130: Coping With Traumatic Events
Trauma and suffering can impact families in unexpected ways. Joel and Vaneetha Risner share with Ron Deal the positive effects of loss and suffering and how it helped to ground their faith, trust God in deeper ways, and bond their blended family.
About the Guest
Joel and Vaneetha Risner understand suffering, as Joel’s late wife Barb died of cancer and Vaneetha lost a newborn son, has a progressive debilitating disease, and went through an unwanted divorce.
They live in Raleigh, North Carolina where they’ve been married for eight years and have a blended family with four adult daughters: Ashley, Emily, Katie, and Kristi.
Joel is a senior R&D staff member...more
Trauma and suffering can impact families in unexpected ways. Joel and Vaneetha Risner share with Ron Deal the positive effects of loss and suffering and how it helped to ground their faith, trust God in deeper ways, and bond their blended family.
130: Coping With Traumatic Events
Vaneetha: Drawing near to God, it's changed me. My faith was very circumstantial before suffering. It was more like I knew the right stuff. I read the Bible; you know there was Jesus loves me this I know. But sometimes that was all I knew, and I don't know if I even knew that that deeply. Suffering brought it to the forefront, like, “I have to believe God loves me.” So, I feel like suffering has grounded my faith in ways that I didn't have before.
Ron: Welcome to the FamilyLife Blended Podcast. I'm Ron Deal. We help blended families, and those who love them, pursue the relationships that matter most. And why do we do that, you might be asking? Well, because we believe there's great joy in loving God and loving others, and all of that together makes the world a better place.
We heard from Julian in Mexico, who has been watching us on YouTube. “I love your videos,” he says, “Thank you.” Well, Julian, you're welcome. And yes, if you, listener or viewer, didn't know, you can watch this podcast and lots of other videos on our YouTube channel. The show notes will get you connected to that if you want to learn more.
And speaking of video, Daniel wrote to us and asked if last year's Blended and Blessed livestream is available to view in parts so his group can watch it one session at a time. Yes, it is available in that way. In fact, all seven of our previous Blended and Blessed livestreams are available through an online all access pass and the different sessions are available one at a time. And we even include a discussion guide specifically so you can turn the livestream into a small group study and do one session at a time. A lot of churches and groups are doing that. We want to recommend that you consider doing that if you're looking for another video series. Again, the show notes will tell you how you can get to that.
And it just occurred to me that someone may be listening right now and not know what Blended and Blessed is. Well, it's a one-day marriage livestream for blended family couples. It's new and fresh every year. And here's the cool thing. It's a livestream so you can watch from your home. You can gather with a few other couples at your church. You can host it for groups of couples if you want. It's very affordable.
Make sure you get our next Blended and Blessed on your calendar. It's Saturday, April 27th, 2024; save that date, Saturday, April 27th, 2024. You can join the live audience if you want. We're going to be in McKinney, Texas, the Dallas Fort Worth area. Or you can just join us online. Put it on your calendar and start thinking and talking with your church leadership about hosting it for your church and your community. We have online resources to help with that. And you can talk with one of our staff for free, actually, to learn how to host a great event. Again, check the show notes for a link to our Blended and Blessed webpage.
Well, you've heard me say on this podcast, probably more than once, that blended families are born out of loss, and then they're born into ambiguity. Loss opened the door to a stepfamily and loss is what greets you when you step inside. Today, we're going to be talking about navigating those experiences for adults and children and navigating those spaces with faith and with hope.
A quick reminder that even if we're not specifically describing the exact family circumstances of your family, please know that the principles I think you hear will apply.
For example, what we say about managing loss can help you. It can even help your loss if it was different than what we're talking about today. And what we say about younger children generally applies to older children, adult children, and stepchildren as well. Just hear it and then translate it into your specific family situation. I think you'll get lots out of it.
Joel and Vaneetha Risner understand suffering. Joel's late wife, Barb, died of cancer. Vaneetha lost a newborn son. She has a progressive debilitating disease, and she went through an unwanted divorce. Joel is a nuclear engineer, if I get that right, and Vaneetha is a writer and a speaker. She's written books like Desperate for Hope: Questions We Ask God in Suffering, Loss, and Longing; and she wrote a memoir called Walking Through Fire. They live in North Carolina. They have a blended family with four adult daughters.
Joel and Vaneetha, thank you so much for joining me today.
Vaneetha: Thanks for having us.
Joel: Thank you.
Ron: Adult daughters; are you guys, empty nest?
Vaneetha: Sort of.
Ron: —almost there.
Joel: —empty rebound nest, so the youngest is at home for five more weeks until her wedding.
