A Place to Grieve
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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
The loss of a child can leave many parents feeling there’s nowhere to turn. Ron and Nan Deal, along with Brad and Jill Sullivan, share about the While We’re Waiting retreats, which minister to parents right where they are on their grief journey.
A Place to Grieve
Dave: I would say probably the hardest thing in life to do is to go through a tragedy.
Dave: But I think there is something worse—even though I said it’s the hardest—[Laughter]—it’s even worse to go through a tragedy alone/—
Ann: —or trauma alone.
Dave: —isolated. I mean it’s bad, and it’s dark; but if you’ve got no one to walk with you, it’s really the darkest.
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: It’s almost as if, when you are going through trauma and tragedy, you can’t catch your breath. You can’t take a step; and you don’t even know how to, sometimes, take the next step. I know that we’ve gone through some hard things. It helps so much when somebody comes alongside, puts their arm around you, and just encourages you to take another breath, and to help move your leg forward; because you feel so stuck.
Dave: Yes; so we have back in the studio with us today, Ron and Nan Deal and Brad and Jill Sullivan, who have already told us their story about walking through the death of the Sullivan’s daughter/the Deal’s son the same year. I didn’t know it was within nine days of each other, which was heartbreaking to hear; and yet, there is more to this story that we are going to jump into today.
Welcome back to FamilyLife Today. I’m glad you are here.
Ron: Thank you.
Nan: Thank you.
Jill: Thank you.
Ann: And if our listeners haven’t heard the first half, they—
Ann: —I would really encourage you to go back and listen to their stories. It’s gripping; it’s heart wrenching; but it’s important to know the next steps.
Dave: Ron is no stranger to FamilyLife. He is the director of Blended®—the best ministry in the world for blended families. [Laughter]
Ann: It is.
Ron: I agree; thank you.
Dave: Of course, you agree; but I’m saying that because I say that all the time.
Ann: We do.
Dave: I’ve said that to everybody. I mean, we were talking to somebody on the plane—and they said they were blended—we’re like, “Do you know Ron Deal?!” They were like, “Yes.” I’m like, “Of course, you do,” because you just help so many people in that area.
Ann: How many books have you written, Ron?
Ron: Number nine comes out later this fall; yes.
Ann: Nan, you are a kindergarten teacher.
Nan: I am.
Ann: And you’re amazing; I have loved getting to know you.
Nan: You are sweet.
Ann: You’re gifted; you’re pretty spectacular, and you are the perfect person to walk with Ron. You guys are a great team.
Nan: Thank you.
Ron: Thank you.
Nan: Thank you.
Dave: Brad is a superintendent of schools.
Brad: Yes, I’m in South Pike County School District in Murfreesboro, Arkansas.
Ann: You guys have started a ministry.
Ann: Tell us about that.
Jill: Yes; the ministry is called While We’re Waiting. It’s just like you said: it’s a ministry that seeks to come alongside parents that have lost children. It’s a retreat-based ministry; we host retreats around the country that are specifically for parents who have lost children.
Dave: And you and Nan met there; right?
Nan: We did!
Nan: We did.
Dave: Talk about that.
Nan: Well, after we moved here, and Ron took the job at FamilyLife, I was in a ladies Bible study with Mary Herndon. They all knew my story; I’d shared about Connor. I was really in throes—it was deep—I was in hard spot at that point.
Ann: How much time had passed since his death?
Nan: Six years.
Dave: Let me stop right there. Six years, and you just said you’re still in a hard spot.
Nan: I was.
Dave: There are some people, who are like, “Oh, come on!—after six years?”
Nan: Oh, for sure.
Dave: But you’re still—
Nan: I was so struggling.
Ron: It’s a marathon; it is not a simple journey. There are so many losses in life that you can relatively move through quickly. That’s not true with the loss of a child. It’s a very long journey, and that’s why this ministry is so important.
