It's been 10 years since Ron and Nan Deal unexpectedly said goodbye to their middle son, Connor.
"You never expect to outlive your children," says Ron Deal. "We actually joked about the fact that Connor, who was 12 at the time, was the healthiest of our three boys. The other two could come down with the flu, and Connor kept on trucking. One day, he got a headache. We gave him ibuprofen and sent him to bed early. Ten days later he was gone."
The Deals have no idea how Connor contracted MRSA, an infection that is very difficult to treat.
"I love talking about Connor and, at the same time, I hate talking about him because it is so incredibly painful," Deal says. "I now talk about life before Connor died and life after Connor left us, and I long for the innocence of before. I am keenly aware now that life can turn on a dime and you will never be the same."
When talking about the grieving process, Deal shares that early on, it felt as if they were buried up to their necks in mud.
"You can't walk and can't move," Deal says. "In the beginning, I think my wife and I grieved similarly, but as time moved on, we have grieved differently, which has meant we have to pay really close attention. After Connor's death, I went for years literally not able to experience joy of any kind. My wife didn't smile or laugh for a year. The grief just consumes you, and you feel like a shell of a person.
"My sister saved us," Deal says. "We really went numb for a couple of years. She would show up once a month for an entire year just to be with us. The kids were thrilled because she would cook for them.
"Once we got to the three-year, five-year marks, I found that I could compartmentalize my grief to some degree, but then out of nowhere a song or a smell would take me right back to that place," Deal shares. "Nan has carried it with her 24/7 like a parka you never take off."
The Deals learned they had to be intentional about talking and engaging with each other. Through the grieving process, Deal says they learned many other lessons, too.
"'Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss' is a must-read for anyone entering into a hard space with someone who is grieving. If you haven't walked this road, just show up. Step into the living room, and be present. You can't fix it."
When you lose somebody, studies show that about a third of people in your life are helpful. Deal learned it was his job to seek out the therapeutic third and hang around them.
He found that sometimes even extended family members weren't part of their third when their grief was big. During the early years, the Deals were never at home for the holidays or on Connor's birthday, but they made it a point to go be with safe people or get involved with an activity where the day passes quickly.
Deal maintains that in any loss in our lives, we need to find an expression of that loss equal to the magnitude of the loss. You have to find some radical way of blessing other people.
"Give expression to your grief and sadness, especially those you share it with," encourages Deal. "You will be tempted to isolate yourself. Don't do that. You have to get outside yourself.
"Through a crazy series of events, we ended up going to Ghana, West Africa, working with a ministry that rescues trafficked children," Deal says. "They raise and educate them. We decided to build an art center in Connor's name that provides therapeutic, emotional and psychological support for them in the healing process. We get to go once a year and be with the children. Connor would love it! He was artsy and musical. There is a lot there that is him. My grief is alive when I am there. I can't get Connor back, but I can bless others. These are children who have been sold into slavery. To be a small part of rescuing them and helping them heal is such a joy.
"Serving others is not denying your own sadness; if anything, it's saying I know what I am going through, and I need to do something with this energy. You do that with tears, and you do that with action.
"We had a counselor to help guide us through this," Deal says. "The seasons change, and with it comes a new little hurdle. It's helpful to have a professional to walk with you over the course of time.
"The grieving process is not a sprint or even a half-marathon. It's a full-on marathon, and you have to stay after it. There are lots of ripples from the grieving. Some are beautiful, and some are painful. It is a long road. Over the last 10 years we have seen beauty out of the ashes, but it doesn't get rid of the ashes."
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at email@example.com.