FamilyLife This Week®

Complicated Grief

with Abigail Dodds, Ron Deal | September 21, 2019
Play Pause

Contrary to popular belief, most grief is not processed in a neat little package of five steps. Ron Deal and Abigail Dodds each talk with Michelle Hill about processing different kinds of grief. They maintain that all kinds of grief should be processed--and not avoided--in order to pass through it in a God-honoring way.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Michelle Hill

    Radio has been ingrained in Michelle for most of her life. This love for radio has taken her to various radio stations and ministries in places like Chicago, Alaska and other snow covered terrains like her hometown in north central Iowa. In 2005 she landed on staff with Cru/FamilyLife®. While at FamilyLife she has overseen the expansion of FamilyLife Today® internationally, assisted with the creation of Passport2Identity™-Womanhood and is now the host of FamilyLife This Week®. For the last 15+ years Michelle has been mentoring young women and is passionate about helping them find their identity in God. She also has a fascination for snowflakes and the color yellow. Michelle makes her home in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Most grief is not processed in a neat little package of five steps. Ron Deal and Abigail Dodds each talk about processing different kinds of grief. They maintain that all grief should be processed–not avoided–in order to heal properly.

MP3 Download Transcript

Complicated Grief

With Abigail Dodds, Ron Deal
September 21, 2019
| Download Transcript PDF

Michelle: You know, we all suffer; and many of us just tell ourselves to, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” or “Move on.” Ron Deal thinks that's just not right.

Ron: Suffering is so ubiquitous and yet we act as if we shouldn't feel it or experience it. I think we, in our culture, just hurt ourselves; we undercut ourselves; we short-circuit the grief process. What God has hard-wired into us, we cut it off and, then, we call that faithfulness. I just think we've got to think differently about this.

Michelle: Today, we're going to talk with Ron Deal about loss, and suffering, and grieving well on this edition of FamilyLife This Week.


Welcome to FamilyLife This Week. I'm Michelle Hill. When I was 11, my grandfather lived with us during the last few months of his life. Every night, extended family showed up; there were aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends. Our house was always full of people—people who came to help my mom care for Papa, others who brought meals, others who stayed to clean the kitchen or do laundry.

What that forged for our family was community—a community that carried us on into the future. A few weeks ago, on FamilyLife This Week, Ron Deal and I were talking about loss. We talked about that community that we need/that community that we need when we're dealing with death and loss of expectations.

Ron, of course, is a therapist/is an expert on blended families. He gives leadership to FamilyLife Blended®, and he’s a sought-after speaker. He knows what he’s talking about; but he also knows grief, intimately, having lost his 12-year-old son, Connor.

Ron joins me, again, today to talk about the stages of grief and how they affect us all. Here is my conversation with Ron.

[Interview with Ron]

Michelle: Ron, I read an article a couple of weeks ago; and the title was: “Suffering Is a Normal Part of Our Lives.” It has been coming up in my conversations lately about suffering, and loss, and death, and people who are wrestling with that—wrestling with where God is in all of it—yet, we know that God is sovereign. He is a part of our entire lives. He’s in the suffering; He’s in the darkness.

We may not feel it; but as I'm looking out, I'm seeing all this brokenness, and the injustice, and everything; people are hurting. That's what you and I talked about the last time that we sat in the studio—was just that, sometimes, the loss can be crippling in our lives, whether it's ambiguous loss—something has happened and we've lost a dream or lost something—or maybe it's the loss of a miscarriage, or maybe it’s the loss of a father due to a divorce situation. Loss is hard.

Ron: It is. You know what struck me as you mentioned the title of that article—is that we, in the Western world, run away from suffering and loss so fast. It is a normal part of life and existence and, yet, we don't want to talk about it. We don't want to own up to our hurt and our pain with friends. You know people say, “So how are you doing?” And we go, “You know it's hard, but life goes on; so let's talk about the weather today.” We turn the corner so quickly.