Dave: You’re not struggling five/six years later because of your lack of faith?
Dave: Right; I mean, a lot of people think, “Well, if you just have more faith and you trusted God more, you would be through this by then.” But you had incredible faith, and it’s just hard.
Ann: Yes; you’re still grieving.
Nan: So grieving—and moving to a new place—where I have to introduce myself for the first time and tell my story.
Ron: Everybody wants to know: “How many children do you have?”
Nan: Yes; “How long have you been married? How many children do you have?” I am picking out a house that doesn’t have Connor in mind; I was still in a hard season.
Ann: You probably don’t even know what to say when they say, “How many children do you have?”
Ron: We do—
Dave: What do you say?
Ron: —we say, “We have three.”
Ron: “We have three boys.”
Nan: Yet, you either get the stone nothing; or get “Oh, okay”; or “Tell me more.”
Ann: What’s the best thing to say?
Nan: “Tell me more,”—
Ann: That’s good.
Nan: —or “I’m so sorry.”
Ann: Yes, yes; but don’t ignore it.
Ron: Don’t ignore the fact when somebody says, “Well, our oldest child is doing this, our youngest is doing this, and middle son died when he was 12.” You can’t, at that point, just say nothing. I mean, my encouragement to everybody listening would be to say, “I’m so sorry”; and if you have courage, say, “Tell me more about that.”
Ann: That’s good advice.
Ron: Just step into that space, and let that parent talk. That’s what they would love to do.
Dave: Yes, that’s what I was going to say. You’re saying, “Parents, who have lost a child, would love to talk about that child.”
Ron: Absolutely; absolutely, they want to talk about it.
Nan: Say their name, text their name—remember them.
Going back to the Bible study, Mary was pretty attentive; but one day, she showed up on my door step. A very dear friend of hers had lost her son, Jeffrey, in a tragic accident. Mary said, “I need you to help me help Jeanie.” I said, “Mary, sure I will help you.” I was helping Mary help Jeanie; but lo and behold, Jeanie really needed me.
Jeanie and I got connected, and we started texting; we started talking. We met a couple of times. Then she called me and said, “Hey, I’m coming to Little Rock, and I’m going to a retreat in Hot Springs. It’s a moms’ weekend at this retreat center for moms that have lost children. Would you come with me?” I’m like, “Well, can I?” She’s like, “Sure!” We went, and that’s where I met Jill. That’s where we had a wonderful weekend at a While We’re Waiting mom’s retreat; it was amazing.
Ron: I do want to add: While We’re Waiting also has small groups that meet—
Ron: —now throughout the country. It’s spreading like wildfire, because there is such a great need. There are parents everywhere who have lost a child and just didn’t know where to go/what to do with themselves. The retreats happen in various places now, also around the country, that people can go to; and then there are small groups that people can be a part of. Nan and I are actually leading a virtual group that includes some people from across the world. It’s just a place for people to go and be together.
The beautiful thing about this ministry is that all of it is free. The retreats and everything is free. Generous donors come alongside and make it possible for people to get the help that they need.
Nan: This ministry ministers to us as parents: they minister to the dads, the moms, the couples. It is an environment where you feel loved on/comforted. You are fed some amazing food; the rooms are beautiful; the chairs are comfy. You just feel like you go walk into a warm, wonderful hug; but the bonus is that God is at the center of it.
Dave: How did this idea come? I’m guessing it didn’t happen within a month of Hannah’s death. You had to walk, and grieve, and journey. Give us the story of: “Where did this originate?”
Jill: When Hannah was in hospice, she spent the last few days of her life in a hospice center in Little Rock. You know, when you are in a situation like that, everybody comes; and they bring you food; and they bring you gift cards; and they bring you books and things like that—lots of books. [Laughter]
Nan: Yes—[Laughter]—on grieving.
Jill: —on grief and loss and all of these different things. By the time we got home after she went to heaven, I had a stack of books this tall. [Laughter]
Ann: And people mean well.