Ron: Hey, you can see the finish line if you're asking me. It sounds really good. My wife and I are empty nest at this point, and we are enjoying it. It does come with some challenges. You know there's always a little bitter with the sweet, but we're really enjoying it, so I hope you guys get to taste that real soon.
Vaneetha: Yes, well we tasted it for a while and then somebody came home. I think there's lots of people that think they're empty nesters and they're not quite yet.
Ron: That's right. As Nan and I say, “Day ain't over yet,” like, “We don't know what's going to happen with the rest of today. We may not be empty nest by the time we hit the sack,” so I totally understand. And again, I know a lot of our listeners have experienced what you are experiencing even now.
Let's talk about loss, guys. This is sort of a part of your story, or at least it's intertwined into your story and your family, and I just want us to camp out in that space for a while. Joel, if you don't mind, I'm going to just start with you. After Barb's cancer diagnosis, how did that impact your faith, your trust in God, your relationship with your daughters?
How did it impact your girls? I know that's a big question, but just take us back and tell us what happened there.
Joel: So quick backstory: Barb and I were married in 1984, had our first child 16 months later. Then another about five years after that. We moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and lived there for many years; raised both the girls there. I guess you could say we were leading a fairly normal—you know, two kids. I was working. Barb was at home. We were active in our church. Then one phone call in 2003 changed everything.
Joel: The week that Ashley, my older daughter, graduated from high school, we got this diagnosis of a very rare type of cancer. So that was June of 2003; she passed away in April of 2007. Now, the first three years of that time period were actually pretty good. She felt good. If you didn't know that she had really serious disease, you might not guess it. And then the last few months things got progressively harder. When we got the diagnosis, I think that the word that comes to my mind; it was clarifying. It was almost like scales falling off your eyes. We just saw everything differently. And things that had seemed like important priorities before, suddenly became very secondary.
Now, in terms of faith, we—one of the things that we decided together early on was we wanted to walk through, to the best of our ability, we wanted to walk through this faithfully; not only for ourselves, but for our children and for those around us. So with our children, we'd raise them in the church. We taught them about God's goodness and trusting God and believing God. And so here we are in a situation where we were sure they were going to be watching: “How are mom and dad going to respond?”
We had—just a slight aside. Barb was an early childhood educator, and she and I taught together—I should say she taught; I helped—kindergarten and pre-kindergarten classes in our church. And it's interesting that we often go back to fundamentals, right, when we're faced with challenging times. Some of the most important things are just those things that you learn that you're teaching to five-year-olds. I remember a song that we would sing in that class, When I'm Afraid I Will Trust in You. And that was exactly where we were.
Ron: You know, the essentials of the faith really stand out. Sometimes we make it so complicated, the Christian walk. And in times of loss and sadness and crisis, you got to come back to those foundational things. I'm just realizing—you guys may not know—I have my own grief story, and our audience is probably familiar with that, but there may be somebody listening who hears it for the first time.
My wife and I lost one of our children; our middle son, Connor, died when he was 12. It's been about 14 and a half years for us since that great, great loss in our life. And when you said, Joel, a minute ago, clarity, I knew exactly what you were talking about. The word that we find ourselves using is recalibrated. Like what I thought was important, I now know is dumb and just useless. And what I thought I needed to spend my time and energy doing and what I thought faith was about what, yes, all of that, there's a clarity added to it. There's a recalibration of it and you now know what's truly important and what's not and you just get focused in on that.
That walking in faith through those three years sounded like she did pretty well, like if you didn't know the diagnosis, but then all of a sudden, reality hits and it hits really, really hard. I'm just curious how your relationship with your daughters, what did you do there, like in those spaces when things got really hard? I mean, I think where we are as adults is not necessarily where our kids are and sometimes kids can sort of say, “Oh, Mom's fine. Yes, cancer, what's the big deal?” But then all of a sudden, it's real. How did that impact them? What did you find yourself trying to do as their father?
Joel: When things got—you know in that last nine months or so Ashley, my older daughter, was a senior in college, so she was home occasionally, but she wasn't there all the time. And then my younger daughter, Emily, was a junior in high school so with her, I definitely saw more of this growing awareness of, “This is changing.” Some of those things, interestingly enough, Ron, and perhaps I wasn't communicating well enough at the time, and I might have over protected to some extent.
And part of that was because Barb was very optimistic person. I wouldn't say that she buried her head in the sand, but she didn't want to talk about the worst-case scenario. She could find joy and happiness in anything. I didn't want to go into my, “Well, here are the facts mode.” I know Emily told me after Barb died that there were some things that I realized, “Okay, she knew more of what was going on, but she wasn't really she wasn't sharing that with me.”
Ron: Yes, it's so funny how we protect each other, but dude, I totally understand why—I mean hope is still alive when Barb's still alive.
