The phone rang in the middle of the night. Carol Kent rolled over as her husband, Gene, reached for the receiver. She glanced at the clock on her bedside table: 12:35 a.m.
Who would be calling in the middle of the night? Carol wondered. By Gene's tone she knew it wasn't good news.
Gene turned toward Carol and choked out, "J.P. has been arrested for first-degree murder."
Not J.P. she thought as nausea swept over her.
After all, their only child, J.P., was a strong Christian and family man. He was a respected Navy officer.
But his wife, April, was on the phone confirming their worst nightmare.
The victim, Douglas Miller Jr., April's ex-husband, had multiple allegations of abuse against him involving his wife and two young daughters. He'd petitioned the court for unsupervised visitation rights with his girls. When it appeared the court would approve the request, J.P. had become outraged, telling his wife he didn't know how to protect the girls.
J.P. and April took paperwork on the abuse issues to an attorney, and were told on a scale of 1 to 10, they had about an "8" in provable abuse, which might not be enough to keep supervised visits intact. J.P. began to unravel with obsessive fear, and on October 24, 1999, while witnesses looked on, he stood in the parking lot of Sweet Tomatoes restaurant and shot Douglas four times, killing him.
Truth and consequences
For the remainder of that first dark night and for years after, the Kents's marriage was stretched and tested as they tried to come to grips with the new reality of their life. They endured two and a half years and seven postponements before the trial took place. In the end J.P. was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Gene and Carol went into a tail spin. They were devastated not only for themselves, but for the family of the deceased.
They'd always believed they had a strong marriage, a normal marriage. "We'd bicker like other couples over regular issues, such as my running late and Gene early," Carol says. "It's always been a give-and-take marriage—a strong love relationship built on a lot of years. But the stress of this crisis caused us to lose our tempers with each other, to become angry at God, to weep uncontrollably any time and any place, and to grieve the loss of ever seeing our child walk in freedom again."
"We'd just look at each other and cry," says Gene. "That was the first connection we realized we had as a committed couple. We knew when we were in pain. We allowed ourselves to cry. We'd hold each other until we could get through that emotion."
Somewhere deep within them, they recognized that if their marriage was going to survive, they needed to lean into each other. They'd connect eyes across a room and instantly know the other was experiencing a painful moment. Or they'd hear one of J.P.'s favorite songs on the radio and would reach for each other for comfort.
"We were fortunate to have each other," says Gene. "Many couples never make it through this type of tragedy. Couples tend either to break apart or stick together like glue. We're both strong-willed people. Yet through this, neither of us was strong. We were both in such horrendous pain, and in a way, that strengthened our marriage."
But dreams of a future for their family also took a harsh blow.
"It's devastating to lose the dreams you have for your children," admits Carol. "Even though they're dreams as a parent, they still affect your marriage. I went through an extreme time of guilt. I blamed myself, thinking I must have done something wrong as a parent or this wouldn't have happened. I was consumed with thinking, If I were a more perfect wife and mother and Christian, God would have protected my family. And there were moments when the Enemy would tempt Gene into thinking he did something wrong as a father. But those are all lies. By God's grace, we caught ourselves before we started to believe them. Many couples don't, and they blame themselves and each other."
As the days passed into months and years, the pain didn't lessen for Gene and Carol. "It kept feeling as if nothing was going our way," says Carol. "We couldn't get a break." The stress kept building, from visiting their son in jail and hearing about him being beaten and having his two front teeth broken off, to seeing the pain their daughter-in-law was experiencing as she struggled to grieve and be a single parent, to having producers from NBC's Dateline and Court TV contacting them for tell-all interviews.
They became more easily agitated over little things, such as Carol forgetting to unplug her curling iron or leaving her makeup all over the bathroom counter.
Sometimes Gene would walk into Carol's office and complain that there was too much paperwork piled instead of filed.
"I'd sometimes respond with the silent treatment," says Carol, "retreating into my wounded soul. At other times I'd explode into a tirade, telling him he could stay in his own perfectly organized space in any other room in the house and leave me alone!"
"We'd get snippy with each other," Carol says, "but then Gene would put up his hands and say, 'Wait a minute. Who's the real enemy here? Why are we acting as though you and I are the enemies?'"
"That was how we'd get through conflicts," says Gene, "by putting everything in perspective and reminding each other, 'This is a big nothing, isn't it?' We began practicing instant forgiveness, because whatever was upsetting us was ridiculous compared to the big thing we were facing. It wasn't worth wasting energy over the small stuff."
The defining moment
In every marriage that faces tragedy, there's a defining moment when a couple knows if the hardship is going to destroy their marriage, or force them to realize they need each other more than they ever have. For too many couples, that moment ends their relationship. But if it goes the other way, the couple begins forgiving and loving each other on an ongoing basis, and faster than they normally would. It redefines a couple's commitment to each other.
For Gene and Carol that defining moment came about a month after J.P. had been arrested. Because they're self-employed, they needed to continue working. So as scheduled, they went to an overseas ministry conference. They were both exhausted from stress and little sleep and carrying a burden that no one knew about. "All those weeks, although we'd touch each other for comfort, we'd stopped making love," says Gene. "We'd emotionally fall apart even if we were tender with each other, so the thought of being physically intimate was too overbearing."
But one night during the conference, Carol and Gene returned to their hotel room, exhausted, and went to bed. Gene laid for a few moments and suddenly felt an overwhelming desire to be close to Carol.
