Designing the Connor Creative Art Center in Ghana, Africa
Designing the Connor Creative Art Center in Ghana, Africa
Bob: When Ron and Nan Deal lost their 12-year-old son, Connor, both of them went through a season of prolonged grief; and both of them, they learned, grieved differently. Here’s Nan.
Nan: With anything in marriage—whether it’s your parenting, money, communication—a husband and a wife / a man and a woman are going to come at it differently. Definitely, grief is one of those things that you are wired differently for it. I needed to vent. Ron needed to think about it. Our other sons needed to do their thing. We just gave each other time. I think the one good thing that we did, as a family, was we extended each other a tremendous amount of grace.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, July 20th. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Ron and Nan Deal join us today to talk about how they extended grace to one another in the midst of their grief and how they still deal with that grief, more than a decade after Connor’s death.
Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. When we have a friend or a loved one, who has been through a traumatic experience, obviously, we do our best to come around and try to help and bring hope and healing in the midst of the trauma. When a family goes through a trauma together, and everyone is recovering, it’s pretty hard for them to draw on the resources of one another; because they are all shell-shocked from what they’ve experienced.
Dennis: Yes; it’s a community project in the true sense of the word, because you’ve got individuals suffering. You’ve also got a marriage that’s going through difficulty and children, which form a family, also—so nothing is the same.
If our listeners have not been listening, this week, to a story that we have been telling with Ron and Nan Deal, they need to go back and listen. Ron is the Executive Director of FamilyLife Blended®. Nan is a school teacher; in fact, what grade do you teach?
Nan: I teach kindergarten across the street at Don Roberts.
Dennis: God bless you—
Nan: I love it!
Nan: I love it.
Dennis: We’ve been listening to the story of one of their three children—Connor, who, at the age of 12 years old, found his life taken from his family and had him transported to heaven, because he knew the Savior and was a born-again follower of Christ; but it was a tragic loss of life.
We’ve been talking about loss. Ron, as you and Nan regained your equilibrium, what would you say is the best thing—and Nan, I want you to answer this too—what would you say is the best thing you did for regaining your sense of balance? I’m not saying that was done in weeks—I’m imagining it was probably years.
Ron: It was.
Wow! There are so many elements to that. If I had to boil it down to one thing, I would just say, “Staying in connection with other people, who have also walked this road, who could help us / who could somehow help us make sense of it—talk about it in a safe place. Just the fact that they were still breathing air and walking around showed us: “I guess we can get through this.”
Dennis: So, you didn’t isolate from people.
Ron: No; we sought out people who had also lost children. When they came along, we latched on to them and tried to learn, and listen, and talk. That probably is the single most important thing that has helped us.
Bob: I’ve seen statistics—you may have seen them as well—that, when parents experience the loss of a child, it can very often—and I don’t know how high; I’ve seen the numbers vary, I think—
—but it can often lead to the end of the marriage; because both are grieving / both are looking to the other for help—they can’t provide it—they isolate; they become alienated.
You experienced a little of what that feels like; didn’t you?
Ron: We did. We certainly had to seek equilibrium in our marriage. By the way, I heard all those stats—I used to quote them. Then, when it happened to me, and I lost a child, I went and looked; and we don’t know. People say the divorce rate is really high, but nobody knows. There’s not any good science around this, but the point you make is valid—that it does create stress and strain.
Ron: Babe, wouldn’t you say we’ve had plenty of that?
Nan: I think so. I think, with anything in marriage—whether it is your parenting, money, communication—a husband and a wife / a man and a woman are going to come at it differently. Definitely, grief is one of those things that you are wired differently for it. I think in the beginning, we were thrust together; and we clung to one another. Then, I think the one good thing we did, as a family, was we extended each other a tremendous amount of grace.
I needed to vent. Ron needed to think about it. Our other sons needed to do their thing. We just gave each other grace and time; but as the years went on, I’m still trying to vent about it and trying to figure out. Ron has taken a different path with his grief. The senior year—that year that Connor would have graduated—leveled me and brought me back to year—ground zero—not as hard of a year for Ron; and we had some legs underneath us—I think we were six years in.
I think you just have to give each other a tremendous amount of grace. Not everybody is going to grieve the same. I have a huge grieving community with parents, and we all come at it so differently. That is one thing that has been life-giving to me—not only the friends and family that continue, to this day, to walk alongside us—I mean, walk alongside us—they’ve never forgotten us; they’ve never forgotten our son.
