About the Guest
Touch a Life Foundation
While We Were Waiting: Retreats for grieving parents after losing a child
Nan DealNan Deal is the co-founder of Connor's Song, a non-profit organization that she and her husband founded in honor of their son Connor Lee Deal who died at the age of 12 in 2009. In cooperation with the Touch A Life Foundation, Connor's Song run Connor Creative Art Center in Ghana, West Africa, a facility that provides hope and healing through art therapy for almost 100 trafficked children rescued from the fishing industry in Ghana. Nan, a school teacher, and her husband, Ron, live in Little Rock,...more
Ron DealRon L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series
Ron and Nan Deal walk us through the events in 2009 that took the life of their 12-year old son, Connor. The Deals tells how their family got through this tremendous loss.
Bob: What we really believe about God and about life comes out when we’re facing hardship. When Ron and Nan Deal’s son, Connor, got sick, and it was serious, Ron realized that he had some faulty ideas buried deep in his thinking.
Ron: I realized that one of the things I assumed about him getting well was that we were good people; and good things happen to good people, and God is faithful to good people. I just kind of thought that earned us something. I would have never articulated that; but I really had to wrestle with that notion afterwards, because I started reading the Book of Job. I didn’t realize I believed that, but I did.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, July 18th. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Ron and Nan Deal join us today to share with us their son’s story—Connor’s story—
—and to share with us how God is with you, even in the valley of the shadow of death. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We have been invited in today to what I think this a pretty sacred place.
Dennis: We have by a pair of very good friends. Ron and Nan Deal join us, again, on FamilyLife Today. I say, “again,” because Ron is heard quite frequently, here, on FamilyLife Today. Ron/Nan, welcome back.
Ron: Thank you.
Nan: Thank you.
Dennis: Our listeners know Ron, Bob, because he heads up FamilyLife Blended®. He has given leadership to that since 2012. He and Nan have been married since 1986. I’m tempted to get into that story—[Laughter]—about how a couple of near-teenagers got married—
—we’ll save that for another day. They have three sons; and they, not only give leadership, here at FamilyLife®, to FamilyLife Blended, but they’re also involved with Touch a Life Foundation.
I guess I just want to cut to the chase, as Bob has talked about here. When did you guys know there was a health issue with your son, Connor?
Ron: Connor is our middle son. When he was 12 years of age—the boys were 10, 12, and 14 at the time—Nan and I went on a date one Saturday afternoon. We went home, and Connor had a headache. We did what all parents do—we gave him two ibuprofen, and sent him to bed a little early, and imagined that he would feel better the next day—
Ron: —just a standard little headache / not feeling well.
Nan: Right, and then it went to kind of a cough; no fever yet.
I took him to an urgent care the next day.
Nan: And they diagnosed him with croup, which was—you know, for a 12-year-old—I remember the doctor that was taking care of him said, “This is kind of unusual, but let’s give him a breathing treatment.” I’ll never forget this, and neither will our younger son. That doctor slapped him on the shoulder and said, “In about 24 hours you’re going to feel like a million bucks.”
Bob: At what point did you start to go, “This may be more than just a common cold”?
Nan: We went from home to an urgent care, to the hospital in Amarillo, to him and I being on a plane, flown from Amarillo to Dallas Children’s Hospital. At this point, he has pneumonia, and—you know, older people and little babies get pneumonia; but he’s 12, and he’s going to be fine. I could never go to, “This is really severe.” I just knew we were going to get the care that we needed.
Bob: We went from headache to croup to pneumonia pretty quickly.
Bob: And you did too—this was like 48 hours, from headache to pneumonia?
Ron: Well, really, there was a week’s span in there: Saturday, he has a headache; Sunday, she takes him to the urgent care; by Monday, he’s starting to run a fever; on Tuesday morning, we call our family physician.
Nan: Right; we met him at the hospital, and he was being admitted that day.
Ron: Yes; immediately. They did a chest X-ray and said, “He has pneumonia in one lung; it’s started in the other lung.” But we still didn’t know why. We still didn’t know what was causing it all.
Ron: I have to repeat what Nan said; we never thought, “Our son’s going to die.”
Ron: We just didn’t think that. People came and prayed over him; and the Bible says, you know, prayer of the righteous will heal the sick—we were just confident of that.
Day after day after day, we’d get a little more information. We went in the hospital on Tuesday; I think it was on Thursday that they finally had a diagnosis—he had MRSA. He had somehow contracted a MRSA staph infection that was septic in his bloodstream—
—it was causing the pneumonia; it was causing organ failure. They began to tell us how serious this was—
Nan: Let’s go back two days; because as soon as we took him into the hospital and they found that pneumonia, it wasn’t too long after that they were trying to give him a breathing treatment. He just was going crazy with it—it was causing a lot of anxiety—and so they put him in a coma.
