Suffering in Silence
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There are few things that make humans feel more alone than experiencing loss. Ron Deal and Michelle Hill talk about the grieving process and how to care for yourself and others you know who may be grieving. We'll also hear from Matthew Arbo and Jonathan Edwards.
Ron Deal and Michelle Hill talk about the grieving process and how to care for yourself and others you know who may be grieving. We’ll also hear from Matthew Arbo and Jonathan Edwards on FamilyLife This Week.
Michelle: In the Book of Ecclesiastes, in the Old Testament, the preacher says there is a time to mourn and a time to dance. Well, what many have taken that to mean is you cry, and you move on; but is that right? Here is Ron Deal.
Ron: You know what? That’s part of the bigger cultural lie, that we have in the West, that says, “We should master our own sadness,” which means: “You grieve for a season; and then you get over, and get passed, and move on.” We say that about others: “Kids are resilient. They’ll be fine,”—that’s the same lie.
Michelle: Ron Deal joins me. We’re going to talk about loss and suffering and how to deal with it, biblically, on this edition of FamilyLife This Week.
Welcome to FamilyLife This Week. I'm Michelle Hill. Ron Deal joins me in the studio today. Ron, I am putting you in the hot seat today—
Ron: Yes; you have.
Michelle: —because I need some help talking through loss. You and Nan have walked a difficult path since you lost your son, Conner; but you also have over 25 years in counseling—mostly with blended families, who experience some great, great loss.
Today, I wanted to talk about just the loss of expectations, like in a blended family or in a young marriage and unable to have children. Just what does that grief look like? Then, in the near future, I’m going to have you sit in that same seat, and we’re going to talk about death and that kind of loss.
But today, as we dive into these difficult waters—first of all, are you ready?!
Ron: Well, you know I cherish the opportunity to talk about loss because I think it is the subject we avoid the most in our culture, even within the Christian community. At the very same time, I dread it because I have to go back into the dark holes of my life and the sad places—the valley of the shadow of death.
Ron: It’s a bittersweet conversation for me.
Michelle: Well, and I also think that we need to keep in mind that person, who is listening, might be going through a different loss. There are a lot of different losses/a lot of different ways that we experience loss. Some losses are on various degrees—they might be less or more. I’m—your loss/your and Nan’s loss was huge.
Michelle: I think a lot of people look at degrees, and we judge according to those degrees—I don’t want to do that today. I want to just unpack and help our friend, who is listening, to understand just, “How do we come alongside others, who are grieving, and help them through that?”
Ron: You know, that’s a really great observation. I think it’s a good place to start the conversation, because there are things that are similar about different types of losses. There are things that are very unique and different based upon the circumstances of the loss.
So, for example, if you’ve lost a pet that meant the world to you, you feel that. If you’ve lost a marriage, that’s a different intensity. If you’ve lost a child, again, it’s a different intensity; and it has different implications for your life. If you’ve lost a job or a parent to Alzheimer’s—you want to talk about ambiguous loss: that’s where you still have them, but you don’t have them; like they’re here, but they’re not here—“So how do I navigate that weird space?”
Each loss is unique; but there are some things that are common across losses. I think, when we are in the role of a helper or a friend or confidant for someone that we care about, you can probably find yourself relating to an aspect of their loss that, maybe, you have experienced in your own life. Be careful not to assume you understand everything about their loss because of the uniqueness of their story that will be different than any loss you may have experienced in your own story.
Ron: I think that’s part of the intimidation factor. When we’re trying to love on somebody, who is going through something hard, it’s like: “I kind of get what you’re saying, but I really don’t get that part. I can relate to this, but I don’t understand that thing over there at all.”
I guess the word I would give somebody, off the top, is just, “You know, don’t be so focused on your own experience and trying to insert your experience onto their experience.”
Michelle: That’s a good point.
Ron: That’s where I think we make mistakes. It’s like, when you look at somebody, and you go: “Yes; I know what it means that you’ve lost your dad. I lost my dog the other day.” No; that is a mistake. You do not compare those types of losses!