"I needed my wife," Gene says. "I needed the comfort that comes through making love—that intimate connection that heals and goes beyond anything we can explain or understand. Yet there was also this intense guilt that we were thinking of enjoying the pleasure of sexual intimacy when we knew our son would never have that opportunity again with his wife."
Gene didn't know what to do. But eventually, tentatively, he reached over and touched Carol's arm.
"We didn't say anything for several moments," says Gene, "I knew this was it for us—this was our defining moment."
"I was in such pain," says Carol. "But I knew my husband needed me and I needed him. I was still his wife. That didn't change. And so slowly I moved over to him."
Moving on at different speeds
After they made love, Carol and Gene held each other and cried. "We knew we'd be okay, even if our son wouldn't be," says Carol. "Somehow, through that experience, we realized that life is still going to go on. And somehow we're going to cope with all that's happening. Because if you don't continue to live and breathe, you die—both individually and as a couple."
That night they knew life would go on—but it would never be the same. Now they had to learn to survive.
"The trauma of what happened consumed us, and we were obsessed with it—that's all we could think about," says Gene.
"But," says Carol, "a friend comforted us by saying, 'That's how really traumatic things are—you think about it 24 hours a day; you just can't get your mind off it. But then God will do something with your mind, and you won't anymore. Not that you won't think about it; you just won't think about it every minute.' And he did do that for us. We found it was important to allow each other to get to that point. Spouses will both arrive there at different times, so we knew we needed to give each other grace."
Offering and receiving comfort became a constant in their relationship. "One of the things that most helped me," says Carol, "is that when I couldn't express what I was feeling, I could receive a touch from Gene. There would be times when he'd put his hand on my arm or I'd put my toe on his leg under a table, even in the middle of a meeting. He has this gentle way of putting his hand behind my neck that says, I know what you're feeling and I know if I ask you about it, you're going to cry or we're going to yell, but I know."
"Gene and I learned not to expect too much of ourselves," says Carol. "We knew that healing is a process that can take years. But we relied heavily on prayer." Carol would often pray, "God, for the next minute I relinquish my control of these circumstances. And if I can make it through the next minute, maybe I can make it for five. And one day I might make it for an hour, and by some miracle I might make it through a day."
"Slowly we began to realize that God didn't do this, but God can use it for good," says Carol. "Even in our marriage."
Several years after J.P. had been in prison, Carol and Gene were to take a trip to Canada for Carol to speak at a women's conference. Carol knew this was going to be a difficult trip for them, because Gene and J.P. had often hiked that area of Canada. She noticed for several days before the trip, Gene was highly irritable and withdrawn. His dark mood continued until finally they were on the airplane.
"Have I done something to tick you off?" Carol asked him. "You're never this quiet, and I feel like there's a brick wall between us."
"No, it's not you," Gene replied. "Haven't you learned by now that there are times when I need to grieve too?"
Instead of feeling criticized, Carol felt sad for her husband and the loss he was experiencing.
They had to make a conscious choice to be committed to making their marriage work, no matter what the circumstances. That meant they'd have to remember that their grieving and anger might be at different stages, and that would be okay.
"When I was angry with God, Carol was leaning heavily on God and could be strong for the both of us," Gene recalls. "And when she struggled with grief, I was strong. Anger and grieving are seasons; they'll pop up from time to time. Now when one shows up, we aren't surprised or thrown by it."
"We try to respect where we are in the process. But we're committed to working through it together. One night Gene was reading from 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (the Message translation): 'So we're not giving up …' That became our theme. Outwardly things may be falling apart and wasting away, but inside we're being renewed day by day."
They also discovered the importance of laughter.
As much as Gene and Carol cried together, they knew they needed to balance it with joy, which became a healing balm.
"We'd find ourselves laughing out loud at some silly little thing," says Gene, "and suddenly we'd think, Wow, I'm relaxed. It became important for us to connect with friends who intentionally put humor into our lives."
A new normal
In 2005, Gene and Carol moved from Michigan to Florida to be closer to their son, who is in Hardee Correctional Institution. Although that helped them feel a bit more in control again, they still felt a long way from being completely healed.
What finally really helped them? When they began to tell their story.
"When couples get to the point that they can talk to others about their real issues, they're empowered in a remarkable way because other people see that authenticity and they find hope too. It gets us out of our pain to be able to minister to others."
"We could never do that if we didn't bond to each other through this process," says Gene.
Carol reaches over to touch Gene's hand and they look at each other for a moment. Then Carol dabs at her eyes with a tissue.
"When we choose to move beyond the embarrassment and shame and guilt, and become honest and vulnerable with each other and with other people about what we're going through in our marriage and the crises we face, that becomes a huge step toward healing," says Carol. "And it leads us to realize that what has happened to us as a couple is a platform we can build on to start offering hope and healing to others."
"Don't get us wrong. This path we're traveling is like a cup of sorrow," Gene says. "And yet, it's also a cup of joy. It's a bizarre upside-down nature of the cross thing that happens. What others meant for evil, God can use for good."
One of the ways they've begun to use their situation for good is to share their story through Carol's books and speaking engagements. A Women of Faith guest speaker, Carol has spoken internationally and has written two books—When I Lay My Isaac Down and A New Kind of Normal—that deal specifically with their story and the hope for healing in the midst of deep pain.
Gene and Carol also founded Speak Up for Hope, a nonprofit organization to help support prison ministries.
"We still hold out for miracles," says Carol. "We still hope that one day we'll wake up to find the lives we used to know. But most of all, we cling tightly to each other, understanding that we have a new kind of normal for our marriage. And we're going to be okay."
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.