Ron: Anybody who's listening to us right now knows that when you're facing something hard and you have hope within it, you're not expecting the worst. You're sort of assuming the best, and it does color how you deal with it, how you talk about it or not talk about it. And that's all just part of the reality of trying to sort of finding your way through and wanting to trust God and assume that this is the best way to help my kids deal with this difficult thing.
When you discovered that about Emily, did you, was there something there you had to sort of help Emily with? Were there questions she had she didn't have answers for? What did that look like?
Joel: Yes, there were some discussions about whether or not I had withheld information. And so, we had with both the girls this whole discussion that I just gave you a snapshot of in terms of, “Okay, this is the way that your mother wanted to approach this, and I had to respect that.” At the same time, I can see why they would have thought, “Well, we didn't realize how serious it was.” So again, and that's the thing that I don't think you can come up with a recipe that works every time because every family, every individual is different in how they want to deal with those.
Ron: Yes, absolutely. I think the thing that I want to generalize for our listener right now is kids will have questions and they have their own thoughts independently of us, whether your narrative is death, divorce, or, you know, a breakup of relationship. Your kids are wondering things. They're making, they're trying to make sense out of things with the information that they have and often they don't have all the right information. But they're going to have questions. If you haven't had any follow up conversations with your kids over what happened ten years ago, you might just start poking around in that emotional space with them, because they're stuffed in there. Has that been your experience?
Joel: Oh, absolutely.
Ron: Vaneetha, I imagine you can relate to some of that. I see you shaking your head so there's something in this that you can connect to as well. Tell us a little bit about your loss story and your girls and, you know, how does that impact them and your relationship?
Vaneetha: Yes; well, my loss story is very different, as everybody's loss story is different. So just sort of in a nutshell. I got polio when I was an infant. The vaccine had been developed, but in India, they often would give it at six months. I was three months old when I got polio. Doctors had no idea what it was. They'd never seen it before and so they gave me the wrong medicine.
So I was a quadriplegic basically after it happened, but then, sort of miraculously, some of my limbs started to work a little bit. And then through 21 operations before I was 13 even, I was able to walk at 7 and really lived a pretty normal life after that. I mean, I lived in and out of the hospital as a child, but then, you know, went to junior high and high school and lived a pretty, I guess, normal life if you would call it that. My body was still pretty weak but wasn't as evident to people.
Became a Christian and really thought, “I'm going to live my best life now.” I was so sure that I was not going to deal with suffering and really firmly believed that as a young believer, like my life was going to be great. And it really was for a while. Not that it stopped being great, but I lost an infant son due to a doctor's mistake. He had a heart problem and found that out in utero and when he was born, he had heart surgery. Everything was going great and then, we went in for a normal checkup, but there was a substitute doctor, and he did not understand the condition Paul had.
He impulsively took him off all his medicine because he was doing so well, not really realizing he needed that medicine. We sort of trusted the doctor. You just kind of assume, “Well, the doctor knows best.” So took him off all his medicine and within a couple of days he died. And that was a really, big crisis of faith for me because it just felt like, “We prayed, we did the right stuff, how could God let this happen?”
So that really pulled me away from God at first, Ron, and just lots of questions about how God could let this happen. I was teaching Bible study at the time and so that made it even harder. When you're in ministry in some way and you've proclaimed God's goodness and then all of a sudden, you don't know what you believe anymore. You want to pull all those words back and you just feel like everybody's faith is resting on you, which is a complete lie. But you believe that and so you start divorcing yourself from how you really feel and what you say.
I just pulled so far away from God, and internally and yet, I mean it was pretty amazing this one day I was in the car, and I just cried out to God because I had not opened my Bible in a long time and just said “God, I need you.” Like, “I need you to draw near to me.” I've told Joel this before. The presence of God filled my car in a way that I have never experienced before. And I knew God was with me and sort of that whole, you know that song that that Joel mentioned, When I'm Afraid I Will Trust in You; just sort of this, I’ve got to trust God, even though my world is falling apart. That has anchored my faith, even through all the other things that I have gone through.
And so, God really drew near to me, and I thought at that point, like, “Okay, I'm done with my suffering. This is going to be good.” And then six years later, I was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome, which is, I'm guessing most people don't know what that is. I did not know.
Ron: I don’t know what that is; tell us.
Vaneetha: Yes, I didn't know what it was until they told me. Basically, that means my arms and legs are going backwards in strength, and so all those gains that I had from exercising and, you know, all of a sudden, those sorts of miraculous gains it seemed like I had after I had, I'd gotten polio, they start reversing. And so basically you go back or can go back to the way you were, right when you got polio, and I was a quadriplegic.