Jill: Oh, yes.
Ann: They just don’t know what to do.
Jill: It’s wonderful; but one of the books that was brought to us there at the hospice center was a book called Holding On to Hope by Nancy Guthrie. It was exactly what I needed to be reading; because those of you who are familiar with Nancy’s story, you know that she had two babies that were born with Zellweger Syndrome, which is a terminal condition.
Our daughter was a very different situation: she was 16 when she was diagnosed, but it was a terminal condition. She talks a lot in her books about the sovereignty of God and what do you do with it when your child is diagnosed with something terminal, and you pray for healing. You know that God can heal and sometimes does heal. Yet, He does not choose to heal your child. Those were the kinds of questions that we had been grappling with for a year while Hannah battled this cancer.
I read that book; it was so, so beneficial for me. I got on her website; and I learned that she and her husband host retreats for bereaved parents in Nashville, Tennessee. We signed up and went, and it was a wonderful experience. There were people there from 11 different states and Canada, and our stories were all very different. Yet, the bond between parents, who have lost children, is strong; and it is immediate.
Jill: We bonded with those folks. Before we even went to that retreat, we knew that God had a call on our lives. We knew that we did not want to waste the storm that Hannah prayed for, and we knew that we wanted to use this in some way. While we were there, it was just like, “This is something we would love to recreate this concept of a retreat for bereaved parents and bring it back home to Arkansas.”
Ron: The secret is community and sharing with people, who have a similar grief. It’s that 2 Corinthians passage, where comforting people with the comfort we’ve been given from God. You are just paying it forward—you’re just sharing it among others—and there is a sense that, somehow in that sharing, that you’re grief somehow gets smaller. It doesn’t ever go away—the intensity comes and goes over the seasons of life; it’s always with you; your child is not here—but we’re holding on with hope for that day when we get to be with them again. Somehow, it helps!
I’m thinking that it needs to be said: “Nobody fixes our grief.”
Ron: Nobody in the While We’re Waiting ministry tries to fix anybody else’s grief.
Ann: Nan, you had talked earlier about protecting your garden of grief.
Ann: What does that mean?
Nan: Well, you have this garden with your child in it: and their memories, and their name, and everything that is about them. When you lose a child—and you alluded to this earlier: “I’m six years in, and I’m still struggling! What’s wrong with her?” “Six months/a year after that first year, you all should be moving on,”—you’re not moving on; it’s just you carry them throughout your whole life.
It’s like your other children; I mean, I have a son in Texas right now. I’ve thought about him today. He’s not in front of me, but I’ve thought all about him today.
Ann: He is in your garden.
Ron: He is.
Nan: He is.
Nan: Connor is not here; there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him.
Nan: It’s a garden that a lot of people want to trod on; or they don’t want to come in, because it’s scares them. You’ve got lots of friends/family that don’t want to have anything to do with it. Even, you go 12 years in, and they don’t want anything to do with it; so you’re protecting that garden.
When you’re in a group of people, who have lost children, and you cry, they get it. When you laugh, they get it. They get that they’re laughing, but they are still not over the loss of their child.
Nan: Other people—you start laughing—and you are, in your mind, thinking, “They think I’m over this, when I’m really not over this.”
Nan: So: “Do I laugh in front of them?” “Do I not?”
Jill: Yes; absolutely.
Nan: Am I right?
Nan: It’s a hard rollercoaster of emotions. You’re the one who has to protect them and regulate them, because nobody else can help you with them.
Ron: Nan, that’s the thing I want to jump off of—what Nan just said is—because in our virtual group that met just a couple of weeks ago, we found ourselves talking with the parents about the importance of guarding and protecting your garden. I hate to say it; but as grieving parents, we have to just accept the fact that it’s up to us to try and nurture the right relationships that will help us grieve. There are certain people, who are advantageous to your grief journey; and there are other people, who are really not helpful.
