Grieving the Loss
About the Guest
Touch a Life Foundation
While We Were Waiting: Retreats for grieving parents after losing a child
Nan DealNan Deal is the co-founder of Connor's Song, a non-profit organization that she and her husband founded in honor of their son Connor Lee Deal who died at the age of 12 in 2009. In cooperation with the Touch A Life Foundation, Connor's Song run Connor Creative Art Center in Ghana, West Africa, a facility that provides hope and healing through art therapy for almost 100 trafficked children rescued from the fishing industry in Ghana. Nan, a school teacher, and her husband, Ron, live in Little Rock,...more
Ron DealRon L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series
Ron and Nan Deal share how losing their middle son, Connor, in 2009 at the age of 12 still has them reeling. The Deals share what has helped them, and hurt them, as they’ve grieved the loss of their son.
Grieving the Loss
Bob: When Job received the news that his children were dead, Job responded by saying: “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Ron Deal says, “While that’s true, when you face the loss of a child, your world still changes dramatically.”
Ron: Sometimes, I’ll say to parents: “You remember life before you had your first child? You remember how everything changed? Your schedule changed. Your thoughts about the day, and how you organized your life, and what really mattered to you, and what you did with your free time—you know, like everything changes—your sleep pattern changes; your food habits change. I mean, like it ripples into every aspect of your life. Same thing happens when you lose a child—it’s just all in reverse.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, July 19th. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Every breath / the gift of life itself is a gift from God.
We have to recognize it’s a gift over which He is sovereign. We’ll hear more about that today from Ron and Nan Deal. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I’ve often wondered, in my own mind, whether it would be easier or harder to have a loved one die from a prolonged illness, where you go down that long path with them and you’re experiencing the journey for weeks or months, or whether the immediate loss of someone—I’ve wondered which is emotionally harder—to walk the long path or to get a phone call one day and find out that a loved one is gone.
Dennis: You remember, Bob, that we interviewed Jerry Sitsser, here on FamilyLife Today, author of A Grace Disguised.
Basically, if he was here, he would say that loss is just that—you can’t compare losses. You just have to look at it and go: “Her loss/his loss is not greater than mine,” / “Mine is not greater that his.” There’s been something that you value that you have truly lost.
We have with us a couple who we work with, here, at FamilyLife®—Ron and Nan Deal, who have a story that they are continuing to tell about a loss they experienced. Ron/Nan, welcome back.
Ron: Thank you.
Nan: Thank you.
Dennis: Ron and Nan have been married since 1986. They have three sons, and Ron is the Executive Director of FamilyLife Blended®, which is the blended family initiative of FamilyLife.
Earlier, we talked with them about how a 12-year-old boy, by the name of Connor, woke up with a headache.
They started treating the headache, and the headache became a cough. The cough became pneumonia in one lung and then both lungs. Then, they had to Air Evac their son from Amarillo, Texas, all the way to Dallas Children’s Hospital. They encountered the unthinkable—a loss like we’re talking about.
The loss that you experienced—this is going to be a very difficult question—can you put it into words? Can you explain to our listeners what it is like to have a surprise like you had and lose a 12-year-old son?
Ron: I can tell you it has been over nine years since we lost him, and I’m still losing; because, every day I wake up, I realize another thing that hasn’t happened / another piece of my life that’s different—
—from the types of cars we drive to the types of house that we buy or think about purchasing—to how much is in our college saving fund for our other two boys, because we didn’t pay for a third; to the graduations that we will not experience; to the weddings we will not experience—on and on it goes. It is not a one-time put-words-on-it loss. It is everything that loss brings with it—loss.
I’ve tried to put this into words for people in the past. Sometimes, I’ll say to parents: “You remember life before you had your first child? You remember how everything changed? Your schedule changed. Your thoughts about the day, and how you organized your life, and what really mattered to you, and what you did with your free time—you know, like everything changes—your sleep pattern changes; your food habits change. I mean, like it ripples into every aspect of your life. Same thing happens when you lose a child—
—It’s just all in reverse.
We lost the equilibrium in our family. That’s really hard, sometimes, for me to articulate. Here’s a practical way—when it was movie night, and we were picking movies; you know? Connor and Nan always sided together; and that somehow balanced Braden, Brennan, and me; so the fun little family conversation around what we were going to do and what we were going to watch had balance to it. All of a sudden, Connor is not there, and we don’t know how to make a decision about a movie—that, a thousand times a day!
Nan: It’s like that scene in The Lion King, where he says, “Simba, look at the light—everything that it touches,”—that is grief.
Ron: It touches everything.