The doctors have basically said, “That's where you're headed.” It is up to me because it's sort of a layman's explanation, but when you get polio, your primary motor neurons die in the areas that were affected and secondary motor neurons spring up. But those have a limited life so the more you use them, it's kind of like, you know, money in a bank and every time you do something, you're making a withdrawal. I didn't realize until I was diagnosed that I had made a ton of withdrawals and there's just not a lot of money left in the bank.
They told me at that point—I was 38, two young kids—they said basically “You're going to be a quadriplegic so stop doing everything that you do for fun, and you just need to figure out how to survive.” That was a really, really hard thing for me. I'm a doer and so that was a process and continues, you know, into my life now.
But then six years after that, my ex-husband came home and told me he was leaving for someone else. And I had two adolescent daughters that I was raising, and they were angry. I was angry. Our life just sort of imploded, exploded.
And you know, just that conversation that you and Joel were having about, you know, not knowing what to say to kids. I mean, that was sort of the biggest dilemma, I think, in a divorce, in a situation like that is like, what do you tell them? Like, do you tell them everything? You know, they were young. They were, nine and thirteen at the time and so you can't tell them everything, but then their world is changing. They have lots of questions. You're wondering, can I throw somebody… Should I throw somebody under the bus? Should I, you know, and it continues, interestingly enough, to today.
Vaneetha: Like, quite honestly, my daughter's getting married, and we just had a conversation in the car yesterday about what I didn't talk about.
Because, you know, she's about to get married, we're figuring out blended families and wedding stuff, and it's like, where am I still holding resentment? What was hard for me? So for everybody listening, like, it doesn't just end. Like with, you know, kids grow up and we're done. It's like there's layers.
Ron: Yes, the developmental process of grieving is that we walk with it. Nan and I like to say grief is a journey not a destination. There's never a time you get there and “Okay, done with that; moving on.” That's the American message and the Western culture message that we give people about grief, is “Yes, you just need to get over that and move on to something else.” But it tracks with you individually. It also tracks with you in terms of your family narrative.
And as children grow and they enter new seasons of their life, then they have to reprocess whatever it was from the past in light of what they're now learning. So, imagine your daughter learning about intimacy and relationships and commitment and whoa, now she's got new lenses to process Dad leaving and things Mom said, or things Mom didn't say, things Mom did, things Mom didn't. You know, all of that is, has a fresh set of lenses on it. And so that means there's probably more individual grieving going on and a need for some corporate, if I could use that word, some family conversation around that grief journey as well.
Vaneetha: Yes, there is. Yes, it just doesn't end. You just think, “Okay, we've closed that door. We've moved on,” and it—all kinds of grief, as you said, is a journey, and you revisit it even when you aren’t thinking it needs to be revisited.
Ron: So, let me just pull back and ask you guys a few questions because you guys have been pretty thoughtful about loss and its impact on your life. And I know Vaneetha, you've reflected on that in a couple of books, which is really significant. So, first of all, I was struck, Vaneetha, by the number of stressors that you had in your life.
The number of losses that you had with each one. You sort of have this “Okay. I'm insulated now. Surely God's not going to send me another one because of what I've had to go through.” I've been there and said that, so what do you do when the next loss does come?
Vaneetha: You trust what you've seen God be faithful to I would say. I mean at first it was like, “God, are you really bringing something else?” I mean honestly, when the next huge loss happens, which I can expect it will, I will probably start with the same question, like, “God, why are you doing this to me?” So I'm not in this great place of, I'm perfect. I am ready for, you know, Armageddon today but at the same time, I've learned these principles of draw near to God, like trust Him, trust His heart. He will walk you through every minute.
And so that's, in some ways, the benefit of having gone through so much suffering is I know God can be trusted. Even when it feels like my world is falling apart and I am so shocked, God has never let me down. And so there is that bedrock. He won't, I know he won't. But at the same time, those questions that we all have of like, “Why me? Why now? What have I done?” I've asked them through every piece of suffering. So if people are asking that it's not, doesn't mean, okay, you're losing your faith, it means you're human and God understands that and yet, there is something about years of walking with God through suffering that reminds you He really will never leave you.
Ron: Yes. Yes, that's, I mean, that's a promise and sometimes in the midst of our pain, it is really hard to feel that, to lean into that. It's not always palatable, God's presence. That's been my discovery as well; that He is there, and He shows up in little grace moments with enough, just enough, to get Ron through the day. I look back and I go, wow, there were a zillion little grace moments in the form of a person or a thought or somebody who reached out or, you know, brought over some food or, you know, asked me about, “How are you feeling about Connor?” You know, bring up his name and let me have that conversation with them. Those are all grace moments that sort of propel us forward and show us that God is walking with us, even through those really hard things.