Ron: You have to be very careful about what you share with whom. That made me mad when I first discovered that, as a grieving dad, because I thought everybody else should be taking care of me; but the reality is I have to figure out: “Who are the best people?” “What are the best situations?” “Who do I share with?” “Who do I not share with?”
When you finally get a place like a While We’re Waiting group, where you are completely free/you can let your hair down—I mean, think about what Nan just said, “I’m deciding whether or not to laugh in front of you, because I don’t want you to think that I’m over my son when I’m not over my son,” —that’s way too much work.
Ron: I need to pick the place, where I don’t have to think about that. I can just be real with whatever is there.
Nan: It’s such a different language; and when you find somebody, who is speaking that same language, you just want to be with them.
Nan: And you feel like you are not going crazy. I mean, we had the 40 books that came. But man, when I could talk to another mom—and she was a little bit ahead of me; and she would say, “You’re right where you need to be. I did the exact same thing,”—I just felt like, “Okay, I think I can breathe now. I think I can do this. I know I don’t want to do this; but okay, maybe, I can make it.”
Dave: What a/I mean, what a gift from God this is; because as you’ve just shared, it’s like: “You know what we’re going through”; and you can walk in a place and know, “I’m okay here.” Like some people are ahead of you; you can be ahead of others. It’s just what a beautiful gift; because we started, saying, “The worst thing to do is go through a tragedy alone.” You were providing a way for community to happen and heal people. Do you have stories of that?—
Brad: Oh, yes.
Nan: Yes; I do.
Dave: —people really seeing God meet them because of what you’ve offered?
Nan: We started doing a support group. Lo and behold, this woman came from the Philippines; and she is six months in/seven months in.
Ron: This is a virtual group.
Nan: Then, she stopped coming. I knew why; I knew exactly why. I sensed in her where I was that first seven months—in the closet, curled up in the fetal position—barely making it/trying to make it for my other kids.
I messaged her one day on Facebook®. I said, “I know you can’t come to the group, but will you talk to me?” Because of our connection, now, I’m zooming with her every other Saturday from the Philippines. I know/I messengered her this week: “I know you are barely holding on, but I’m praying for you; and God loves you.”
She messengered back: “That was the only hope I had today; thank you.” It’s because I’ve been there—
Nan: —that I could minister; and because I have some legs underneath this now, that I can do it.
Nan: But it’s through this ministry that I met her.
Jill: Yes; yes. You know, every other social situation you are in, as a bereaved parent, you have a filter on everything you say and even everything you see; because everything comes through that lens of child loss. When you walk into one of our retreats, that all goes away—the filter goes away; the mask goes away—you can say anything/share anything without fear of judgment, knowing that everybody else in there is going to say, “Oh! Me too!
Jill: “Oh, I’ve felt that same way.” Child loss is not a one-time event. It’s not over when your child dies. Your child is your future; so everything that happens from that point on is another loss. When our children didn’t get to graduate from high school—
Nan: Oh man!
Jill: —when they didn’t get to go to prom, when they didn’t get to start college, when they don’t get to get married—yet, their siblings do.
Nan: They weren’t at their brother’s wedding—
Nan: —the way you wanted them to be.
Jill: Exactly; exactly. It’s an ongoing loss. It doesn’t just end.
You know, when you lose a parent—when you lose somebody that’s an expected loss—that’s just kind of the end; but because you’ve lost your future when you lose a child, that’s what makes it an ongoing loss; so there is something to grieve—
Jill: —always something to grieve.
Dave: I know you know—[I], as a pastor, doing many, many funerals, and some for the loss of a child—you want to be able to look at that parent and say, “I have something for you.”
Dave: So how does somebody get ahold of this ministry? How do we send people to you?
Jill: We have a website, and the website is WhileWereWaiting.org. Of course, no apostrophe; so it’s WhileWereWaiting.org. We also have a pretty large Facebook presence. We have a public Facebook page that’s just called While We’re Waiting.