Nan: It touches every single aspect of your life—to extended family and holidays; to the future weddings, where your son’s picture is on the table, but he’s not there. You’re not the intact family—it touches everything.
Bob: It’s every time somebody says, “How many kids do you have?”
Nan: Oh, moving here; yes!
Ron: —meeting people constantly.
Nan: —changing jobs.
Ron: You know, here is the little thing that goes on in our mind: “Well, I have three children,”—and by the way, if I can preach for a second—“Why in the world would I say, ‘…two children’?”
“Well, you just need to accept, Ron—that your son has died.’” “Yes; but he is still alive. We, as Christians, don’t we believe that? Why would I say, ‘He’s not alive’? That’s just the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Dennis: You know where Connor is.
Ron: I know where he is.
Bob: So, if I meet you today for the first time, and I say, “How many kids do you have?”—what’s your answer?
Bob: I say, “Tell me about them.”
Ron: We’ll tell you.
Bob: How will you?—I mean—
Ron: I will say, “Braden is—you know, 23.”
Nan: —our oldest is.
Ron: “He’s living in Austin, Texas, and doing great. Our youngest is in college. He’s a freshman in college. Our middle son, Connor, died when he was 12 years.”
Nan: —a little over 12.
Dennis: If somebody is standing there, wondering what to say, and battling being silent versus saying something and maybe making a fool of themselves, you would say, “Speak.”
Ron: Speak—use his name—say, “Tell me about Connor.”
Nan: —or “I am so sorry. Tell me about him.”
Ron: Because the next thing they are going to say is: “Well, tell me about Braden,” and “What’s going on with Brennan?”—you’ll say that about them. Why would you not say it about Connor?
Bob: I wouldn’t say it because I would think: “I don’t want to take you back to the pain. I don’t want to ask questions and take you into grief.”
Ron: I’m so glad you said that, because this is where we want to educate people. You’re not taking me into grief—I’m already in grief. You’re not taking me back to pain—I’m already in pain. I’ve had people say to me, “I don’t want to make you feel bad,”—I already feel bad!
Nan: You can’t make this worse.
Ron: You cannot make this worse!
Nan: Your silence makes this worse, but you can’t make this worse.
Ron: So, what you do is say, “Tell me about him.” Now, I have an opportunity to talk about my son! [Emotion in voice]
The hardest thing is having a relationship with my son and not being able to share that with other people in any form or fashion—not be able to share memories, or longings, or desires, or sadness. Talking about him does bring my tears to the surface, but it doesn’t add to my pain. My pain is already there. What helps me is to be able to share that pain in a reasonable way with somebody who cares about that pain.
It’s John 11—it is Jesus, with—Lazarus is dead, and Mary and Martha are suffering. He goes and cries with them, for crying out loud. You know, jump into that space, even though we have the hope of heaven, even though He is life. And He [Jesus] knew that Lazarus was about to be raised from the dead—even knowing that, Jesus joins them in their sadness. That’s what we, as parents, who have lost a child long for.
Dennis: I mentioned my granddaughter, Molly, who died ten years ago; and she only lived seven days.
I suppose, over the last ten years, Bob, I’ve probably mentioned her a couple dozen times, here, on the broadcast. I always try to call Rebecca and Jake—
Ron: It’s a good reminder; isn’t it?
Dennis: It really is—and tell them, “I was bragging on Molly today!”
Ron: Yes; oh, we love to hear that; don’t we?
Dennis: You want people to enter into your grief with you by mentioning Connor and saying, “He was a great kid; wasn’t he?”
Ron: There are some rules around this—I jokingly say. Entering grief with people does not mean platitudes that somehow tries to fix their grief—that is a wrong thing to do: “Oh, God’s got Him,” “God needed another angel.” That’s just dumb, and all it does is step on my sadness, as if to say, “Well, if you really were faithful, you wouldn’t be feeling all of this.”
That’s another before and after for me—another before Connor died, I thought faith was somehow the antidote to pain, which was silly. I look back at it, and I go: “Why did I think that? That’s just dumb.” Faith is not the antidote to pain—it informs my pain; it coaches my pain; it softens my pain—but it doesn’t take away my pain. All you’ve got to read Job, and Psalm 77, and Psalm 88—and it’s all throughout Scripture—you see pain and faith, side by side.
Then, I like to talk about the two rails. Our life now—we’re on a train—and the train rides on two rails, like trains do. One rail of those is “God is good,” and the other rail is “So, why didn’t He show up? Why did He step back and let Connor die?” The left rail is: “I will see Connor again, and it’s going to be a glorious day; and he gets to introduce me to Jesus.”