Let me ask you; I want to ask both of you a question because you've both been through some stuff. And I don't know if you've reflected on this, 1 Peter chapter 1, verse 7, verses 6 and 7, Peter's talking about, yes, you're going to have to experience and suffer some trials and tests of all sorts, he says. And then he says but this is so that the true value of your faith may be discovered. The value of faith may be discovered. I'm curious, as you guys look back on your life to this point, what have you discovered about faith? Not whether you have big faith or little faith, but just how has it helped you navigate these hard spaces?
Vaneetha: Yes, I would say faith is the only way I've been able to, and I think I would say that for both of us, been able to navigate these hard spaces even though it feels hard to think God is in this. You know, we want to sort of separate our suffering from God, but for me recognizing God actually does have a part of this and God has a purpose to it if there's a part of it.
And you know, just getting to talk to blended families. If we weren't a blended family, we wouldn't get to do that as authentically, I guess. That comes from pain and so you get to minister to other people. Though I see that there's a lot of purpose that God uses our pain in different ways. And I really, really, come to see that more and more through suffering. That just, even as you mentioned Connor and how that really shaped you, and it's probably drawn you to lots of people who have lost children and brought a ministry just of compassion for you and comfort. I see that in my own life that God has enabled me to comfort others with the comfort that I've received. And I so appreciated that.
And then drawing near to God. It's changed me. My faith was very circumstantial before suffering. It was more like I knew the right stuff. I read the Bible. You know, there was Jesus loves me this I know, but sometimes that was all I knew. I don't know if I even knew that that deeply and suffering brought it to the forefront. I have to believe God loves me. I feel like suffering has grounded my faith in ways that I didn't have before.
Joel: I would say the same thing. I'm thinking back to when I was probably in my early 30s, sort of having this thought of “You know, if life would just be steady. Nothing would rock the boat. You know, that would be good.” I look back now and think that would have been disaster.
Joel: I love you mentioned 1 Peter 1: 6-7. You know, he talks about the tested genuineness of your faith as you just read, and this is how we find out.
Another aspect that I think about is at times I’ve asked, “Okay, what's the alternative?” If I don't have faith that I can believe God and trust Him, where does that leave me? It would leave me in a really hopeless space, and I've seen that happen to people.
And then just tagging on to one other thing Vaneetha said, and that is this ability, and you mentioned this with Connor as well. When you've gone through a particular kind of loss, it gives you a deeper understanding and it gives you, you know, I tell people in regard to Vaneetha writing about suffering, she has credibility.
So if you talk to someone and you can say, “Not that my situation is entirely like yours because they're all unique, but I can understand a lot of what you're going through. And here's how I can see that that might be, you know, questions you might be asking” or whatever the case might be. And it's times like that when we—it really is; it's very encouraging to think that we can, because of what we've suffered, we can come alongside someone else and walk with them as they're going through a similar hardship.
Ron: I'm wondering about the practicalities of the grief that each of you had before you met, carrying those into a new marriage. Four girls, each having—two of them having one story; two of them having a little different story. Man, I'm curious, looking back, did that stuff collide? And if so, what did it look like?
Vaneetha: Well, I would say it's interesting. I think the collision that probably I've seen the most is just my health things into the whole family in terms of, you know, one, my own worry that I'm too much—like my body is weakening and realizing Joel has to help me way more than he did when we first got married eight and a half years ago and so I feel like I've brought. And then, you know, my ex-husband, not that he left because of my disability, but there is this question, like, was I too much? Was that too much to handle?
And so that comes into play in my own feelings of insecurity, I would say, bringing it into this situation. I'm often saying, “I don't want to be a burden. I don't want you to have to do that for me. I don't want to ask. I want to do it myself.” And then of course, sometimes that's a disaster because I shouldn't be doing it myself and Joel will find me doing things I shouldn't be doing. He's like, “Why did you not ask me?” And I realized it's just the baggage that I've brought in. Like “This is too much. I'm too much. This is going to be too hard.” And so, I feel like that's one of the things that Joel, you would say, I think you keep having to work on in our marriage for me is say. You know, his words are “Don't use the B words,” which are—you can mention—
Joel: —bother and burden. I don't want to hear those words.
And part of this goes back to, you know, I don't know if I hadn't been through what I went through losing Barb and seeing her progressively weaken in the last stages of cancer. And what that really did for me was it just drove home this, “Okay, your body is wasting away but you're the still the same person I married.” I don't mean to trivialize it, but it's as I've said to Vaneetha I can easily do unskilled manual labor, like carry things around the house. I mean, that's not a problem, but you as a person, that's what's of value to me.