If you are bereaved parent, though, we have a page called While We’re Waiting Support for Bereaved Parents. If you have lost a child, you can request to join that page. It is a private page, and you have to answer some screening questions in order to be allowed in. It is a wonderful community—that page—there are a little over 6,000 people on it at this point. It is a clearly faith-based Facebook group. I get on there every day and post something—a quote, a Scripture, something to encourage—it’s been a safe place for bereaved parents to gather.
Dave: We’ll put a link to that—
Dave: —on FamilyLife.com as well. I know there is a mom or dad listening right now—
Dave: —right now that maybe he is afraid. You know, there is that fear. This is the day you have to click that link; this is a step toward healing.
Ron: There is somebody listening, who has a friend,—
Ron: —or a family member, who has lost a child. You’ve desperately wanted to help them. You should remain in their life and ask them, “How are you doing today? Tell me about your son,”—and say their child’s name and enter into that space as best you can—but it’s great to know you can tell them about this ministry, and they can go to a different level in their grief journey.
Nan: Another support that you have is your new podcast.
Jill: It’s called While We’re Waiting: Hope After Child Loss. It’s something we started really kind of in response to COVID, because all of our retreats were shut down for several months. We did a few Facebook live things—it’s interviews and other things—so it’s—
Ron: You know—
Nan: —great topics.
Ron: —I think one of the questions parents are asking themselves is: “Am I crazy?”
Ron: I know Brad, Jill—I know you guys have heard that a thousand times: “Am I crazy? Is it just me? I really—to think this way—is it/it can’t be right.
Ron: “Am I not being faithful enough?”—like all of those shaming, guilting, self-condemning sorts of things we do, as Christians, when we’re dealing with hard things. It’s so relieving to hear somebody say, “Yes, that’s normal.
Ron: “Yes, that’s normal.”
Brad: “You’re not crazy.”
Ron: “You’re not crazy.
Dave: Yes, you know—
Ron: “You’re in the right place.”
Dave: We started saying, “If you go through this alone, you can have those questions; because you don’t know the answer.”
Brad: That’s right.
Dave: If you go through this in community, you go, “Oh, this is what God made me for. I have to be a part of this. It’s the only way I’m going to make it.” So way to go! Thanks.
Ann: Yes, thank you for sharing the story of Hannah and Connor. I look at/man, you guys are really using their lives to help other people.
Ron: Thank you.
Nan: Thank you.
Bob: Christian community is so powerful, so important, so needed when we are walking through difficult circumstances. The Bible tells us we are to weep with those who weep; we are to encourage the faint-hearted and help the weak. That’s what has been modeled for us by Brad and Jill Sullivan, Ron and Nan Deal as they’ve been sharing their story/what they are offering to others—Brad and Jill are doing retreats—both one-day and weekend retreats for moms, dads, for couples together. We’ve got a link on our website, at FamilyLifeToday.com, where you can find out more about these getaways that the Sullivans are offering. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information.
You can also get a copy of a book that Levi Lusko has written. The Luskos went through the loss of a child; we shared their story last month on FamilyLife Today. Levi has written about it in a book called Through the Eyes of a Lion: Facing Impossible Pain, Finding Incredible Power. You can get a copy of that book for yourself—or if you know someone who is grieving, maybe, you want to reach out to them and come alongside them to provide encouragement, and support, and help—get them a copy of Levi Lusko’s book, Through the Eyes of a Lion. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to order it or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get your copy. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com. Our number is 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” You can order your copy of Levi Lusko’s book, Through the Eyes of a Lion, when you get in touch with us.
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We hope you can join us, again, tomorrow when we’re going to hear things we ought not say and, maybe, the right things to say to parents who are grieving the loss of a child. Ron and Nan Deal will be back with Brad and Jill Sullivan. I hope you can be back with us as well.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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