The Color Comes Back
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Brad and Jill SullivanBrad and Jill’s daughter, Hannah, went to Heaven on February 26, 2009, at the age of 17. She battled her brain cancer for one year with grace and without fear, accepting it as “her storm” … her opportunity to bring glory to God. Brad is a school superintendent and Jill is a speech pathologist. They enjoy hiking, kayaking, and spending time with their daughter Bethany.
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
Facing the loss of a loved one can leave life feeling so empty and gray. Ron and Nan Deal, along with Brad and Jill Sullivan, give listeners the hope that the color WILL return!
The Color Comes Back
Dave: Okay, I can specifically remember a day in our life after tragedy—after you sister died—when I was in the kitchen and you were in the garage; do you know what I’m going to say?
Ann: Yes, she was my best friend. It was really hard to watch her go; because when she passed, she was only 44. She had four boys, who were young. I think you are going to say, “You remember hearing me laugh.”
Dave: Yes; I remember you are a joy-filled, laughing woman; you bring laughter into the Wilson house. It’s one of the greatest things I love about you, but you hadn’t laughed in two years. I was in the kitchen. You were doing something in the garage, and the door was shut. The laughter was so loud it came through the door into the kitchen.
Ann: What did you feel?
Dave: I remember thinking, “Oh, it’s going to be okay; there is life after death. There is hope.” We knew that intellectually; we knew that Scripturally; we knew that theologically—I had taught it as a pastor—
Ann: But when you live it.
Dave: —but we hadn’t felt it. Again, it wasn’t like, “It’s all over, and now we’re going to be joyful for the rest of our life”; but it was a glimpse of like [deep breath], “Okay, we’re going to make it.”
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Ann: We’re talking a little bit about grieving today, and the hope that comes after grieving; and Jesus is our hope. But it’s not a topic that we always like to go to; because when our friends have experienced it, we feel awkward; we don’t want to say the wrong thing. So many times, we say nothing, which then that feels weird; but I’m glad that we’re going to have this discussion today.
Dave: Yes; so we’ve got the Deals and the Sullivans back with us. We’ve already talked a little bit with Ron and Nan. Many of you know Ron from Blended®—Director of Blended Family Ministry, here, at FamilyLife—amazing ministry. We don’t need to puff him up anymore—[Laughter]—world-renowned author.
Ann: Nan is shaking her head; “No, he’s fine.”
Dave: Nan is like, “Yes, I agree.”
Then the Sullivans, Brad and Jill, came in—and great friends of the Deals—but both of you lost a child the same year, 2009. We walked through that journey they both went through the same year, and then the journey after, and what God has even done and is still doing.
Dave: In fact, the best is yet to come in terms of your ministry.
Dave: So today, we sort of want to talk about: “Okay, is there life after death? Is there joy? Is there hope?”
Ann: “Is there hope?”
Dave: —“that comes.” I’m looking at you, and I can see the smiles.
Dave: It’s real, but we need to help people get through that; so how do you get there?
Ron: I think one of the frames of reference I would give people is: the pain and intensity of your sorrow, after losing a child, changes over time. It doesn’t go away; there are moments where it instantly comes back—we call them landmines—it’s a song on the radio or on your podcast; it’s a word; or you walk in and you find a picture on your phone—and boom—you’re back in the middle of the throes of your sadness. But the space between those moments of intensity gets wider over time. In the beginning, it is all-consuming and overwhelming.
Ron: But over time—we’re 12 years out; all of us are in our cases—and the space gets wider; so you are able to experience, again, more of the ups of life,—
Ron: —the happiness in life,—
Ron: —the joy of life. I think, at some level, you can always have joy, even in the beginning, in your head—you know Jesus wins the day; we know we get to see Connor again—I knew that; I said that at his funeral. That doesn’t mean I didn’t fall apart, immediately after the funeral, and then begin to try to figure out: “How do you walk through life when you have no motivation for life?”
Ron: The reality of sorrow is very, very heavy in the beginning; but there is joy—
Nan: There is.
Ron: —that comes.