Ron: You know, he's been recalibrated, Vaneetha.
Ron: He knows what's really important. And yes, there's some inconveniences in your decline, your health decline but that doesn't mean he still doesn't have a person that he loves and cherishes.
Ron: You know, what you guys have hit on is something I know we've talked so much about this through the years with couples in blended families. The individual narratives that we each bring into our story, you know, it taints us in a way. And it, in your case, Vaneetha, I appreciate that vulnerability. It sounds like you feel like you're a bother. You know, you feel like you're a bit of a burden at times and that's that insecurity is the way you said it. It just, it makes you think, “No, I don't want to. I don't want to burden so I'll just shrink back. I'll take care of it myself, even though that's probably not the best, ideal scenario for me at this point in time.”
So there's that thing in your heart that says, that little wound there that says, “Yes, I've been a bother; don't want to be a bother, so this is what I do with that.”
Ron: And it sounds like you're even learning how to trust that there's a truth bigger than that; that you're not a bother. Maybe that's clear for you at moments and other moments it's not very clear. Do you wrestle back and forth in that?
Vaneetha: Yes, yes. I mean, there's some moments, that I totally get it and see it. And I mean, it was sweet because Joel—I mean, when we were getting married, I have a limp when I walk and did then and even more now. I said, “I don't want to walk. I don't like walking in front of people. I don't want to walk down the aisle. I'm already dreading that part of it, not dreading it, but you know, I'm not looking forward to walking in front of everybody.”
Joel said, “I love the way you walk. And I love, I've loved it from the beginning.” And that, I go back to that. Like Joel chose this, to marry me with a disability, which you know, a lot of times you don't get to choose that. It happens in the middle of the marriage, and you deal with it, and you love the person. But it's a unique story to have somebody know that you may be a quadriplegic and say, “I'm choosing you,” which is pretty unbelievable.
Honestly, I don't know if I would have chosen me. You know, I would have said, “You're nice, but I don't know if I'm setting up for that,” so the fact that he did that. I mean, God reminds me every day like, “I choose you even though I see all of these things,” and so there's something so beautiful about that. I see it and recognize it and rejoice in it and then other times there is this insecurity, especially for people out there who have been left by a spouse. There is this, not that I think Joel's going to leave in any way but there is this back of your mind, like, “I don't know what I did the first time.”
Ron: That’s right.
Vaneetha: There's this fear that you want to get rid of, but it's not based on the person, it's just based on yourself and what you see about yourself when you think everything's fine and then it's not. And so there is these underlying insecurities that you can talk them out and say “Oh, I absolutely don't believe that” but these narratives that go on sort of subconsciously, they just come out sometimes.
Ron: We call that the ghost of marriage past around here.
Vaneetha: Yes, yes.
Ron: And whether the marriage ended in a death, as in Joel's case, or in a divorce as in Vaneetha's case, there's just that lingering sort of residue that hangs around and every once in a while, sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear, “You know, he's really not committed to you. You remember what happened last time.” And that little whisper is insidious.
And to our listener right now, I just want to say, man, if you're sort of resonating with this, here's the little action point: put words on what that ghost is and says and does. Because as soon as you can identify the activity, if I could say it that way, of the ghost, then you will recognize it sooner and more quickly.
Now the next thing you got to do is you got to measure that message up against, let's call it truth. What is the truth? First of all, we're all handicapped before God. Is He really going to reject us at the end of the day? Well, no, because He really is a steadfast and faithful God and so the truth is, capital T truth, we have worth and value because of Jesus’ love for us, not because of our performance.
And maybe, just maybe, in your marriage, maybe there's a lowercase t truth that's just as important, and that's that your spouse, in this case, Joel, is committed. And even though there is a limp, if I could say it that way, in your heart or character or emotions or how you feel about things, maybe there's a truth that you can start leaning into.
Now, I often feel like—I'd love for you guys to react to this, because I totally get being caught in the middle, Vaneetha. I've often thought, I'm like that guy who had a conversation with Jesus in Mark 9, who says, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”
Ron: Like, I believe my spouse is here for me. I believe we really love each other.
I believe our family's going to be okay, even though today we're all kind of fighting and don't like one another. But then there's another part of me that's unsure and it leaves me hanging and I don't know what to do with that part. That's that middle ground. It's really tough.
What about your girls? Did you guys look back and the collision perhaps of grief in the girls, how did that go? Or did they just sort of connect?
Joel: Well, you know, the fact that three of them were out of the house—two were married and in different states—they haven't had as much direct interaction as maybe in some blended families. So, they've, they get along well. There hasn't been, I wouldn't call it any sort of collision points of grief.