Michelle: Well, and I think so many times, we step over that line; we either—we are tongue-tied, and we don’t know what to say; so then, we want to sort of feel empathetic; and then we say too much—
Michelle: —or on the other side, we ignore the situation or the person completely.
Ron: They are similar sounding words—“Be empathetic; don’t be pathetic.” [Laughter]
Michelle: That’s true.
Ron: Tune in to the other person’s experience: “Tell me more about what that feels like. Help me understand what that means to you—that you’ve lost your dad, and you can’t confide in him anymore.” You’re asking questions and: “Oh, so, I get it. It feels like you’ve lost your rock in the middle of the raging river of your life. That’s what it means for you to have lost your dad at this season of life.” That’s empathy; you know?
We get pathetic when we go, “Oh, yes; my dad—he never talked to me much when I was a kid; so it wasn’t that bad when he died.” Well, that’s you imposing your experience on somebody else’s story—that’s the thing we need to avoid.
Michelle: Well, I want to move into a story of a young man, who did lose his dad. Jonathan Edwards lost his dad when he was a young boy due to the divorce of his parents, and it really marked him. He said that there is a different kind of pain that comes from being left behind, so to speak. I want us to listen to Jonathan’s story.
[Previous FamilyLife This Week Broadcast]
Jonathan: It’s—so, it’s been 14 years since I’ve actually talked to him.
Jonathan: It’s kind of—
Michelle: That’s a long time.
Jonathan: Yes; the memories are good that—the ones that I have—that are sweet holiday memories. Sometimes, I am able to look back and say: “There were fun times. He was fun to be around”; but that is always overshadowed by questions that come.
Michelle: —that you want answered.
Jonathan: Yes; it’s like: “Well, then, if this was so fun, was it fun for you?—was it not fun?
Jonathan: “Was I annoying?—what?—what happened? What is so different about my family compared to these other parents that I see?”—not “Is it my fault?”—but “Is the problem me?” “If it isn’t me, what is the problem; and then why?” You just have to process reality completely differently.
I was sharing some—just some memories with some of my small group the other night with our local church family. I just was talking about, “It’s interesting to think—that new heavens/new earth—that will be the first time I will ever process reality without the film of dad not there.” I mean, it is—it’s not just like: “What are some of your thoughts/what are some of the ways that this has shaped—you know, what were you thinking, as a kid?”—it was: “What you’re thinking is now everything I do. Everything that happens to me/everything that I experience will now be built upon this idea that the normal social construct of the family is not the construct I live in.”
New heavens and new earth will be the first time I look at anything without filtering through—
Michelle: —that lens.
Jonathan: —“Oh, this is probably because my dad hates me,”—
Jonathan: —or “I’m struggling in work or with my boss because he’s a male. He probably hates me.” So, from eight years on to—I’m thirty-three now—some of the first thoughts were: “Could I have done something different?” and then, just years of building on: “Something’s wrong with me,” “I’m defective,” “I now have to go fix myself.”
Michelle: Wow; that’s—Ron, that is a different type of worldview. It’s a worldview that I never knew existed—how Jonathan sees the world—because he grew up with a hole in his life.
Ron: Really, what he is saying is: “My identity and my sense of self has been dramatically affected by the loss of my dad.” There were so many things that he said there: “Is the problem me?” “Why have you left?” “Why won’t you come back?” “Am I defective?” “Do I now have to go fix myself?”
See, listen to that. The loss of his dad’s continued presence in his life causes him to reflect on himself: “Is this a comment on me?” “Does this have to do with my value/my importance in this world?” And he now, as an adult, is saying, “I still carry with me that residue/that question of: ‘Is there something about me I’ve got to deal with, as an adult?’”
Now, notice—so many layers to this. His dad’s departure leaves a hole in his heart, as you said—leaves him wondering if: “Is this about me?” “How much is it about me?” “How do I change me as I move through time and have new relationships/ friendships?—as an adult now?—maybe, a spouse?—and kids of my own? Am I constantly looking at those relationships through the lens of: ‘What’s my value?’ and ‘What’s my importance?’ based on the comment of my dad’s behavior in my life?”