Nan: This year, we/our oldest son got married. I’m so thankful we were 12 years out. The first two, four, six [years], I couldn’t have danced like I danced at Braden’s wedding. I was full-on celebrating for them; but there was Connor’s picture on Brennan’s lapel. I was missing him like crazy. He was mentioned at the rehearsal dinner; he was mentioned at the wedding.
Nan: But he wasn’t there the way I wanted him;—
Nan: —and yet, we celebrated. I was in a space where I really could.
Nan: I tell you—those first four/six years—I don’t think I could have like that. It does come!
Dave: Yes, here is the question: “How?” I know it’s true; I mentioned Ann a little bit. I know that I—after my little brother died and I grew up—I got to a place of hope. I’m thinking of a good friend of mine, John and his wife Sonya, lost their teenage son to suicide. We were at the funeral. John got up and gave one the greatest sermons I had ever heard, and sang with his arms raised to Jesus in that funeral worship moment. I know, a week later, he collapsed. Now, years later, I know he and Sonya/they’ve found joy.
Dave: I mean, not fake joy—
Dave: —a deep well of joy; but it is a process.
Dave: You know this process as well as anybody. Help us walk there. I know, Ron, you—I don’t know what they are talking about—but you talk about/you say the color’s going to come back. What does that mean?
Ron: Yes; so in 1998, Nan and I lived in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Jonesboro had a school shooting; it was one of the first ones.
Ron: The year before Columbine was the Jonesboro school shooting. I was at the school that night, along with lots of other volunteers, trying to provide comfort to families that had lost their children. The counseling center in our church, within six months—there were five people killed: four students and a teacher—three of those five families were in our care. I walked, personally, through the tragedy with a number of families, but especially those who had lost children. This is all years before we lose Connor.
I remember sitting with one of the mothers and had a conversation one day, in which she said to me, “The color has gone out of my life. My life is gray.” I went home that day and shared that with Nan and said, “That was a moment, as a counselor, I knew I was incredibly inadequate. I had nothing for her; and I also know that that was profound and a holy moment, and I just don’t even know what to do with it.”
Now, fast-forward, years later, we lose our son, Connor.
Nan: —and there she was.
Ron: And this mother reaches out to us.
Ron: [Emotion in voice] She starts mentoring me; she starts helping me make sense of my world.
Ron: She never knew the conversations Nan and I had about the story—“Life is gray,” and “I’ve lost the color…”—she never knew we dialogued about that or that I had shared that with colleagues and people and had talked about it.
Out of the blue one day, she sends me this message; she says, “Ron, I told you once that my world was gray, and I just want you to know the color comes back.” So here’s this woman, who out of her tragedy, is now turning around and giving to me. I held onto that: “The color comes back.” I just said that to myself over, and over, and over.
It’s/as I believer, I know the color is wrapped up in the cross and Christ defeating death. I have hope because of that, but my pain is really strong right now. Someday, I’ll see Connor again; but that’s not today. So at the same time, I have joy; I also have sorrow. Those two things do not cancel one another out. Christians need to know this and hear me say this; because when you say to somebody, “Well, aren’t you glad they…”—whatever—“You’ll see them again,” as if that means their pain goes away now. It doesn’t.
We comfort people with what will be, but we have to help people be sad and cry over what is—and we have to do both of those at the same time—which is what I think While We’re Waiting does. It gives people a space to, in their faith, deal with their pain. We’ve said this before on this program: “My faith informs my pain, but it doesn’t get rid of it.” While We’re Waiting gives people a space to do that in the midst of their Christian beliefs.
Dave: I’m just thinking, “It’s interesting that if somebody else, who really hadn’t gone through something like that,—
Dave: —“had said the same words to you, you might have just winked and said, ‘Thanks.’”
Dave: But somebody, who has been there—I mean, we mentioned this earlier—but it really is 2 Corinthians 1, where Paul wrote: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our afflictions so that”—there is the purpose—
Dave: —why does He comfort us?—just for us?—well, partly; but really—“so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” She did that for you. Now, you/all of us are doing that for others.