The right rail is [Emotion in voice]: “But I miss him today,”—like: “That will be a great day, but today is a sad day.”
Ron: The left rail is: “God’s got a bigger plan, and I know He’s working something,” and “I, like Job, will never know what’s going on in the background. I won’t understand why Connor had to die, but it’s okay because God’s got this.” That right rail is: “Yes; but it’s a lot of pain, in the meantime, to have to walk out for what purpose I don’t know—that’s difficult.” See, those two things are side by side every stinking day of my life. I can’t avoid them.
When somebody comes up and throws me a Christian platitude—that says: “Hey, forget about your pain rail. There should only be a faith rail,”—that’s not my world. That’s not where I exist; that’s not where I live; therefore, I now feel isolated from you. I can’t trust you with the sacredness of my sadness, and I’m just pulling back from you right now. You’re no longer my friend.
Dennis: There is a verse I want to caution people about using unless they know God wants them to speak it. It is Romans 8:28—it says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose.” If you quote that verse to somebody, you better make sure the God of the universe has prompted you in the Holy Spirit.
Ron: Yes; that’s right.
Bob: In fact, if you feel the prompting, double check—
Bob: —just say, “Are You sure, Lord?”
Dennis: “Are You sure, Lord?”
Bob: “Are You sure?”
Dennis: Because this verse—it can become a platitude—to your point, Ron.
Ron: It’s all about timing; because if you say it in the midst of the really, really hard, that just feels like you’re getting grapes stomped on. If somebody shares that verse out of a heart that cares and just wants to support and come alongside somebody—I get that; that’s fine. That’s distinguishable to those of us who are grieving; but somebody who shares it, as if to say: “So, get happy again, Ron.
“Get over this stuff. Recover!”—look, there is no recovery. I believe that. There may be recovery from lots of types of losses in life. I don’t think there is recovery over losing a child.
Dennis: Now, there are going to be listeners, who move next to the radio and go, “What did he just say?”
Ron: Yes, I’m serious about it. You don’t recover. You are now a different person.
Dennis: There may not be the same wound there, 20 years later; but there will be a scar.
Ron: That’s right.
Ron: And the intensity can come back quickly. It recalibrates—that is our word—it recalibrates who you are. I’m recalibrated in my—still, nine years later—in my sleep schedules, my outlook about life, how I think about things, the decisions I make, how I spend my money—I’ve been recalibrated in a hundred different ways. I am not the same person.
Just to illustrate this point—maybe, my wife should tell the story—but she had a very, very dear friend come to her, 18 months after Connor died, and basically said to her, “I want the old Nan back.”
Nan: I said: “I buried her that day. I don’t know where she is! This is the new Nan.”
Ron: We lost that relationship. We lost tons of relationships—
Nan: We did.
Ron: —with friends, who didn’t know how to sit with us in our grief, who didn’t know how to join us or accept the new us-es.
Bob: We’ve talked about the Book of Job—several times, we’ve referenced it. Job’s friends, in that book—it’s pretty common—they were doing great when they sat with him—
Ron: —in silence. [Laughter]
Ron: —then, they started speaking.
Bob: Exactly. [Laughter]
Dennis: I’m sorry for laughing, but you said it; I didn’t.
Ron: It’s true!
Bob: So, for those of us, who would come and sit in silence, but there comes a point, where you do have to say something:
“I’m sorry for your loss,” is—we’ve learned that—“Tell me more about Connor,”—what else? If we are going to enter into conversation about this / if I want to communicate to you: “I see your pain. I don’t want to minimize your pain. I want to be a friend to you in your pain,”—apart from “I’m sorry for your loss,” and “Tell me about Connor,”—what else?
Ron: Sharing memories: “I was thinking about Connor the other day,” and “Do you remember that one time when da…da…da…da?” It may be a happy, funny story; and yes, share that stuff with us.
Nan got a text one day, on what would have been Connor’s 18th birthday, from a very dear friend, who was just connecting with her around, “This is a very sad day.”
Bob: “I know what day this is,”—yes.
Ron: “I know what day this is.”
Nan: Yes; I would say the first two years are just indescribable. The first year is just indescribable, because you are doing all the firsts without them.
Nan: You don’t know what that looks like. You’re just being thrown into the waves—thrown into the waves / thrown into the waves—with each one of them—
Bob: Yes; school starting.
Nan: —their birthday, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day—
Bob: —Thanksgiving; yes.
Nan: —another child’s birthday.
Bob: In fact, the first Christmas had to just be almost excruciating; didn’t it?
Nan: It was; it was. If we hadn’t had family that came alongside us to do Christmas for our other two boys, I think we would have just called it off.