It's like I've got to tell you, as somebody who has a deep loss in my life, before my son died—it's been 10 years now—before my son died, I did that too. Now, as a therapist, I went a little deeper with people; and I didn't let them run away, and I didn't run away from my own pain too quickly. But in hindsight, let me tell you, I did not stay in the dark places; I wanted to get away from that—I wanted to relieve others of that, so I helped them move away from that conversation. I do not do that anymore.

Suffering is so ubiquitous and, yet, we act as if we shouldn't feel it or experience it. I think we, in our culture, just hurt ourselves; we undercut ourselves; we short-circuit the grief process. What God has hard-wired into us, we cut it off and, then, we call that faithfulness.

Michelle: Right

Ron: I just think we've got to think differently about this.

Michelle: How do we go about thinking differently about it?—because I'll just give you an example out of my life. Yesterday, at lunch, I was sitting with a good friend. I was laying out some issues in my life that I‘ve been struggling with, some loss and some pain.

When it started getting a little bit squeamish, I wanted to turn the conversation away. He actually sat there, and he kept drilling into me; and I didn't [turn the conversation] because I know, in past conversations, he'd be like: “There you go again. There you go again, getting out of the hard conversation.”

Ron: Now, see, that’s a real friend. By the way, I feel exactly the way you do. I mean, I/we have to have a tolerance for this hard place, to talk about what ails us. We get uncomfortable and then we get self-conscious—like, “So if I keep talking about how horrible I feel about this, are you going to think I'm not a good Christian?” or “What's wrong with Ron?” “I don't know. I think he’s gone off the deep end. You know—boy, how long it's been? Shouldn't he be over this by now?”

We worry about what other people are thinking about it. We just paint ourselves into a corner. The way we get out of this is to think biblically—it's always where we start; right?

Michelle: Right.

Ron: There's so much lament in the Scriptures.

Michelle: There is.

Ron: There's a whole book called Lamentations, by the way.

Michelle: Yes.

Ron: The Psalms are filled—here's David—Psalm 25: “Turn to me and be gracious to me for I am lonely and afflicted. The troubles of my heart are enlarged, bring me out of my distresses, consider my affliction and my trouble and forgive all my sins, consider how many are my foes and with what violence hatred they hate me.” I mean, he’s not holding back.

Michelle: He’s not holding back.

Ron: These are people, who sat in the ash heap, called it what it was; weren't afraid to name it; called out to God in it. The Book of Job—I love that book—Job screams at God for like 36 chapters or something—like there's a whole lot of lament in the Bible. Yet, we think we should be in control of our world/control of our emotions—that we shouldn't feel pain.

That's a huge cultural priority that we have in Western society. We just need to recognize that that's not honest; it's not genuine before the Lord. It's okay to feel sorrow.

Michelle: But how long can we feel sorrow? How long can we have these conversations? We learn from Job that, if we have these ongoing conversations, Job's friends were like, “Where's your faith, man?!”

Ron: Yes; yes.

Michelle: Even though they did sit with him for those first few days and said nothing—which I've tried to learn from—but there are times, when I'm sitting with a friend, who is going through something so hard, that after the third or fourth day, it's kind of like, “Okay, I'm done.”

Ron: Yes; exactly. We do get weary. I want to be careful about this—we do get weary of our own grief and feeling sorrow and pain. What I've learned is—I can't sit in my pain forever. I do need little escape hatches: I need to get out, do something different, distract myself. Sometimes, work is really helpful around that kind of thing; sometimes it's talking to a friend about something other than my grief.

But I'm still giving myself permission to go back into it. I'm careful about, when I go back into it, who I'm with. That's another wisdom I've learned—is there are certain people who are safer to grieve with than others—right?—so I'm careful about when, and where, and how.

When somebody says, “Well, how long are you going to sit in this pain?” Well, I'm not just sitting in a pain without perspective; I am feeding that perspective. We need to let the person stay there as long as they need to stay there.