Ann: Let me ask you: “As you’ve done that/as you’ve grieved, you are also having grieving siblings/—
Ann: —grieving children that are still in your home. How do you do that when you are suffering so much?”
Jill: That is a really hard thing. I actually recently recorded a podcast with my daughter about that topic. She is now 25; she was 14 when her sister went to heaven. We acknowledged the fact that, when she lost her sister, she—we just had the two girls—Hannah was her best friend; Hannah was her confidante. Hannah was the one, who she went to with everything that a girl is going through. When Hannah went to heaven, she lost her sister—but she also lost her parents/the parents that she had known all of her life—it was a profound loss for her.
Ann: And she became an only child.
Jill: She became an instant only child with parents, who were no longer the same. At the time, we really weren’t—like you said, we are so caught up in our own grief—and we tried to help her and be there for her; but it’s a very hard thing to do. We’ve learned—it now, of course, in retrospect—that we should have included her in our grief more. We tried to protect her from our grief, and she tried to protect us from her grief; so we ended up grieving a lot behind closed doors and grieving separately.
Ann: You were isolated.
Jill: We should have been grieving together. I think that would have helped both of us. Of course, we did that some; but we could have done that better. You know, all of these things you can look back at now and say, “Okay; these are the things we could have done better.”
Ann: Do you remember laughing together, as a family, after Hannah’s death?
Brad: That’s the thing I want to encourage people, too; the laughter and the joy comes.
Brad: At a retreat, if you would walk up inside the refuge, and hear the laughter going on, you would think, “Boy, I want to join this party.” [Laughter]
Brad: But then you find out what we’re all there for; but—
Dave: You know, we haven’t mentioned on this episode: “Why are you there?” We are talking about this While We’re Waiting retreat for parents that have lost a child. So you are all there, because you’ve lost a child; but you’re laughing.
Brad: We’re laughing.
Brad: We probably laugh more than we cry.
Jill: We absolutely do.
Brad: That’s good, but that also is that safe place for parents to do that. That’s so powerful to us to get to see God work. Our Father is the Redeemer, and He’s starting to redeem this story. It’s always going—we know it’s going to be redeemed—we focus on that hope and have our eyes fixed toward eternity. It’s powerful—and to experience that—but just to see joy start returning in others’ lives/in our lives and then to see God work.
Ron: We kind of changed, as parents, too. We kind of jokingly, with our other two boys, at this point, talk about the lost two years when they kind of lost us as parents, like we just weren’t functioning very well.
Ann: Is there anything you can do about that?
Ron: For us, God’s grace was my sister, who repeatedly flew to where we lived and spent time with us. We would say, “Hey, Aunt Sherilynn is going to come back”; and my youngest son, Brennan, would go, “Oh, good; we’ll get to eat again.”
Ron: I mean, it was sort of the joke; we forgot to feed them.
Ron: But my sister came—she cooked—I’m not kidding. We really stopped being proactive parents—all the things we hear at FamilyLife/teach parents to do—we went numb.
Jill: We could barely function.
Ron: We could barely function, getting through life, so you need that community of people around you.
Nan: You do. I would say, too, it just takes time. I think we need to be gentle with bereaved parents; but it’s not a year, and then it’s over.
Nan: It takes time. Some people take a little bit longer to find their way than others. I would say I was one of those people. I was really angry with God; I was frustrated with Him. I really dug in my heels for a long time. I’m on the other side of that now, but it just takes time. The joy can come back. I think the one thing that we did really well was we extended each other a tremendous amount of grace.
Dave: That’s what I wanted to ask.
Dave: I wanted to ask about the difference.
Dave: Maybe, one spouse is mad at God, and the other has moved beyond that—
Nan: That was us.
Ann: Difference in grieving, you mean?
Dave: The timetable is different. So how do you—
Ron: You know, I would be really curious for Brad and Jill to talk about their journey. When Nan and I started grieving, we like to say we grieved together.
Nan: We clung to each other.
