Grieving the Loss of Loved Ones
About the Guest
- Ron and Nan Deal walk us through the events in 2009 that took the life of their 12-year old son, Connor. (3 part series, 26 min. each) https://www.familylife.com/podcast/familylife-today/taken/
- A list of helpful resources for parents grieving the loss of a child. https://www.familylife.com/articles/topics/parenting/parenting-challenges/loss-of-a-child/help-for-those-grieving-the-loss-of-a-child/
It’s a devastating loss when a loved one dies, especially when it is unexpected. Al Hsu talks about the complex grief he experienced when his father took his own life. Ron and Nan Deal talk about the sudden loss of their son, Connor.
Michelle: Have you ever ignored someone’s pain or grief because you were afraid you didn’t know what to say? Ron Deal says it’s not helpful for anyone to ignore the obvious.
Ron: If I walked in to work one day and said, “Hey, Michelle!” and you turned to look toward me and I was missing a leg, how long would you go without ever just going, “Ron! What happened?”
Ron: That’s exactly what has happened. There’s been a huge amputation in this person’s world. You can’t just dance around it all day long.
Michelle: Today, I’m going to talk with my friend and counselor, Ron Deal, about grieving the loss of a loved one, on this edition of FamilyLife This Week.
Welcome to FamilyLife This Week. I’m Michelle Hill. You know, grieving, whether over a lost expectation or over death—it’s painful. If you’ve been there, or maybe you’re there right now, you know that this loss can, in some ways, paralyze you. It weighs you down; it encompasses you; and it holds you back, or so it seems. If you’re there right now, I want to gently remind you that you will one day be comforted, because that’s what Jesus promised in Matthew. In Matthew, Chapter 5, verse 4, He says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” That’s a great promise!
You know, last year, I sat down with Ron Deal and talked about grief. Given the way things have been recently, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit our conversation. As you know, Ron is a therapist. He’s also an expert on blended families. He gives leadership to FamilyLife Blended®, and Ron also knows loss intimately, because he lost his son, Connor. We’re going to talk about that later.
But first, there’s a grief that haunts me from time to time, and that’s the loss of a family member, but not a loss due to death. I want you to join my conversation with Ron as we begin our time talking about the elusive losses, and then we’ll talk about grieving actual death. Here’s our conversation.
Michelle: My family has walked through what we would consider trauma and tragedy, although we have not gone through the death of a family member. We’ve gone through a prodigal, who has walked out on the family. We have no idea where he is or where his family is/his children are.
We have had to learn a new normal. We’ve had to learn a new normal without a small young family around our Christmas table. That’s been hard to watch my parents grieve through that.
Michelle: And there were so many times, at the very beginning with the pain that they walked through, of just going, “God, we know You’re sovereign!” This is where faith helped them through the pain. “We know You’re sovereign; we know You’re in control, but this is not how life is supposed to be!
Michelle: “You created us as a family of five, with three children, and now we are a family of four, with two children.
Michelle: “We are missing a son, a daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren.”
Michelle: It’s been so hard to walk through that. To help my parents, I have quoted Revelation so many times to them, saying, “One day, He will wipe away all of our tears.”
Michelle: And yet that doesn’t answer the question of the loss.
Michelle: That doesn’t answer the question of, “Where is he?”
Ron: That’s a good example of ambiguous loss: “We don’t know. We sit at the table at Thanksgiving with more questions than we have answers. We don’t know where to put this. Do we bring it up? Do we not bring it up? The last time we brought it up, it led to the big, long discussion, and somebody got mad, and somebody else walked out. I don’t want to go there again, so maybe we should just not bring it up.” “Well, okay, we’ve been together three times now, and we’re still not bringing it up. Is it time?”
You know, I think those are all really challenging questions with a situation like that. Again, our Western view of grief is, “We should be able to control this somehow! We should be able to tackle this; pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, move on past it, get done.” That’s not the way it works!
Ron: Sometimes, we live with the ambiguity. We wrestle, and we struggle, and we do the best we can.
Michelle: There’s a gentleman who’s been living with ambiguity for quite a while now. He’s name is Albert Hsu. He lost his dad due to suicide. He’s been asking some very tough questions, of course, because, “Why? Why would God take his dad?”
Michelle: But “Why would his dad take his own life?”
[Previous FamilyLife Today® Broadcast]
Albert: I don’t think any of us ever fully get over anything like this. I was talking to another person, who lost their dad to suicide. She said, “It’s been 25 years, and I still grieve him every day.” Just this week, actually, I talked to another person who lost a friend in high school to suicide. There were some recent things that had just triggered some memories, and she’s still grieving that particular loss in a very powerful way.