It's interesting Vaneetha and I were talking about this a little bit ago and one of the issues that could be a challenge, and it was a challenge actually for me, is I came from a family dynamic that was pretty low key, okay. So now, Barb was extroverted. She loved fun, always happy. The girls and I are introverts and so things tended to be pretty quiet in our house. Vaneetha and I got married and I discovered that's not the same environment that I'm coming into. [Laughter] There was a lot more just get it all out there, and that took some adjustment for me.
Vaneetha: Yes, I'm quieter than my girls so there you go.
Joel: Yes. [Laughter]
Vaneetha: They're like, yes, there was quite a bit of yelling.
Joel: Yes, it’s different ways of dealing with conflicts.
Ron: Yes, absolutely. Even now, I'm sure as adults, that they have ways of connecting in with you and their stepsiblings, if that's the way to say it, but at the same time there may be new space there that they still haven't navigated. Do you have a sense of that?
Vaneetha: Yes, I would say there's probably, there's going to be a lot of room. I think when Christy gets married, that's my youngest, and then they're more in the same phase of life, I think there'll probably be more interaction but right now, they—Joel's daughters visit usually on holidays because they live in different states. Katie and Christy live in Raleigh where we live and so we see them probably more often but then it's more like a… yes, I mean for sure more often so it's more like a kind of a special occasion kind of thing when we are all together and you're sort of on your best behavior.
Like everybody's talking, but there's no, I wouldn't say there's a lot of deep conversations with kids. Like we have grandkids and kids running around and you know, in laws and all of that so I think it will happen. But honestly, I don't know if we've had a lot of like deep, meaningful conversations or relational—
Joel: —between the—
Vaneetha: —between the two kids. We've had them individually with the stepkids, but for them to interact, probably not as much. And yes, I would say because that, yes, they all live in different places.
Ron: So, for what it's worth, that sounds really common to me.
Vaneetha: Oh, really? Okay.
Ron: That's a very common narrative, especially when you have adult children, and they live in different places. Sometimes people write to us, and they say, “Well, how do we get our adult kids to think of each other as siblings and want to hang out and spend time together?” And I'm like, “Wow! That's almost as random as just picking another person in your life and saying, “I want, son, I want you to be new best friends with this person over here.”
No, they have to have a reason. They have to have something genuine and authentic that brings them together and they have to have time. And if they happen to live in different places and have busy schedules and lives of their own and careers and a mortgage and children—like it kind of sounds like your kid too—you know, there's just a lot in the way and they're not going to get much time.
We tell blended families, you know, on average it takes five to seven years for everybody to sort of find their fit and for the familyness to develop the sense of identity. But when the children are adults from day one, it takes much longer than that for that to occur—you know, unless you happen to have opportunities to go on extended vacations together, or whatever it is that where you sort of can forge new territory because you've got space and time to do it.
So, it's okay. The bottom line here is it's okay that that's the way it is. You receive it, you make the most of it, and it's just the way it is. It's all right. It's when adults have such an anxiety about, “But I need them to love these other people. I need them to feel just as part of the family as I feel.” Well, that's your need, not their need. And more often than not, when you try to force your need on children of any age, adults or otherwise, you get less of what you're looking for instead of more. So, you relax into it, enjoy it, you know, take it for what it is and take it as it comes.
Now, I don't know if this is your case. One little thing I'm wondering about that sometimes is the case for adult families like you, is, you know, it may be that you have more connection and contact, I'm trying to say, with your biological children than your spouse, the stepparent, does. So it would make sense if Joel, you know, has a connection with his daughters, I don't know, a few times a month or a week or whatever it is, and only occasionally, Vaneetha is a part of that just because you happen to be on the call or whatever, and that too is common. Sometimes people feel weird about that, but how does that work for you guys?
Joel: I think it works pretty well. We tend to FaceTime fairly lengthy FaceTimes on the weekend, or we try to, and that'll be both of us. And then during the week, I may get three or four times during the week, I may just get a call from Ashley or Emily.
Ron: Some sort of exchange, a call or text.
Joel: Right, say they're driving home from work, and they just call and then it's just me. But with the grandkids, you know, it's interesting because sometimes I will be the one that answers the FaceTime call. And the grandkids will say, “Where's Nana?” It's like, “We don't really want to see you. We want to see her.” [Laughter]
Vaneetha: I would say for the most part, like we have a group text with Ashley and Emily—those are Joel's two daughters—and me and Joel and so we'll exchange pictures and kind of like what's happening during the day but it's natural. A lot of times when they just want to just kind of talk, they do talk to Joel and it's pretty amazing how often they call. And I'm super excited about that for their relationship, which to me seems unusual for a father and daughters so I just love that for them. I would say I don't talk to them as much as they talk to Joel but then we all do talk and FaceTime. That's a little more intentional time.