Now, it’s affecting his current relationships, even though all of this happened when he—a long time ago, when he was a boy. He’s now carrying the loss with him as an adult. I mean, that just speaks to the impact that loss has on us.
I think one of the big mistakes we make is thinking, “That was about then and a season of life, then; but it really doesn’t have any repercussions in the now.” Loss is developmental.
Ron: Loss is something—a backpack that we carry with us as we walk through life.
Michelle: Well, yes; because we hear that kids are resilient: “They’ll just pick up and go,” “They’ll adapt, and they’ll be fine.”
Ron: Yes; you know what? That’s part of the bigger cultural lie, that we have in the West, that says, “We should master our own sadness,” which means: “You grieve for a season; and then you get over, and get past, and move on.” We say that about others: “Kids are resilient. They’ll be fine,”—that’s the same lie; right?—“There’s going to be no residue/no impact, long-term, whatsoever.” We want to believe that because we feel like we should be masters of the universe.
It’s more back to that: “Somehow, I’m enough, in and of myself,”—which, of course, we know, as believers,—
Ron: —is never the case. We are constantly turning back to God to say: “I am not enough, in and of myself. I do need You to walk with me in this space/in this journey.”
If we don’t do that, then we’re moving toward a sense of pride, even in grief and sorrow, which I just think is so ironic; because it keeps us stuck in our sorrow. We’re not helping ourselves move through the grief; because we’re lying to ourselves, saying, “We can move passed the grief.”
I mean, immediately, this jumps into: “Grieving in community is so important. Otherwise, I’m just stuck trying to figure it all out myself.”
Michelle: If you notice a child or a young adult/a teenager, who is walking through this type of pain—and you know that the parents have gotten a divorce or some/one of the parents has left—how do you help them work through this?
Michelle: I mean, what are some questions—
Michelle: —to come alongside of them?
Ron: Well, you bring it up—that’s number one. You talk to them about it. You engage them in this subject. It’s the elephant in the room. Go ahead and comment on the elephant: “I’m so sorry that you have to carry this loss. Tell me about it.” Sometimes, kids will talk at that point. Sometimes, they won’t.
Depending on their age, it might be better to say, “Let’s draw a picture, and you can show me—draw me a picture of your sadness”; right? That’s what we call art therapy, and a child can more readily kind of put it on paper than they can use words or language. But it’s just another way of them expressing what they are feeling, and you entering into that space.
Giving permission to that, you’re saying: “I’m with you in this place. You’re not all alone,”—that’s huge. How many times in Scripture does God say: “I am with you,” “Never will I leave you,” “Never will I forsake you,” “I am here,” “I will be with you until the end of the age”? I mean, think about all those little moments, where God just reminds people—even in the Old Testament—in the Book of Joshua, they are getting ready to take the land: “I will be with you. Be strong and courageous. I will be with you.”
How do we find courage in the midst of hard? It’s somebody saying, “I am here with you.” That message to a child, from an adult—
Michelle: —that’s huge.
Ron: Yes; it’s so significant. That’s community grieving. We do that, in relationship, in churches. We do that—if you’re single, with your friendships/in your—whatever those spaces are with people that are around you—when you can share your grief and when they enter into that space with you.
It, again—it takes away the isolation. It helps you begin to put words on it, and express it, and then get some reflection back, and have a sense that: “I guess I’m not crazy. Somebody is here. I think I’m going to be okay.” I don’t know; somehow, it just makes it a little lighter.
Michelle: I can see, in a child’s life, that that—they would be receptive to something/someone coming alongside and saying: “Let me help you with this. Let me show you how to do this.”
Ron: Just the other day—it’s been ten years since my son died—just the other day, my now twenty-year-old—he was ten when his twelve-year-old brother died—he is now twenty. He brought up something about Conner in conversation. It indirectly related to—the subject he brought up was a recognition of something in our lives that is very different since Conner is not here. That’s all grieving.