It does stay with us for a very long time. It does change, though, over the years. When I lost my dad, in my 20s, I grieved him as a father at that stage of life. I wished he would have been there, present as a dad. But now, 20 years later, I grieve him in my 40s as the grandfather that my sons have never known. I lament all the birthdays, and celebrations, and family things that he was not part of. That’s another layer of grieving that we do in this area.
Bob: And any of us, who have lost parents for any reason, experience that level of grief. How is it compounded, do you think, for those when the grieving has a suicide connected to it?
Albert: Suicide heightens and intensifies the regular grief. If it’s a child/a teenager that dies by suicide, what would already be a very sad teen death, is heightened and even more painful—teen suicide. It introduces all different layers of complexity as far as, not only is this person no longer with us, [but] it is also that we have to grapple with how they left us. If it had been a car accident, or cancer, or something like that, we could blame the drunk driver; we could blame the cancer.
Albert: If it had been a murderer, we could rage against the murderer. But in this case, our loved one died at his own hand. We grieve them with all the sadness, and love, and pain that would be normal; but we also rage against them, and we are angry with them. We hate them for doing this to themselves.
Dennis: Bob, I’m thinking, how prepared were you, in your early 20s, to come alongside Mary Ann—me alongside Barbara—if there’d been a suicide? To even know—
Bob: —to know what to do!
Dennis: —to even know what to say, how to be there, how to just provide that shoulder to cry on?
Bob: I think that’s where a lot of people feel inadequate in the moment, whatever age they are. When they hear about a friend, they go, “I don’t know what to say! I don’t know what to do.” And so, that’s where they withdraw. So if you’re coaching someone to know what to say or do, what do they say or do?
Albert: Well, one phrase or one question that has been helpful is, “What do you want to remember about your loved one?” because often, we are grieving in the moment. We’re thinking about those awful last days/those awful last moments, and we forget that is just only one chapter of a fuller life.
If you are able to invite somebody to tell their story/tell their family story and to practice remembrance. This is a very biblical practice of remembering how God has been faithful in the past; how this person has lived and loved. Their story is bigger than just how they died.
My dad was a very private man. He was an introvert. I was impressed, at the funeral, how many people he was connected to that came and gave their tributes. All of our lives are interconnected in ways that we don’t always realize. The impact and ripple effects that we have are significant.
Losing my dad to suicide is the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced, but I hope that it has changed me in a way that has made me more available to other people in their own grief and suffering.
Michelle: That’s Albert Hsu, and he has written a book about his father to help others walk through the suffering and the grief of suicide.
Michelle: Ron, just as we’ve been talking through similar and different griefs, and similar and different pains, obviously we’ve turned a corner now to talk about loss of a loved one.
Michelle: As I listen to Albert, I can’t help but think of the complexity of the grief that he is walking through. He’s walking through the loss of a dad that he dearly, dearly loved, but also, the questions of—not just, “Why, God, did You take him away?”—but “Why?!”
Ron: I think that’s the layer that is so unique when there’s been a suicide—is making sense of the person, and why they chose to do that, and trying to understand their inner world, what was going on with them. I think sometimes, as believers, there are questions about eternity for them to complicate this. Sometimes, there’s shame around how that person died that just makes you not want to tell the story, as if people would judge that loved one for their decision. Those are all things that I think drive people to be more isolated in their grief.
Ron: And we, as the community of Christ, have to find ways to enter into their grief or, at least, give them the opportunity to share. I loved what he said as a suggestion: “What do you want to remember about them?” That just helps expand the thinking of the person—not just remembering the suicide—
Ron: —but remembering their entire life. I think that’s a helpful exercise for somebody to go through. I would caution our listeners: “Don’t ask that question to someone, hoping that that’s going to somehow take their grief away.
Ron: “Don’t think that that’s a magic bullet and, somehow, that’s going to move them into a better place; and they’re not going to wrestle with this anymore.” No; that’s just going to be one layer to their journey and their experience. There’s no silver bullet.
Ask; talk; enter into their grief. Don’t be afraid of listening. Michelle, if I walked in to work one day and said, “Hey, Michelle!” and you turned to look toward me, and I was missing a leg, and I had crutches, and I’m hobbling. How long would you go without ever just going, “Ron! What happened?”
Michelle: Right. I’d be like, “Something’s different! Okay, so what went on? What happened?”
Ron: Imagine how much emotional work it would take for you and me—for us—to work together—
Michelle: —and ignore it.
Ron: —occasionally or every day, and totally ignore it—never, never bring it up. That’s just stupid! I mean, when you say it out loud like that, that’s exactly what’s happening. There’s been a huge amputation in this person’s world. You can’t just dance around it all day long. At some point, you need to step into that space.