I'd say the spontaneous, probably like when something really hard has happened, like Joel's their first call and that's really fine with me and probably the same with my girls. Like if they're crying in the middle of the night, they're not going to be FaceTiming both of us. You know, they're going to call me, wake me up and want to talk. And yet we happen to have like open family dinner on Sunday nights. Katie and Christy live here and so we see them and that's always a time when we're with everybody. But there is for us, I think a stronger connection in terms of, when I want to talk out what I'm thinking with the biological parent.
Ron: Guys, that is just great. And really, I would commend that to our listeners or viewers that there's a balance there. It makes sense for sometimes you're together when you're engaging with those adult children. Sometimes it's more of the biological parent. And often that's tied to, what's the purpose of this conversation? Is a child calling, asking for help, needs to talk through something; they're going to go to their most trusted relationship. And of course, that's their parent and there's nothing wrong with that.
Again, sometimes people get themselves all tied up in anxiety over these things because somehow, it's not even, or they feel like somebody's missing out or… No, this is just normal stepfamily connectivity and behavior. It's sort of like having that cousin that you don't know very well but somebody else in your family knows them really well. Or you've got that weird uncle Charlie that you never talked to, but everybody talks about. You know, there's just different levels of connection throughout that expanded family. It's okay; take it as it is, keep working toward what you'd like more of.
Guys, as I’ve been listening to you, so I'm just kind of bringing this all together. There's been lots of hard and there's been joy and freshness and newness and new visions for life. And the fact that you got married and just how that has come together and it's kind of a jumbled-up mess. Isn’t life just sort of this jumbled-up mess of joy and sadness?
Ron: How do you help each other walk into those spaces?—whatever it is, whatever is happening. How do you just remind each other of your faith and God's faithfulness and how do you help each other with that?
Joel: Well, I'm going to revert back to my comment from early on about, you know, it's the simple things often, and so one of those is scripture. We have from the time we've gotten married, we use the same Bible reading plan, so we're reading through the same places, and that can open good places for conversation.
Vaneetha: The neat thing about reading the same thing in scripture is we're totally different. You know, he is like analyzing. He knows the history. I know how I feel about the passage. There's something really neat about just kind of this mixture of like, “What did you learn?” and “What did you see?” And through the hard things, you know, we're always in different places in the Bible as we're reading through and just encouraging each other with, “Hey, I read this and this really helped me process this,” which is a way that we get to help each other sort of process life through the lens of scripture. I think that's been really, really unique and Joel started that when we first got married and it's been really great.
I would say the other thing is like, for me, my question, which is a question I've written about a lot, but it's this question: “What if the worst happens?” Which I think for people in blended families, their blended families started because the worst happened in some fashion. I ask that still with my post-polio, like the worst happens is I'm a quadriplegic or you know, obviously there could be other things, but that Joel continually reminds me, “Trust me and trust God.” You know like, “If the worst happens, God's going to be there.
He's always been there and I'm going to be there.” I feel like we're able to encourage each other. I mean, Joel encourages me probably more than I…
Joel: No, actually as Vaneetha’s saying this, I'm thinking what we have been through, I think we complement each other well and we're able to encourage each other without sounding like we're just, you know, spouting some line that we should be saying. You know, it's not just, “Okay, well, this is the textbook answer I'm giving you.” We can speak to it from knowing the truth and having lived through challenging times and seeing God be faithful.
Ron: I'm just sitting here thinking, suffering in isolation really sucks.
Ron: But suffering with somebody who gets it and hears it and processes it with you, suffering in concert with someone else, well, that's a bit of grace. And you guys definitely seem to be doing that. So, thank you for being with me today. I appreciate you sharing your stories.
Vaneetha: Thanks for having us.
Joel: Thank you.
Ron: To you, the listener or viewer, if you want to learn more about Vaneetha, in particular, and her work and what she's doing, check the show notes. We'd love to get you connected to her work.
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If you live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, just a reminder again. Please make plans to be part of our live audience for Blended and Blessed on Saturday, April 27th, 2024. We're going to be in McKinney. We'd love to have you join us. And if you don't live in Texas, you don't want to make the drive, that's okay. Your church can host this annual livestream for blended family couples. Get it on your calendar; start having some conversations with different people. We'd love to have you join us on that day.
Okay, next time, well, you're going to hear from me unfortunately. We're going to be sharing a presentation that I did at Blended and Blessed a few years ago. It's about the beauty of sexual intimacy in marriage. I don't think you want to miss that one. That's next time on FamilyLife Blended.
I'm Ron Deal. Thanks for listening. And thank you to our production team and donors who make this podcast possible.
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