It’s ten years; and I remember thinking: “I am so glad he feels like he can say this out loud—like he’s not going to ruin the moment, or make mom and dad sad, or ‘I don’t want to, you know, bring up a tough subject and kill the mood of our…’”—he’s not afraid of any of that. Why?—because we worked so hard to grieve, as a family; to give permission to those moments; to acknowledge one another’s sadness; to make it okay. Here it is—now, ten years later—he is doing developmental grieving, and he brings us into that. Ah, that’s so good for him and for me.
Michelle: It’s important.
We need to take a break, Ron; but when we come back, I want to continue this conversation about community grieving and how community can come alongside. We’ll take a break, and we’ll be back in two minutes.
[Radio Station Spot Break]
Michelle: Welcome back to FamilyLife This Week. I’m Michelle Hill. Ron Deal is in the studio today, and we are talking about loss/difficulties of loss.
Ron, I am single. There’s a loss—that I look out on the landscape and I’m like: “That’s very similar to the loss that I feel in being single,”—that’s a loss of not being able to have a child—the infertility. I want to talk about those two and, maybe, some comparisons; maybe not.
But first, let’s hear from Matthew Arbo on the topic of infertility.
Ron: Yes; and I love what Matthew says about how we help somebody/come alongside them. It’s that subject we were addressing, earlier, of grieving in community.
Michelle: Yes; here is Matthew.
[Previous FamilyLife Today® Broadcast]
Matthew: One of the first things I say is—as sincerely as I can and I mean it—is: “I’m so sorry you’re having to go through that,”—just tell them that—“It’s hard,” and to let them know that “I can see, in what ways that I can, that it is hard.”
Ann: —and not give any answers?
Matthew: Initially, yes; that’s right; yes.
Matthew: Not feel like I’ve got an arsenal of possibilities for them and that I can fix it. They very likely—if they’ve come to this point of telling me—they’ve talked to people: they’ve seen clinicians; they’ve taken steps. I’m not going to tell them something they haven’t heard; but one thing that, maybe, are lacking in is someone to be present to them.
Ann: What does that look like?—to be present; you know?
Matthew: In practice, it can be something like, maybe, getting the guy and just having some direct conversation/direct questions: “How are you doing?” “What’s going on?” Then let it—just drawing it out, you know, so they don’t have to shelter under that experience and the weight of it by themselves.
I talk to pastors a lot about this; I’ve been talking to our elders about this—about how to just be with people. It takes just sticking to it; and one of the things we want to do is fix and want to have the tools for fixing; but in this case, the best thing you can do is just listen, sometimes.
Michelle: That’s Matthew Arbo with Dave and Ann Wilson from a recent FamilyLife Today radio broadcast.
You know, Ron, as Matthew was talking, I kept thinking about some of those—I guess you could just call them crappy platitudes that I’ve heard, as a single, when I say, “You know, I would really like to be married,” or “I’d love to have a family one day.” People come back and say, “Oh, if you just trust God enough,” or “If you were just content in God,” or “Take that idol out of your life.” I can’t help but think: “Well, I know that couples are struggling with wanting to have children—they go through the same thing.”
Ron: Right; there’s a hope; there’s an expectation in their life that is not being met. Any time that happens—and somebody throws one of those platitudes at you—I mean, what’s the message of—“Well, you just need to trust God more,” “Well, if you just do this?” The message is: “There is something wrong with you, and you shouldn’t feel this way.” Again, it’s sort of that backward: “We should master our grief”—
Ron: —“as believers/as Christians. Faith trumps sadness.”
No; my faith informs my sadness; it gives perspective to my sadness: “There is an eternity. I’m going to get to see my son again,” “All the questions of this life are going to be made right,” “At the end, I know who wins; and I’m a part of the team,”—that’s perspective that helps me in my sadness; but it does not get rid of my sadness. It does not take away your longing to be in a relationship. It does not take away the longing of a couple, who wants to have a child—that still exists. We have to walk through life with this.
I can’t tell how much this bothers me—as a grieving father—that, when people throw those platitudes at you, they are avoiding the hard truth. Now, here is the thing—let me tell you another platitude that I’m hearing a lot of these days. It’s what we’ve done to Jeremiah 29:11.