Eventually what happens, in saying that part over and over again, you do kind of come to a place where you go: “It is what it is,” and “I'm finally getting to a place where I receive that and now I’m moving into some new season of my grief”; but at the same time, pain is pain.

Michelle: Right.

Ron: It is what it is. This side of heaven it may last until heaven, and we have to find our way through in this journey with God.


Michelle: Wow; learning to walk again after a difficult loss—but there's hope, and that's what Ron is giving us today—hope. There's hope knowing that God is in those moments with us. He is there; even if we don't feel him, He is there.

You know this is heavy stuff, and I think we need a break. When we come back, Ron Deal is going to get more specific on the differences in grief and also the misconception on the stages of grief.

Stay tuned. We’ll be back in two minutes.

[Radio Station Spot Break]

Michelle: Welcome back to FamilyLife This Week. I'm Michelle Hill.

Today, we are tackling the tough subject of grief and loss and the pain that radiates through all of life when loss hits. Let's continue on in our conversation with Ron Deal as he helps us make sense of our grieving, and walks us through the misconception of the different stages of grief.

[Interview with Ron]

Michelle: Now, we've been talking very generically about pain and about loss. Let's dive in a little bit deeper into some of the similarities and differences about grief. There are differences. While pain is pain—and I have a friend, who says, “I don't understand your pain exactly, but I have gone through pain so I can empathize for the pain you're going through. I just can't empathize through the situation.”

Ron: Right.

Michelle: We understand that pain is pain, but there are different kinds of grieving.

Ron: Yes; and you know, the way we make sense of our grief, I think, is a factor in how we experience it. If you ask the average person: “Are there stages to grief?” and “What are they?” I think you'll discover that most people have a concept about that. It flows out of the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and what we now call the ”Five Stages of Grief.”

I want to suggest that most people are misinformed about what Kubler-Ross did, what she said, and what it means for us. We have generalized her five stages far too much into the world of grief. She said: “Family members of somebody, who’s struggling with cancer, go through a period of:

denial: “What?! That diagnosis?—no, it can't be”;

then anger: “I'm so mad at God,” or “I’m mad at this,” or “I’m mad at that”;

bargaining: “God, could we figure out a way to save my spouse?”—“my friend?”—“my whatever?”

depression: “I just don't think we can…”

acceptance: “I guess this is something we have to live with.”

That's helpful for anticipatory grief—it's a linear model; it moves one stage to another.

Here's what we know about grief in general—it's cyclical, not linear. Those five stages don't apply to every grief situation or circumstance. Here's the other thing that people say is—you know, her model was linear: you go from Stage One to Two, to Three, to Four, to Five—life is: you go from One to Two, back to One, skip over to Four; “Oh my gosh, I'm back to Two again,”—it's cyclical. That's what we mean by most people's experience of their emotions—is: in and out; it’s a rollercoaster; its back and forth; its up and it's down.

I think it's most notable that Kubler-Ross apologized to the mental health field towards the end of her life because of what other people said and did with her stages of grief: “I wish we would stop putting that on ourselves and putting that on others, ‘Well are you in the acceptance stage yet?’”

Michelle: [Laughter]

Ron: Good night!

Okay, let me tell you what's crazy about that. Christian people—who believe that there is an afterlife and that, even though we die here on earth, we're really not dead—say to one another, “Have you accepted that this person is gone?”

Well, let me tell you something—my son, who died at the age of 12, is not gone. I don't get to see him—

Michelle: —right now.

Ron: —right now, but he’s not gone. I'm not accepting his death; I'm accepting that he is not here—I have to reposition him.

But, you see, that language of acceptance implies things/suggest things that don't even fit with my grief experience. If we put that off on one another, then I think what we do is add to somebody's grief experience. Instead of helping them in the journey, we actually make it harder for them without realizing it.

Michelle: That's hard.

Ron: It is.

Michelle: It’s very hard. It's hard, whether it's a large loss of a death of a family member or the smaller losses. It's hard to process through the void in our lives.