That has been everything.
I read everything that a parent wrote—if you didn’t lose a child, I didn’t want to hear from you—I read everything that a mom or dad—I could get my hands on. I think I was trying to find that one thing that was going to help me fix this; and yet, within that, I found a voice.
Nan: I found my voice, so I knew I wasn’t going crazy. I knew these thoughts and feelings I was having were valid.
Then, God’s provision for me was other grieving moms. I was talking to a mom today—because it’s her son’s birthday—he should be 21. [Emotion in voice] My group of moms and dads—that’s everything; because, when you’re in this place of grief that nobody wants to be in—like you said—you can’t fathom it; it’s the indescribable pain.
You really do feel like an alien, and you want to be normal.
Yet, when you are talking, and you’re feeling, and you’re living life out with someone going in a different way; and you’ve had to figure that all out and you sit down with—well, I’ll say this. We were on the cruise two years ago. We were not supposed to be at dinner with these people, and I know it was God’s provision for me. We were put at a random table. We went and sat down, and there was this delightful couple from New Zealand. We’re sitting there, doing pleasantries. Then, the question: “Well, tell me about your family.” “Well, tell me about your family.” They bravely just said, “Well, we need you to know we lost a daughter. We immediately said, “We lost a son!” The rest of the evening was about Natasha and Connor.
Ron: It was beautiful and painfully beautiful.
Nan: We cried, and we—it was just like we entered into this sacred, holy place together.
We could be normal in that place with this other couple.
Bob: Nan, I have to go back to your venting and Ron’s processing. When he was not venting, like you were venting, you had to be thinking, “He does not care.”
Nan: Yes; and he took that road of faith quicker than I did—he got back on it quicker than I did. I will admit—I was very angry with God. I was very confused. I just had a—I just had a season of doubt and disbelief; and I truly went into a despair.
Dennis: That’s what I was going to ask you, Nan. What was the road you took? You’re saying it was the road of unbelief and doubt. Ron, how did you interpret that?
Ron: I was aware / she was aware that our paths were separating.
She said it well, earlier—in the beginning, it thrust us together. We talked alike / grieved alike, and walked together. Slowly, over time, we began to diverge and go a little bit in different directions. We were aware we had to work at staying close.
I also knew that other people, who stepped into her life—one woman in particular, Pam Cope, who is a mother who lost a son—and Nan and she instantly bonded. That was a very valuable relationship. It gave somebody for Nan to vent to, and I didn’t always have to be the one.
It never became—I think that’s one thing we did right, Babe—is that we didn’t judge each other as being wrong in how we expressed our grief.
Nan: That’s true.
Ron: We did acknowledge that I didn’t always know how to connect with her and where she was. She didn’t always understand where I was. We found other ways, and I think that was God’s grace that people came into our lives.
Bob: One of the things that helped you regain equilibrium is that, at some point, you said, “We want to honor our son’s legacy, and we want the memory of his life to be about something bigger than just he was a 12-year-old boy, who got an infection and died from it.” That became something very beautiful.
Nan: Very early on, after Connor passed away, I needed to find his voice and that I could talk about him. I could talk about Braden still; I could talk about Brennan all day long, and there was this void. It was so important to me to find his voice. I didn’t know it would come out in a legacy. I didn’t know that it would be honoring him in quiet things that we did for other people or other children, but that was finding his voice for me.
So, very early on, I—memorial money was coming in, and other things were happening. I was truly trying desperately to find that [his voice] for my son. It had to embody everything that he loved and what he loved to do, so it could bless other people—especially, children because he loved children; and he was so childlike in his faith. It just was important that we bless other people.
I was told, early on, too—well, 18 months in: “Maybe, if you step outside of yourself and serve,”—that was another mom, who had lost a son, saying, “If you could just twist it around and turn it around on its end, you can see that that might be healing and helpful for you.” It truly has been.
Ron: Through a series of God-connections, which is a great story—we just don’t have time to go into it today—Pam and Randy Cope, who lost their son Jantsen many years ago, started an organization called Touch a Life Foundation—
—first, ministering to orphans in Cambodia and then moving into Ghana, where they help rescue trafficked children—vulnerable and exploited children—and then raise them.