I immediately started journaling what was happening to him. We never left him for any procedure that was done—whenever they intubated him with, or any IV, or any kind of treatment he had. I was journaling it all for him; because I thought, “He’s going to wake up in a few days and he’s…—or when they kept saying—“Well, now, we’re going to put him on this and this,” “Now, we’re going to Dallas,”—it’s like: “He’s going to miss a whole week of life! I need to be able to tell him what was going on.” That was, for me—as a mom—I needed to do that. I just needed to be that voice for him.
Dennis: Ron, you, as a husband, are caring for a mom as well as your son at that point.
Dennis: How did you handle the trauma that Nan was going through, being helpless to help Connor, at the same time you’re processing your own emotions of feeling helpless to help Connor as well?
Ron: Not very well. I have to say—you know, it was a bit of a blur; and at the same time, I was confident that the Lord was going to heal him—that Connor was going to have a testimony out of this / that God would get glory for it—all of those things that you just naturally assume about how this is going to work out. Like Nan said, we just never went to that place that said—even when they said, “We need you to know this is very serious,”—kind of heard it; but it didn’t really take heart.
Nan: I was the one, saying: “I will not leave his side.
“I will not go eat. I will not sleep until he sleeps. I’m going to see every procedure, every needle that goes in his arm, every X-ray that they take. You [Ron] are managing family / our other two boys.” I was hunkered down for the long haul. I didn’t leave the room, and they were getting really worried about me—I wasn’t showering/eating—I wasn’t going to leave my son.
Ron: So, Tuesday, he enters the hospital; Wednesday/Thursday we get a diagnosis; Friday, they say: “This is a long-term recovery. He can recover; but not here, at this hospital; we have limitations. We need to get him to Children’s Hospital in Dallas, where they have much better facilities; but there are no beds.” I’ll never forget them saying, “You might want to pray that a bed opens up.”
Saturday, came back to us, and they said, “A bed has opened.” She ended up flying with him to Dallas. I drove with my oldest son to Dallas; we all met there. He [Connor] survived the flight.
Nan: I’ll never forget the technician—there were two of us. It was so cold in there—two of us, and Connor and I, and then the pilot. The pilot said, “Can I fly at 11,000 feet?” and they said: “No. This boy is delicate. Nine thousand feet.” I couldn’t, in my mind, go there—not understanding the delicacy of it—and yet, I watched them take him from his hospital room to that plane, and from the bed to the gurney; and it took like three hours.
I’ll never forget—you know, it was a five-hour drive for you; maybe a 45-minute flight for me—and we met at the same time. It just took forever to get him from one hospital to the other.
Bob: I’m hearing you describe your emotional optimism, both of you, in the midst of this.
Bob: I’m relating—I’m, by nature, optimistic. I’ll hear something like this and, like you, I’ll go: “Well, this is going to work out.
“We have the best medical care in the world. You can’t get a cough or a headache one day and have it be critically serious.”
Bob: I’m thinking to myself, “Is that my own sense of denial kicking in—that I’m not more sobered?—or am I having a realistic appraisal?” because most of these things do work out / most of the time, kids get better.
Nan: Right. I think it went to severe when they put him on ECMO, which is a lung bypass machine for both of the lungs.
Dennis: Where did that happen, Amarillo or Dallas?
Ron: That was in Dallas.
Bob: Yes; after you’ve been there for a day or two?
Ron: —for a day. They put him on lung bypass and, I’ll add, heart bypass. They didn’t want his internal organs working at all; they wanted to do all the work for him. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff keeping him alive. The idea was his lungs would eventually heal. It might take four to six weeks; but he’s going to be right here, on this bed, and that’s where this is going to happen.
Bob: Wow. And all of this was—I mean, you’re asking, “So what caused this?”
And they’re saying, “It’s this MRSA infection”; right?
Ron: —that’s spinning off and ruining his internal organs.
Bob: And the next question is: “How did he get this infection, out in west Texas, somewhere, when nobody else has it?”
Ron: We still don’t know. There’s no way of knowing.
Dennis: Isn’t this bacteria found in common places where people visit?
Ron: Yes; unfortunately, we’ve learned a lot about MRSA. I didn’t know this, at the time; but MRSA used to be that thing you got when you went in the hospital and, then, you got this infection on top of what you went in there for. That’s what they call the “hospital-borne MRSA”—it still exists.