Ron: Yes; you know, that's part of what's in common among losses—the void. You know, typically, there are different circumstances that create loss and that we experience within our loss; but there are some common emotions that people feel. So, for example: sorrow/helplessness; right? Having to cope with the void: “How do I now adjust life and my circumstances? How do I help family members adjust to the void? How does that void ripple into our family and our relationships, such that we have to adjust even the balance within our home?”

Let me give you a quick example of that. When our son died—we have three boys, and so we kind of had this picking the movie on Friday nights or deciding which restaurant to go to. It's interesting—looking back, I can see there was this balance in terms of who voted with whom. You know, funny how those things work out in a family.

Michelle: —tie-breaker person.

Ron: Yes; exactly right. Well, we lost our balance. It’s kind of like, all of a sudden, we had more people on one end of the see-saw than we had on the other; it didn't work—we didn't know how to make decisions. Sometimes one person would feel left out, like nobody was on their side anymore. Those are all new experiences that resulted that were ripples, if you will, as a result of losing Connor and his place in our family—all kinds of implications that never go away. Those are things that we have in common: sorrow, and helplessness, and powerlessness—you have a sense of that.

Well, people, who have gone through a divorce, experience that; people who have the death of a partner, or spouse, or child, or family member experience that; but they experience it in different ways.

I guess the reason I share this is because I do think, as you said a little while ago, we can relate to other people, in some way, in their loss. I may not have experienced the same thing you have, and you not me, but there something we have in common.

I think as a helper, a family member—somebody who cares for someone—look for those things you have in common and identify with those; but then, make sure you're leaving lots of room for them to have experiences different than you—that you're not imposing something on them.

Michelle: Right; a couple of weeks ago, there was a young mom who was in the studio. I had a chance to talk with her—by the name of Abigail Dodds. She's an author; and her last child was born with special needs, and they were not prepared for that. That is a different kind of loss, too; and I think it's a loss that she helped me understand. I want to listen to part of our conversation now and just have you comment on how we can find hope in that loss, because I think she has been able to do that well.

[Interview with Abigail]

Abigail: A year into Titus's life, when we knew what things were, we said, “We need to get them into a school.” That was just a very practical thing that we did—that we said, “Okay, this is what our life is; and we need to reckon with it honestly and not just what our hope for it had been,” because I was very invested in home schooling. It was hard for me to give that up. I did cry about that.

Michelle: I bet.

Abigail: Most of my circles of women that I spent time with were all home schooling, so it felt like I was giving up my friends, which isn't true—I want to say that.

Michelle: Right.

Abigail: But that's how I was thinking about it at the time. We do have reasonable expectations of how certain things will play out. Those are gone when it's a disability that has no name and a prognosis that no doctor can give you. You're just trying to—I mean, just keeping your feet firmly planted in God's Word, remembering who He is. Because if you start to let any kind of wrong thoughts coming toward you—like, “God isn't actually for your good,” or that, “I asked Him for bread; He gave me a stone.” Those are just lies.

Titus is a gift. Life is a gift. I don't deserve to have children. I don't deserve to get to have a son Titus. It's a beautiful thing that He has done that I would never have chosen to do, but because He chose it for me I can see what a beautiful gift it is now.

[Interview with Ron]

Ron: This is what I call a before-and-after experience. It’s where her perspective has changed. She didn't realize that she had expectations and maybe a sense of entitlement about what should be for her child’s life/for her life; but after the adjustments and dealing with the reality of their situation, caused her to think again about those: “Am I really entitled to these things?” “How can I see the goodness of God in this, even though my expectations/my sense of what I was entitled to is not being met?”

Notice where it took her—I think it took her into a deeper trust of God. We've been talking about how our faith informs our pain; sometimes our pain helps to inform and shape our faith.

Michelle: That's true.

Ron: That's absolutely the journey of Job. He had a theology and so did his friends, by the way. They all agreed: “You do good; you get good from God,”—they all agreed that. What they argued about was whether or not Job had sinned and how he had sinned, but that they had the same theology.