Ron: —walked with each other. The intensity of our pain was the same; the frequency was the same; we were both in the pit together.
Then I would say, four or five years into it,—
Nan: —you read the book of Job.
Ron: It kind of helped me.
Dave: That helped?
Ron: It helped me turn some corners, theologically, in my head and make sense of some things. She didn’t want anything to do with that.
Nan: I was stuck.
Ann: You were still mad at God?
Nan: I was so stuck.
Ann: Were you resentful of Ron?
Nan: I wasn’t resentful; I just wasn’t going there. I let him go; I did.
Nan: I let you go.
Ron: The big journey for us, at that point, as we began to diverge a little bit,—
Nan: Yes, we did.
Ron: —emotionally, from where we were and how we would function in life—is we had to have, as she said, grace for each other, which meant I needed to be really super patient when she needed to rehash stuff over, and over, and over again that I no longer needed to do. I needed to sit, and listen, and be with her. It’s delicate; there is no—
Nan: It is.
Ron: —there is no prescription for this. For every couple and family, it would be different. For us, all four of us, individually, were grieving; we had our own journeys. But then we tried to do the family grieving thing, like Jill said. We tried to talk, and share, and be open with each other, and connect into our children’s grief; but that’s only when I could be mindful enough to get outside of my own head to—
Ron: —enter into their space. It’s a hard, hard, hard journey; and you don’t know if you are doing it right—
Ron: —or wrong,—
Ron: —which, again, reinforces this idea that, when you have somebody to bounce it off of/somebody who is ahead of you—another person, who is grieving beside you—you kind of get a sense of where you are at, and what you can do different, and what you can’t control.
I’m curious about your grief journey as a couple; what was that like?
Jill: Yes; I think ours was a little bit different; in that, ours started before Hannah actually went to heaven; you know? From the time she was diagnosed, we knew we were dealing with a potentially terminal illness. We prayed for healing; we trusted for healing, but we knew that God might not choose to heal her.
We began grieving her before she went to heaven. We had to walk that journey of—the cancer journey—with our child, making decisions about treatments, and hospitals, and things like that. We had to process some of those things together before she died. I think that maybe bonded us together—
Jill: —a little bit in that/so that when we grieved, I think we grieved together.
One thing we definitely noticed—and I’ve heard many, many bereaved parents say this—when he would have a really, really bad day, I was usually doing okay—
Jill: —and then vice versa.
Jill: When I was having a really, really bad day, or week, or whatever, he was doing okay. We rarely were both way down here at the same time. I think that’s a grace that God gives us;—
Nan: I agree.
Nan: I agree.
Jill: —you know?
Dave: I’m guessing—maybe, you’ve heard that as you do your retreats—is that something that you hear couples say?
Jill: We hear that a lot.
Brad: Yes; a lot.
Dave: The truth is—and I don’t know the statistic—maybe, Ron, you know it—the numbers of marriages that don’t make it after a tragedy like this; they don’t make it.
Ron: You know, I’m glad you brought that up. I’ve looked into it; there’s really not any good science. You’ll hear things like: “Eighty-five percent of couples divorce after losing a child.” That’s not true; it’s not true. It’s not nearly that bad.
Ron: But it’s hard; it takes a toll on your relationship. Again, if you have other children, they can be so forgotten in the process. People ask you/other adults ask you, “How are you doing?” because they are adults; you’re an adult. Very few people go up to your 14-year-old and say, “Dude, how’re you doing, really? No, I want to know. Tell me about this.”
Brad: They will ask, “How is your mom doing?”
Ann: You guys, is that something we should be doing in the church—
Ann: —go up to the kids/the siblings and ask them?
Jill: Yes, yes.
Nan: Because the parents are having a hard time doing it.
Nan: If you’ll step in and be a parent for those kids or help them—I would long for just somebody to take them out of the house—where the grieving mom was just/a cloud was over, and take them to get a shake or take them to a movie—do something normal—because they are not grieving on the same level as the parents are; just help.
Ron: There is actually a term, “the forgotten mourners,” that’s what siblings are called in the research literature around this; because everybody gets paid attention to—the adults do—but not so much the kids.