They just stepped into our lives and loved on us as grieving parents; but eventually, we found an opportunity to go with them. Nan’s first trip to Ghana with Pam was momentous. She was able to meet these children and share in a story—a narrative of grief / connect with them. We began to dream: “What can we do to serve these kids / to come alongside the Touch a Life Foundation?”
That led to a vision for a therapeutic art center that would be a place for them to learn, and create, and have fun and cut loose; but also, for some therapeutic art healing/therapy to take place. We found ourselves meeting people, who used to be on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition—
—the ABC Television show that built houses for worthy families. They joined and went to Africa—twice—on their own dime and helped us—
Nan: —design our art center.
Ron: —design this art center.
The next thing, you know—we built this thing. It turns out the kids there love Legos® of all things; and our son, Connor, was a Lego nut. There was this moment, where the designers kind of looked at Nan; and she looked at them. The lights went off, and it was like: “That’s it!” We built a giant Lego-looking building in West Africa, where these kids get time, day in and day out. We get to go, year after year; and we’ve led teams on a regular basis to help pour into who these kids are.
Here’s the beauty in this—I’ve just got to say. We went and saw a movie called Taken about a girl that was taken for the purposes of child trafficking.
Eighteen months after that, my wife went to Africa and literally helped take back a child—help rescue a child at the age of ten. A year after that, we were building a therapeutic art center so we could help take back the hearts and minds of the kids who had been taken into child trafficking. It is the most painfully beautiful thing in our world.
I figured out once—I’ve got a theory—you have to find a legacy that matches the depth of your pain. Getting on an airplane, going halfway across the world, and doing something amazing on behalf of children, who don’t have moms and dads or homes, to me, is absolutely as great as the depth of my pain.
Nan: It has been sustaining for us. It’s what we continue to do.
Bob: Was a therapeutic art center because of something about who Connor was?
Ron: He was an artist.
Nan: He was an artist.
Ron: He was a singer. People can go on YouTube and search “Connor Deal.”
They will find a song that he did, live, during a Christmas production at our church.
Bob: We’ve got a link to it on our website, at FamilyLifeToday.com, if folks want to listen to that.
Ron: He loved to draw, and create, and play Legos.
Nan: He was everything artistic.
Nan: He was choreographing; he was storyboarding scenes—he wanted to be the next George Lucas. He was truly a right-brain child. I don’t think there was any left [brain] to him. [Laughter] He lived in this world of fantasy and fiction—he was so creative and so artistic.
Ron: So, when we see these kids over there, learning how to become artists, it’s him. I can’t say enough about how people came alongside us. We haven’t mentioned my sister, who, the first year after Connor died, flew halfway across the country—
Nan: —every month.
Ron: —and spent time in our home. When she—when Aunt Cheryle would show up, our other two boys would say, “Oh, we get to eat!” [Laughter]
I mean, we forgot to feed our kids, guys; I mean, we were in such grief and just paralyzed. We didn’t function for two years as parents.
I mean, if there is a call I have on my heart to the church / to people listening right now: “If you know somebody who has gone through a significant loss in their life, please bring it up. Please ask them how they are doing. Please say the name of the person they’ve lost. This is a marathon, not a sprint; and they need you at mile five, and at mile ten, and at mile twenty—not just at mile one. You have to walk alongside people.”
The church, honestly, has to find ways of coming alongside people so that we don’t just throw platitudes, and a good funeral, and feed them for six weeks, and then abandon them to figure it out.
Nan: I have sat with so many grieving parents. It’s the same story—with either in their community or their faith community—that they’ve just been lost or left.
I know it’s a hard loss to face. I know that it’s difficult when it is a child, but it is a common tale for all of us—it’s isolating. I think the church, and the Christian community, and the Western world could do a better job with grief.
Ron: There’s a group that created a ministry specifically for grieving parents, While We’re Waiting—as in “…while we’re waiting to see our kids again.” While We’re Waiting does retreats for moms, dads, and couples, who have lost a child for free—every one of them is free. They’ve begun expanding across the country. We love what they are doing; we love who the people are. Tell your church about it. If somebody loses a child, let your church come behind them and pay their way to that sort of thing. It is a very important ministry, and it is so rare.