Job is the one who has transformed through the process of his grief; his friends were not. At the end of the book, God actually says, “Job, if you don't pray for your friends, I'm going to zap them”; but he does because his trust has been deepened in God. He is in a different place; he has a new theology.

By the way—quick comment—her pain/her loss is what we call an ambiguous loss. Notice that there's some real differences about this compared to some of the other things that we've already talked about. Ambiguous loss is where you have somebody but you don't have somebody; you have something, but you’re not sure what it is that you have.

Families that are caring for an aging parent with dementia or Alzheimer’s—this is ambiguous loss—physically, they are here; emotionally/psychologically they are not. So we have them but we don't—like, “What is it now that we have?” Everything has to change in some sense but how?

By the way, there are different kinds of ambiguous losses—where you have somebody, psychologically, in your life but not physically in your life—it's a child who has a parent that has walked out on them. Or a spouse that's here but “I'm not sure you're committed to me,”—like: “I don't know what I have here. What am I standing on?”

So ambiguous loss is really difficult to walk through because there are so many questions about—I thought her language was so telling: “I'm trying to find my feet underneath me.” Exactly! “I don't know if I'm walking on shaky ground, solid ground, sandy ground.” That whole journey is challenging and difficult; and through it, she made some adjustments: “I had to let go of some things”—right?—

Michelle: Yes.

Ron: —“some expectations, some desires, some things that I thought should be—make some adjustments.” She basically talked about finding that new normal of: “Okay, this is life; so here's the way we're going to have to go about this.”

And then she said, “Well, I remembered God.” So we're right back to the Psalms and the author, who says,” But I will remember who You are and what You're about, and I will hold on to that.”

Michelle: Verse 4 is one of my favorite verses in Psalm 77; because it says: “You have held my eyelids open. I am so troubled that I cannot speak.” There are times where God does have to hold our eyelids open; it's that little muscle—just will not work—and yet He’s there to do that. He was there to do that in Abigail's life. He was there to do that in your and Nan's life.

Ron: Yes; that is so good, Michelle. I've often said to people—[emotion in voice]—wow, this really touches me—I've often said that, when people have asked, “Where is God in this?”—I've often said, “He gave me just enough grace to get through the moment, the next five minutes, the first day, the first week; and here we are at ten years—sustaining with just enough.”

You know, as Americans, we’re not content with just enough; we want excess. But sometimes, this is the way God works. It is so relieving to know that He is there with just enough to see us through, holding my eyelids open. Whatever that next hurdle is, I have just enough to get over it—I finally learned to rest in that.


Michelle: It's so true. There’s so much hope in realizing that God gives us just the right amount of grace that we need—not just for the day or the hour—but every moment.

Ron and his wife Nan lost their son, Connor, when he was just 12 years old. They went on the hard journey from a family of five down to a family of four. If you are walking this tough journey—just as Ron [clung] to Psalm 77—I would suggest opening up the Bible and turning to Psalms, and maybe getting lost in there a bit, maybe finding that grace that Ron was talking about—just enough for each and every moment to hold the eyelids open.

Next week, Ron Deal is going to share about mourning the death of Connor and just how we can help others through that same kind of loss. We'll also hear from Albert Hsu on losing a loved one to suicide. Please join us next week.

Thanks for listening! I want to thank the president of FamilyLife®, David Robbins, along with our station partners around the country. A big “Thank you!” today to our engineer today, Bruce Goff. Thanks to our producers, Marques Holt and Bruce Goff. Justin Adams is our mastering engineer, and Megan Martin is our production coordinator.

Our program is a production of FamilyLife Today, and our mission is to effectively develop godly families who change the world one home at a time.

I'm Michelle Hill, inviting you to join us again next time for another edition of FamilyLife This Week.


We are so happy to provide these transcripts to you. However, there is a cost to produce them for our website. If you’ve benefited from the broadcast transcripts, would you consider donating today to help defray the costs? 

Copyright © 2019 FamilyLife. All rights reserved.