Michelle: Which is?
Ron: We all know that verse; right? “‘I have a plan for you,’ says the Lord, ‘to prosper you’”—hey, great!
Now, here is the context, Michelle, of that passage. Jeremiah has just made a prophecy to his—the people of Israel: “You’ve been disobedient. God’s bringing a discipline on you. You’re going into exile for the next 70 years. You’re going to be in pain and suffering. You’re losing your land; you’re losing your freedoms; you are going to be under oppression. Most of you are not going to make it out alive; a few of you will. Now, for those of you who make it out, God has a plan for you.”
Now, if we really taught—
Ron: —Jeremiah 29, that would be recognizing: “Here is a hard truth,”—“You’re going through infertility,”—“You’re going through the loss of a child,”—“You’re marriage just came to an end,”—“You haven’t found a lifelong partner that you’ve been longing for and praying for,”—“You’ve got 70 years of exile,”—“This is going to be hard; and at the end of it, there is going to be some blessing,” and “There is going to be a return of grace in your life. Buckle up.” You know what?
Michelle: That’s what it sounds like.
Ron: That is—that is life; right? Until Jesus comes, that’s what some of us have to endure. Yet, there’s a promise that, at the end, we know who wins; we know He is on our side. He is going to sustain us in the midst of the exile, but it’s just going to be hard.
Ron: Why should we spoil that, avoid that, deny that, platitude that? No; come alongside somebody and go: “Man, this is hard. I’m with you. I can’t fix it. I just love you, and I’m here.”
Michelle: Grieving in community.
Ron: Grieving in community.
Michelle: Bringing the community around and saying, “I just want to sit here for a while and listen to you.”
I have a friend—while she was walking through infertility, her mom met her every day for lunch. During that one hour, her mom really didn’t say anything but just said, “Uh-huh,” while my friend just opened her heart and said how hard it was/how much she wanted things. She said what that did for her was it allowed her to heal, because she was getting all of those emotions out. She said, “It was the best thing.” Her mom became her best friend because of it.
Ron: Matthew said, “Don’t fix; just listen; be with.” That’s what this mother did—be with.
Now, here is the downside of that—as the helper, you want to offer more. You want to somehow walk away from this little moment, thinking: “I did something, and they feel better” or “…they are better.” Well, you are helping them be better—
Ron: —in the sense that they are moving through their grief with you; but you can’t fix it. You’ve got to be okay that you’re not fixing it for them. That’s the piece that, I think, sometimes, we feel uncomfortable with; and that drives us to give bad advice.
One more Scripture I love to share: Proverbs 25, verse 20—I love the New Century Version of this; listen to this—“Singing songs to someone who is sad is like taking away his coat on a cold day or pouring vinegar on his wounds.” [Laughter]
Ron: Ouch! Exactly. Don’t pour salt in the wound; right?—don’t make it worse; don’t fix—just listen; be with.
Michelle: Ron, good words. Thank you so much for offering—for sitting with us today, teaching us about loss—but also offering some words that heal. Thank you.
Ron: Thanks for having me.
Michelle: Great conversation with Ron Deal. It is a hard topic to talk about—this loss—but I’m glad Ron was here to help us begin wading through those waters. There is so much to talk about. We’re going to continue our discussion with Ron over the next month or two; but next week, I’m going to sit down with Clarence Shuler. We’re going to talk about how to minister to singles. There is a right way and, maybe, a wrong way. It’s going to be a great, engaging conversation about life, love, and God of all creation.
Hey, thanks for listening today! I really do appreciate the time that you’ve taken to listen to our conversations here—you’re a part of that! I appreciate you.
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, Meredith Empie, with some assistance from Keith Lynch. Thanks to our producers, Marques Holt and Bruce Goff. Justin Adams is our mastering engineer, and Megan Martin is our production coordinator.
Our program is a production of FamilyLife Today, and our mission is to effectively develop godly families who change the world one home at a time.
I’m Michelle Hill, inviting you to join us again next time for another edition of FamilyLife This Week.
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