a sometimes anxious psyche. Combine those two things, and the mind pictures grow exponentially! I’ve imagined my husband or children lying by the side of the road, injured, dying. I’ve ‘seen’ my loved ones’ airplanes falling from the sky. I’ve pictured waking up to flames around me, with no way of escape.

And I’ve always believed that the very worst thing that can happen to a parent is to lose one of their children to death.

After reading, “Refuse to Drown,” co-written by Tim Kreider and Shawn Smucker, I’m not sure I believe that anymore. Because what happened to Tim is even worse than that: he discovered that his oldest boy, Alec, at the tender age of 16, viciously murdered his best friend and both of his friend’s parents. Stunned by this revelation, Tim had to make the hardest choice of his life — to turn his son into the police, and then to wait for his child’s fate to be determined by a court of law.

Working from journals, an early manuscript, and painful memories, Tim and Shawn have created a compelling book, with enough suspense to keep us reading until the very end. In the process, we learn what it means to live a life of integrity even while in the grip of overwhelming grief. There are no heroes in this story. What Tim chooses to do is, indeed, heroic, but it is not something he takes pride in, not something he feels good about doing. 

And that’s one of the primary reasons this is a book that I sincerely recommend. There is real wrestling going on in this story. What is the right thing to do here? Can I do it? Can I live with the consequences of making the right choice? What more could I have done for my child?

Hard questions, no easy answers. Throughout the tale, Tim is fiercely honest and admits to mistakes made along the journey of parenting his son. The question that rises to the top of all the others is this one: how are parents to learn what mental illness or serious personality disorder look like? What are the signs? Is there help out there?

At the end, we are left with the truth that no one can know what’s going on in the heart of another, even if that other is someone we’ve known their whole lives. It is unsettling to read this book, disturbing, even painful.

What redeems the story is the bright thread of hope that weaves its way in and around the sordid and painful details. The grace of God shows up, right in the midst of this terrible darkness, as Tim’s soon-to-be second wife, his friends and his church community rally round, offering silent companionship, meals, words and notes of comfort. And Alec himself seems to find some measure of comfort in God, and to express some remorse for his vicious actions.

This is Tim’s story to tell and Shawn has helped him to tell it well. As a reader, and as a mother, I wanted to know more about what Alec’s mom was thinking, how she was finding comfort in the midst of all this agony. But that is not the story here, is it? I often found myself praying for her, and for all the family as this story unfolded, because every member of the circle is changed forever as a result of Alec’s horrible choice that dark night in May 2006.

This is a story worth reading. It is sad and hard, but ultimately hopeful. There can be life after the worst thing possible happens. And it can be a rich, good life. 


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  1. There’s a lot of power in that title. Wow. Great review.

  2. “… a compelling book…we learn what it means to live a life of integrity even while in the grip of overwhelming grief. …Hard questions, no easy answers. ..The grace of God shows up…As a reader, and as a mother, I wanted to know more about what Alec’s mom was thinking…This is a story worth reading…There can be life after the worst thing possible happens. And it can be a rich, good life.”

    Your review inspired me, Diana.
    Sometimes the thought “Who would ever want to read about this?” is like cement boots on me.

    • I think you’d be surprised who would want to read a story about this, Marilyn. But this man waited seven years tot tell it – it takes time. And the reason it couldn’t be about Alec’s mom is because his parents were divorced long before these events took place, so it truly was not Tim’s story to tell. I just missed hearing a bit of her voice in this book, which I think is a natural response, as I am a mom myself.

  3. I did not know about this book, so thank you. I have thought about the possibility that this book describes, though, and I agree. It would be a fate worse than death. Now every time there’s another mass shooting, I think about the shooter’s mom.

  4. I’m hearing so much about this book and it is on my list. I too think often of the parents of mass shooters. One of the many powerful stories that Andrew Solomon tells in his amazing book “Far from the Tree” is the story of Dylan Klebold’s (Columbine shooter) mother. She had both the terrible things happen to her–she learned her child was a murderer, and her child died, all in one day. It boggles the imagination. I’ve read some of Shawn Smucker’s other work and he seems like the right person to help tell this powerful story. Thanks for sharing.

    • I cannot imagine the agony of all these hard, hard things. It was good for me to read this story and to remember that every horror story we read about involves actual human persons who had or have families. Thanks for reading!

  5. Thanks for this, Diana. It sounds worth reading for the hope it contains, and for the understanding it may give readers of a point of view few probably bother to consider. There was a time when I thought there was nothing worse than a daughter committing suicide.

  6. Diana,

    I finished the book last night, and let me tell you, your review is spot on. There were times when the emotion of this work crept up on me. I absolutely lost it when he described the reaction of his community to him. I didn’t expect it, honestly. There must be some pretty decent folks up there in PA.

    I’m not going to lie, as a father of four little boys, this was a hard one to read. I kept filtering it through the lens of “what if this were one of my boys.” That being said, it inspired me to be even *more* intentional about fleshing out their thoughts, their secret dreams, and their fears. I definitely recommend this book to the dads in the room.

    • I was so pleased to read about that reaction, too, Seth. Sometimes the church blows it – badly. But sometimes, grace prevails and we actually do reflect the glory of God. I am so grateful that this was one of those times. Thanks for reading and commenting, Seth. Always grateful to see you here.

  7. “Learning to weave even the hardest parts of our story into a garment of grace is one of our callings as human beings.” Powerful, articulate words, Diana, that you wrote to Carol above. The hard parts of my story have been nothing compared to Tim Kreider’s or others–including commenters here. I marvel at their grace in excruciatingly hard places. Yes, the grace comes from God, but they must avail themselves. To God be the glory for such heroes/heroines.