Now, that doesn’t mean you’re their counselor. It doesn’t mean that you’re trying to move into—no! But you’re being a friend, and you’re acknowledging what is. Then, say to them, “Look, I’m more than happy to talk with you about this at any particular time that you wish. I realize it’s very personal and private, but I just want you to know it would be okay with me if it’s okay with you.” You’re still giving them permission to make a decision about what they share, and when, and how; but you’re also setting up an environment where, if they need that from you, they can get it.
Ron: You know, if you enter into that space a few times, over time, you are helping to define for them your willingness to go there.
Ron: And then they can be in charge of whether or not they go there with you.
Michelle: So is it okay if we talk about Connor?
Ron: Yes, yes. I love talking about Connor! Is it painful? Yes, but I love it!
Michelle: We need to take a break, but when we come back, we’re going to hear about Connor—Ron and Nan’s [second] son—who tragically passed away when he was 12. Stay tuned. We’ll talk about Connor next.
[Radio Station Spot Break]
Michelle: Welcome back to FamilyLife This Week. I'm Michelle Hill. Today, we’ve been talking with Ron Deal about grief and loss. This is an issue that Ron knows well. He and his wife, Nan, lost their son, Connor, when he was just 12 years old.
Let’s actually start our time talking about Connor, by going back to an interview that you had with Dennis Rainey and Bob Lepine. Your wife Nan also joined you; so let’s start our time off that way.
[Previous FamilyLife Today Broadcast]
Ron: I can’t say enough about how people came alongside us. We haven’t mentioned my sister, who, the first year after Connor died, flew halfway across the country—
Nan: —every month!
Ron: —and spent time in our home. When Aunt Cherilyn would show up, our other two boys would say, “Oh! We get to eat!” [Laughter] I mean, we forgot to feed our kids, guys. We were in such grief and just paralyzed. We didn’t function for two years, as parents.
I mean, if there’s a call I have on my heart to the church/to people listening right now, it’s like, you know somebody who’s gone through a significant loss in their life. Please bring it up! Please ask how they’re doing. Please say the name of the person you know they’ve lost.
This is a marathon, not a sprint; and they need you at mile five, and at mile ten, and at mile twenty; not just at mile one. You have to walk alongside people. And the church, honestly, has to find ways of coming alongside people, so that we don’t just throw platitudes and a good funeral, and feed them for six weeks, and then abandon them to figure it out.
Nan: I have sat with so many grieving parents, and it’s the same story, either in their community or their faith community. They’ve just been lost or left. I know it’s a hard loss to face. I know that it’s difficult when it is a child, but it is a common tale for all of us, and it’s isolating. I think the church, and the Christian community, and the Western world could do a better job with grief.
Dennis: There’s something you said earlier: “Leave a legacy that matches the depths of your pain.” I think that is a great challenge! To that person who’s lost a loved one, take a step back and go, “What’s the level of my pain?” And then begin to ask God, “Would You show me how I can honor the life that I experienced with this person by matching that depth with a glorious declaration of God’s grace? Of doing something positive for other people, and not to take your eyes off yourself so that you stop grieving—keep doing that—but get your eyes focused on the horizon to think, ‘Who can we help?’”
I love it that you’re helping kids in Africa.
Ron: Dennis, I have a video on my phone of my wife picking up a ten-year-old child, carrying him out of a village in West Africa, across a lake on a boat to safety, where that child is now growing up today cared for, getting educated, and learning about the Lord. [Emotion in voice] Every time I think about how Connor was taken, I think about her taking back that child.
Ron: It reminds me that, even though we sometimes feel alone in our grief, like, “God, where are You?” I want people to remember that God is always working behind the scenes. He is always orchestrating on our behalf, and He is weeping with us over the things that we weep about—that should not be! He didn’t create death; He didn’t create things like this to happen. It just does. He’s sad with us, and He has not forgotten us.
Michelle: That’s Ron and Nan Deal sharing about the loss of their son, Connor. Ron, thank you to you and Nan for being so vulnerable in sharing with us, because I think that that helps us who have lost, but also helps us who haven’t lost, to understand how we can come alongside.
Michelle: There was a part in there, where Dennis was talking about how you got your eyes off yourself and you were able to get them on the horizon.
Michelle: How hard was that to do?—to get your eyes on the horizon? Because your other two sons didn’t eat for a while! [Laughter] I mean, you admitted that!
Ron: Yes, we weren’t functioning, in many ways.
You know, it’s interesting, Michelle. For us in our journey, it didn’t turn out to be too difficult to do that. It’s not to our credit, but it’s to the credit of some people who came alongside us. About a year in, we had some people come alongside us that had also lost a child and had found their way through their pain by doing for others.