But there is now a community-borne MRSA—and how you get it / where you get it—who knows? Connor was our healthiest child, and he was our kind of germaphobe—I mean, he was our kid—washed his hands all the time / was really careful in public restrooms about what he touched and what he didn’t—he still got it.
Dennis: You know, Bob mentioned your emotional hope. I also heard, as you were talking, for both of you, that your faith in God—
—and the knowledge of who He is / what the Scripture tells us about how God loves us and how He loves our children—that also brought the hope; didn’t it?
Ron: Absolutely. I realized that one of the things I assumed about him getting well was that we were good people; and good things happen to good people, and God is faithful to good people. I just kind of thought that earned us something. I would have never articulated that; but I really had to wrestle with that notion afterwards, because I started reading the Book of Job, because he believed the same thing and all his friends did as well. I didn’t realize I believed that, but I did—you just assume that it’s going to be okay.
We get Connor settled. They put him on this ECMO machine / this lung bypass machine. It’s now been nine days since he first had a headache.
On the tenth day, they actually said: “We want to try to lift Connor out of the coma a little bit. Would you go and talk to him? Let’s see how he responds.”
So on Tuesday morning, the tenth day that he was sick, I went over and whispered in his ear and held his hand. [Emotion in voice] He squeezed my hand, and a little tear ran down his cheek. We were like, “Okay; he’s still there!” That was our first indication, because they had had him in a coma. We were telling him: “It’s okay. We’re here. We’re praying for you.” Nan squeezed his hand, and he squeezed back.
Nan: We started singing to him and just the tears rolled down as he grabbed for me.
Ron: Big brother got squeezed. About that time they came to us and they said, “Well, you know, his heart rate’s going up a little bit and his blood pressure. We really want to keep that at a good level, so why don’t we give him a little break? You guys have done a great job here.” And we said, “Okay; we’ll step out of the room.”
Some friends were visiting; and so we said, “Let’s just grab some lunch with them.”
Nan: That was one of the first times I left; because they were like: “Okay; you’ve gone this whole long time without leaving. You need to go and give him a break. He’s worn out,” and “He’s worn out, with you, Mom. So go take care of yourself; come back.”
I think we were gone—what?
Ron: —45 minutes.
Nan: —45 minutes.
Ron: We walked right in—
Nan: —and everything was gone in the room—
Ron: He wasn’t there.
Nan: —our son; the ECMO machine, which is ginormous—and I just went screaming down the hallway, going, “Where is he?” They said, “Well, we’ve taken him for a CAT scan.” This is a Tuesday; and I said, “He’s not scheduled for one till Friday.”
Ron: Then they kind of ushered us into a little side room—
Nan: —to a waiting room—
Ron: —to wait for some doctors to come.
Nan: And as soon as they came in, I knew exactly what they were going to say. I just told them not to tell me—I just said: “I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want you to tell me.” I walked out of the room to go be with my son.
Ron: Then I heard them explain that, in the short time that we were gone, something changed.
It turns out the MRSA had also made him susceptible, and he got the flu. It was causing bleeding in the brain, and they couldn’t stop it. It was only a matter of time that—he would die in the brain—brain dead, first—and then his heart would stop. It was inevitable.
I ran outside and grabbed our other two boys—[Emotion in voice]—told them their brother was dying and we needed to go and be with him—so we went and joined Nan. I walked in and—it’s funny what you do. The only thing I could think of was: “I cut the cord when he was born. I’m going to feel the last heartbeat.” That’s the only thing I could think.
I put my hand on his chest. We didn’t know how much time it would be, but it turned out to be two hours. We talked to him; we sang over him; we prayed. His big brother, who was all of 14, Braden—
Nan: —he kept saying [Emotion in voice]: “Don’t be afraid, Connor! Don’t be afraid. Run straight to Jesus.”
Ron: “Just run to Jesus.”
Nan: Poor Brennan, being 10, was all over the room, yelling at every medical person, saying: “Help my brother! Help my brother!” I was just lying in bed with him, just holding him/singing to him.
Ron: So Brennan didn’t understand that they couldn’t do anything. We did. That created a little trauma in his heart that would last a really long time.
Ron: And I felt the last heartbeat.
You just go [Emotion in voice]: “What just happened?!”—like: “How did we get here? This is not right!”
Nan: I’ll never forget that night. Now, everybody was gone—it was just Ron, and I, and the boys. You know, Connor was just sweetly laying on that bed. They had done a beautiful job taking him off of everything. I just couldn’t leave—I was in there by myself with the nurses and the doctors—and they were doing this little memory kit of his—handprints, and footprints, and a lock of his hair. [Emotion in voice] I’m just looking at my 12-year-old, who’s laying there. I know they were trying to encourage me to leave, but I just didn’t know how to leave.