Nan: It was really hard. Then, you get through all of those, and you take a breath. Then, you get slapped with the reality of: “You have to do this all over again.”
Ron: Year number two.
Nan: That’s why I think the first two years are so hard. I am here to tell you—people give you six to eight weeks, and they are done. You’ve got to do two years of really hard—
—four years of recalibrating and repositioning. It is exhausting. I’m telling you—it is the hardest work you’ll ever do.
Ron: Here is another tip, Bob. When you greet somebody, who is grieving the loss of a child, say, “It’s good to see you.” Don’t say, “How are you?”—you know the answer to that. They’ve lost their joy; they can’t smile. I didn’t see my wife smile for a year; she didn’t belly laugh for two years.
We didn’t know how to take communion on Sundays; because it was such a difficult, tear-us-apart day. It used to be such a celebration that our family had this ritual—we took it together. We didn’t know what to do anymore—like some of us were ready to do that, and some of us weren’t. So, we just—it didn’t happen.
“It’s good to see you,” was a statement of: “I realize you are in a hard place,” and “I’m your friend, and I’m here.”
Nan: I had a couple friends, who would say to me, “How are you really?”
Because a “How are you?”—you’re left with, “You know how I am!”—or you don’t want to say, “Well, I’m great!” because you just buried your child; but when they really said, “How are you really?”—that was an invitation to say: “You know what? Today is a pretty good day,” or “I am really struggling.” Those were the people that I really clung to; because I felt like they got a little bit of what I was going through or could, at least, relate to me.
Ron: Just one quick story about our boys—our other two boys. I think there is actually a phrase used about siblings when a child dies: “They are the forgotten mourners.” It’s true. After a few months, most people stopped asking us, “How are you doing?” and stopped coming around, and bringing food, and what not; but a few people stayed. Some other people rose to the occasion and were with us. Today, they are still very, very, very dear friends.
That happens for the parents, but it really doesn’t happen for the children. My oldest son finished out his high school career at a Christian school and not one time in those remaining years did somebody on faculty or staff bring up his brother’s death—not once—among the people you would assume would do that; right?
Our youngest son, one day—probably three or four years after Connor had died—came up to us, one day, and said, “Yes; Marsha”—one of Nan’s dear friends. She and her husband became very dear to us. They’ve been to Africa with us regarding our son’s legacy. He [Brennan] said: “Yes; Marsha gets it.” We said, “What do you mean?” “She doesn’t say to me, ‘How are you?’ She says, ‘Hey, dude, what’s up?’” He said, “That’s her way of saying, ‘I know you’re not doing well, and you miss your brother; but I love you, and I’m here.’” Just little things like that, to a sibling, go an awful long way.
Dennis: Here’s what I think the listener needs to know about approaching a couple, who have gone through a loss like this—
—or, for that matter, a single person. People handle loss differently. They process it, as male and female, differently. As a couple, they face it differently than how you might process it with your spouse. You have to give them room; you have to give them grace.
Dennis: You have to be patient, and you can’t step back and be a religious Pharisee, with your arms folded, going: “Snap out of it! Would you just get the joy back? Move on! Life’s in front of you.”
Well, as you have delicately done, in an honorable way of Connor, you have reminded us that human life does matter. When there has been the loss of a parent’s heart / piece of your heart gone—he’s in heaven—it helps us know how to better help our friends. Thanks.
Bob: Yes; I know one of the resources that helped you and Barbara after the loss of your granddaughter, Molly, is the book, A Grace Disguised, by Jerry Sittser. This is a book that helps us understand how to process grief and loss and how to see God in the midst of it. Jerry takes us on his journey through grief after his wife, and his mother, and a child were all killed in a car accident.
It may be that, as a listener, this is not something you are experiencing right now; but you may know somebody who is in a season of grief / who has been through a loss like this. You may want to get them a copy of Jerry Sittser’s book, A Grace Disguised. We have it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order it from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY is the number—1-800-358-6329—ask about the book, A Grace Disguised.
Again, it is available, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com.
You know, the reality is that loss and pain and grief are a part of life. This side of heaven, we experience these kinds of things; and we also experience God’s grace in the midst of those things. At FamilyLife, one of our goals is to help equip families to be able to be ready for these unexpected seasons of grief by making sure that their marriages and families are founded on a solid foundation—that they are built on the Rock—so that when the rains come and the storms blow, your house stands. We want to effectively develop godly marriages and families; because we believe godly marriages and families can change the world, one home at a time.
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Now, tomorrow, we are going to hear about how Connor Deal’s legacy continues to live on and how it is affecting children in an unlikely place. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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