Before While We’re Waiting started, we weren’t aware of any national organization that was doing anything, specifically, in the Christian community, for grieving parents.
There are lots of grief programs, but it’s not the same when you’ve lost a child. To have something that is targeted in that direction is very commendable.
Dennis: There is something you said earlier that I just want to go back to and put a double underline under, because I think this could be one of the most important steps in providing that equilibrium and also the legacy that you’ve left on behalf of Connor. You made a statement—you said, “Leave a legacy that matches the depths of your pain.” I think that is a great challenge—I really do. I think that is a life-giving challenge.
To that person, who has lost a loved one—a son/a daughter/a husband/a wife—take a step back and go, “What’s the level of my pain?” Then, begin to ask God, “Would You show me how I can honor the life that I experienced with this person by matching that depth with a glorious declaration of God’s grace / of doing something positive for other people?”—
—not take your eyes off yourself so you stop grieving / keep doing that—but get your eyes focused on the horizon, to think, “Who can we help?”
I love it that you are helping kids in Africa.
Ron: Dennis, I have a video on my phone of my wife picking up a ten-year-old child—carrying him out of a village in West Africa, across a lake on a boat to safety—where that child is now growing up, today, cared for, getting educated, and learning about the Lord. I have a video of that. “Are you kidding me? In this day and age, that happens?!”—I have a video of that. Every time I think about how Connor was taken, I think about her taking back—[Emotion in voice]
Ron: —that child.
Ron: That’s amazing. It reminds me that, even though we sometimes feel alone in our grief, like: “God, where are You?”—I want people to know that God is always working behind the scenes. He’s always orchestrating on our behalf, and He is weeping with us over the things that we weep about—that should not be. He didn’t create death. He didn’t create things like this to happen. It just does, and He is sad with us. He has not forgotten us.
Nan: The beauty of Touch a Life / the thing I love about it so much is that it is based on—you know, the whole care facility is Jantsen—but then every single building, at that care center, is in honor of someone’s child. That is the Cope’s going there, and reaching out to us, and then reaching out to other families. It is truly the beauty out of the ashes.
There’s Zachary’s House; there’s Seth; there’s another Connor; there’s Taylor; there’s Chase’s House. They are all of these losses that we all now are coming together to say: “Okay; here’s something we want to give back,” and “It’s beautiful for these children.”
Dennis: I read this morning in Psalm 124: “If it had not been for the Lord who had been on our side,”—and it repeats it—“Let all of Israel say, ‘If it had not been for the Lord being on our side,’”—the point was they would have perished, but God does get on our side. He is near the brokenhearted.
I appreciate you guys allowing us entry into your grief process but also in the glorious declaration of a legacy of Connor. Thank you.
Nan: Thank you.
Bob: We mentioned a couple of links we have on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com. If folks want to know more about the retreats that are available for parents going through grief—the While We’re Waiting retreats—we’ve got a link about those at FamilyLifeToday.com. We also have information about Touch a Life, including a link to the video of Connor’s song.
Find all of that when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com, along with information about the book we’ve been mentioning this week, A Grace Disguised, by Jerry Sittser—a book that helps all of us walk through loss or grief when we’re experiencing that as a family. Again, all of these resources are available, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. If you’d like to order the book by phone, you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, with the weekend in front of us, I hope you and your family are planning to worship together in your local church this weekend.
And I hope that you are also regular financial supporters of your local church. You know, here, at FamilyLife®, we are listener-supported. We often remind you of the fact that we couldn’t do what we do without your financial support; but we want to make sure you understand, from our perspective, your local church should be the place where your giving begins. That should be your top priority when it comes to financial support.
If you’re able to help us beyond what you are giving to your local church, the funds you provide for us enable us to extend the reach of this ministry so that more people can, more regularly, receive practical biblical help and hope for their marriage and their family. If you can help with a donation today, we’d like to express our thanks by sending you a copy of Dennis Rainey’s book, Choosing a Life That Matters. It’s our thank-you gift when you go online today at FamilyLifeToday.com to donate or when you call 1-800-FL-TODAY to make a donation.
You can also mail your donation to FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; and our zip code is 72223.
Again, we hope you have a great weekend this weekend. We’ll see you back Monday when we’re going to talk to Hanna Seymour about what young women ought to be doing to prepare for life on campus as they head off to college this fall. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas; a Cru® Ministry.
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