Ron came to the threshold of the door with the other two boys. I saw my husband / my other two children to the left, and I saw my son laying there to the right.
I just felt like I was going to split in two—I couldn’t choose. [Emotion in voice] I kissed him from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. Ron said, “Babe, it’s time to go.” I think they literally carried me to the hotel room that night. I watched my two boys kind of getting ahead of us. Brennan grabbed for Braden’s hand, and the middle was gone. I just saw this picture of, “This is how life is going to be.” I literally think that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, was leaving him there.
Bob: There are two passages of Scripture that have come to mind as you guys have been talking. The first one, Ron, goes back to what you were talking about: “This shouldn’t happen to good people.”
Bob: I think about Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, where He says He causes the sun to rise on the just and the unjust; the rain to fall on the good and the evil.
Our ways are not God’s ways. We can’t know the mind and the purposes of God in situations like this.
But that brings the other Scripture to mind, which is the one that says: “We grieve, but not as people without hope.” The grief is real; and I would think, not only real, but almost unbearable if there was not a hope attached to it. The hope has to be just as real as the grief.
Ron: Yes; it does. This is such a tangled web of emotions, from high to low, questions, doubts, anger, hurt, trust. It is the valley of the shadow of death.
Ron: It is a dark, dark road. The only way we’ve been able to sustain life and moving forward, I think, has come in the form of love and compassion from others that have walked the journey—that are further ahead of us. We can borrow from their hope. We’ve learned to pass that along to the other people that we—unfortunately or are blessed—I’m not sure how to say that—have been able to minister to since 2009, when our journey began. It is an ugly, ugly road; and it’s lonely, and it’s difficult.
Nan: And it’s your journey. People can stand on the wayside and hand you a cup of cold water—you can have people on the journey with you—but you inevitably have to do it yourself, and you have to figure out your own way.
It can be very exhausting and very isolating.
Dennis: Nan, as you were talking, I was reflecting back on my granddaughter, Molly, who died ten years ago. The valley of the shadow of death is real; and in those moments, a young couple like you—or maybe the listener knows someone, right now, who needs a burden bearer—no; you can’t take it off of them, but you can bear their burden with them.
You can just remind them of the truth that God is a God of love—not trite words—but frankly, in these moments, it’s best that less is said and more hugs are expressed; because a couple, like you, going through this—the ugliness of it—there really are no words except God’s words that matter.
Bob: And those hugs become cups of cold water that we are giving to people, who are parched as they walk down a path of grief. You’re right; that matters more than any words we can share.
Although, I know, Dennis, you have offered a book to a lot of people, who have been on a path of grief. It’s a book that God used in your life and in Barbara’s life when your granddaughter, Molly, died. It’s a book called A Grace Disguised, written by Jerry Sittser. It’s a book that we keep in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. If you know someone, who is going through a difficult season—who is facing loss—this is a book that will help them just process their own grief and to see God’s grace in the middle of it. We have copies of Jerry Sittser’s book, A Grace Disguised.
You can find it, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com—order it from us online if you’d like—or call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the website: FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get a copy of the book.
One of our goals, here, at FamilyLife, as we share stories like this—we want to, not only minister to those who are in a season of grief, but we want to encourage everyone, who’s listening, to be aware of the people around you, who are in difficult seasons; and to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those people. We want to equip you with books, like the one I just mentioned / with resources you can share with others. You know hurting people around you, and God wants to use you in their lives.
At FamilyLife, we want to be a part of that journey with you. We want to provide you with resources and help and hope that is both practical and biblical.
That’s our goal with this daily radio program—you may want to share the link for today’s program with somebody you know—or the resources we offer / the events we host. All that we do, here, at FamilyLife has this goal in mind—to effectively develop godly marriages and families. We want to partner with you as you seek to do that with your friends and family members.
We’re grateful for those of you who help extend the reach of this ministry. That’s what you do every time you make a donation to support the ongoing work of FamilyLife Today. Your donations help cover the cost of producing and syndicating this program, along with all that we do, here, at FamilyLife.
If you’re able to help with a donation today, we’d love to express our thanks by sending you a copy of Dennis Rainey’s new book, Choosing a Life That Matters. It’s our gift to you when you go online and make a donation to FamilyLife Today. Our website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to donate—1-800-FL-TODAY is the number.
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to continue to hear from Ron and Nan Deal about how they adjusted, as a family, to life without Connor present among them. 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 next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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