Dave: So if—you’ve already said it, so I don’t know if I am asking for something you’ve already said—but if you could look at a parent right now, listening, whose feeling like: “I don’t know if I’ll laugh again,” “I don’t know if I will every feel the joy I once had before my son or daughter died,” what would you say to them? Anyone of you or all of you: “How could you help them? What would you remind them of?”
Ron: I would say two things: “The color comes back,” and “Just take the next step.
Brad: That’s right.
Ron: “That’s about as far as you can see right now,” and “You don’t/you worry about what’s beyond that, and there are so many questions in your head that you don’t know how to answer—you’re right—try to focus on just taking the next step.”
Dave: I just want to say—I’m guessing somebody stumbled on this program today—
Dave: —they are like, “I don’t/I can’t believe I tuned into this podcast/radio broadcast.” This is hope. God put this program in your ears right now, because you need what we’re talking about.
Ann: I think about Jesus saying, “Come to Me all you who are weary—
Ann: —“and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Ann: Thanks for being with us, you guys. Appreciate you so much.
Nan: Thanks for having us.
Brad: Thank you.
Jill: Thank you so much.
Bob: It may be that you’re the person or the couple Dave Wilson was talking about just a minute ago: someone who stumbled on this program and who needs what Dave and Ann have been talking with Ron and Nan Deal and Brad and Jill Sullivan about today. You need comfort; you need God to draw near to you in the midst of your own grief. Let me encourage you to go to our website at FamilyLifeToday.com. There is a link there to Brad and Jill Sullivan’s website—more about their ministry is available—again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com.
Then we recommend podcasts and books—resources—that can help you as you walk through a season of grief. Or maybe, you know somebody, who is walking through a season of grief, and you want to look for resources for them. Levi Lusko and his wife Jennie were here recently; they shared about the loss of their five-year-old daughter. Levi has written a book about their journey through grief called Through the Eyes of a Lion: Facing Impossible Pain, Finding Incredible Power. You can order that book from us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Maybe, you know somebody you want to pass it onto. Again, the website, FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order the book: 1-800-FL-TODAY is our number; that’s 800-358-6329; 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Well, here we are at the end of July/the beginning of August. For some of us, summer is already starting to wind down. We’re looking ahead to the new school year starting, and fall is almost here. It’s going to be a sprint before long. David Robbins, who is the president of FamilyLife, is here with us. I think that’s how a lot of our listeners are feeling right now; right?
David: Well, that is certainly what’s happening in the Robbins’ household, Bob. I mean, summer is feeling basically over. School is right around the corner for us. I mean, we are shopping, and school supplying, and getting in the last bits of summer. One of the things Meg and I did recently was peek into the fall and realize how quickly it was coming. You know, you look at the next 90 days, and you go, “Okay, it’s here.” It’s already so full with a lot of things like kids’ sports and school activities; and we just kind of had a pause moment to go, “How are we going to invest in our marriage?”
We are so excited at FamilyLife to be able to share that most of our Weekend to Remember® locations are opening up and coming to a city near you, and we want to invite you to take a pause yourself and go ahead and carve out time. Think proactively now. It’s going to be a sprint in August and September for many of you, as families. We know that reality: “So how do you plan ahead to carve out time, just you and your spouse to get away?” That’s what Weekend to Remember is all about.
Bob: Well, and what we are suggesting is that you, now, put it on your calendar. Go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com. Find out when a Weekend to Remember getaway is happening near you and make this a priority for the fall. Don’t let it get crowded out by other things by putting it off. Decide today that you’re going to join us this fall at a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway. Again, get more information online at FamilyLifeToday.com.
With that, we’ve got to wrap things up for this week. Thanks for joining us. I hope you have a great weekend. I hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church this weekend. Then join us on Monday when we’re going to talk about how important it is for us to be thinking rightly about our identity: about who we are/who God made us to be. Trevin Wax joins us for that conversation, and I hope you can join us as well.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. Have a great weekend. We will see you Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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