We didn’t realize they were mentoring us into this, but they were. It was a byproduct. They basically were just loving on us—
Ron: —as fellow parents who have lost a child, and introduced us into a community of parents who do that. We got into serving trafficked kids in Ghana, West Africa, because of how others showed us this road. That’s one reason we’re so passionate about talking about it, because we know what it’s done for us. We’ve seen what it’s done for others. I just think it is one of the pieces to help us grieve.
Michelle: Yes. How is this—I guess, legacy that Connor left—how is this living out now?
Ron: Well, it continues. Nan and I go to Ghana every year; physically, we go. Sometimes we take a team of people, who are pouring into the children for a short period of time. We have an ongoing therapeutic arts center there that we support. We provide, kind of, management from the United States point of view in funding and just helping to give guidance to the work that’s happening there on an ongoing basis.
By the way, our arts center has now been the inspiration for three more. What we did for Connor and those children, we didn’t know would expand. [Emotion in voice] Connor really loved little kids. He never went to Ghana. He never went to Cambodia or Thailand, but I know he loves this!
Ron: So the definition of grace is giving you what you don’t deserve, and giving you more than that—things you couldn’t even imagine. [Emotion in voice] I never wanted this road, but if I’ve got to walk it, I’m going to do something with it.
Ron: And what God has done is far more than I ever dreamed.
Michelle: What do you remember most about Connor?
Ron: Where do I start?! He was our creative kid. He thought in colors and design, and building and constructing, and narrating and writing stories, creating movies; you know? We used to see him jumping around on the trampoline in the backyard. We’d be like, “Connor, what are you doing?” He goes, “Wait! Just wait, Dad. Let me finish!” [Laughter] I would wait there, and he would come around, and he goes, “I was orchestrating a fight scene for my movie that I’m going to create one day.” [Laughter]
You know, he was always creating stuff and imagining. He saw things in people. He was insightful, intuitive. Hated vegetables—[Laughter]—we used to have those battles all the time: “You’re not leaving the table until you finish some green beans.”
Michelle: “No, no, no!”
Ron: He was, at times, very selfish. He recognized that, and he started working on that/praying about that. And he could sing; he could sing!
Michelle: Ron, thank you for your transparency. Thank you for helping us, today, understand pain and loss, and helping us learn how to rest with others.
Michelle: And learn how to listen well, and learn how to process well.
Ron: Well, I appreciate you asking, and let’s just help the listener learn something from what you’ve been doing the last ten minutes.
(A), you asked me, “Is it okay to talk about Connor?” You gave me that power, and I said, “Yes.” And then, as we started talking, and I started crying, and I needed time to get through a sentence or two, you gave me space, and you gave me an opportunity. You slowed down; you were patient. You didn’t rush me. You didn’t change the subject to relieve my tears, as if that would be helpful.
You just sat in the space, and you let me cry. You cried a little along with me, and that is how grief gets processed: in community with others, putting words on it; and sometimes the words are crazy and irrational.
Ron: And yet, I shared that with you and with the listeners, and that somehow helps. I don’t even know that I can explain how that helps, but I believe it has something to do with how God has created us to live life and exist in community. As made in His image—He is a communal being, the trinity of God Himself. We, too, are made in that. It’s only in the expression of hard things, in the midst of community, that we can find any sort of sense of resolution about it/perspective about it, and somehow, it is lessened. You just took a little of my pain and carried it with me.
Ron: Thank you.
Michelle: You’re welcome.
Wow; that was a difficult conversation, but I really enjoyed hearing Ron’s perspective on grief and loss. If you would like to hear the full interview of Ron and Nan Deal with Dennis Rainey and Bob Lepine, go to our website. We’ll have a link there: FamilyLifeThisWeek.com; that’s FamilyLifeThisWeek.com.
You know, grief and loss are very difficult things. They’re hard to walk through and, really, we’re not made to walk through these things alone. We need community. We need others who will uphold us, who will encourage us in our faith, and who will keep reminding us of the hope that we have in Christ.
Once again, I just want to remind you that at our website—FamilyLifeThisWeek.com—we have other helpful resources for grief. We have the three-day series that Ron and I did on grief—on elusive grief and on other griefs—so go to our website, FamilyLifeThisWeek.com.
Hey, thanks for listening! I want to thank the president of FamilyLife®, David Robbins, along with our station partners around the country. A big “Thank you!” to our engineer today, Keith Lynch. Thanks to our producer, Marques Holt. Justin Adams is our mastering engineer, and Megan Martin is our faithful production coordinator.
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