On a Sunday afternoon five days before Christmas, Mick Yoder was watching football at his home in South Carolina. The phone rang. A couple that he and his wife ate dinner with the night before invited them to go for an airplane ride. Mick's wife declined, preferring to stay home and wrap presents, but Mick took two of their four sons, Benji, 8, and T.R., 5.
After about an hour of flying it was time to return to the airport. For reasons that still aren't clear, the small airplane lost power during its final approach and crashed into the embankment just short of the pavement. Mick Yoder and T.R. were critically injured. Benji died within moments of impact.
This accident, which took place in 1981, thrust the Yoder family into a crisis unlike any they had known. Suddenly Helen had to cope with her husband and son being hospitalized for three weeks. She had to continue raising Luke, her 10-year-old, and David, her 2-year-old, even as she also cared for T.R. when he came home with both arms wrapped to his body and his jaw wired shut.
But the Yoders' greatest challenge was learning to live without their second son, who had delighted his reserved parents by acting like a ham in public. Losing Benji was the kind of tragedy every parent fears most.
"It's horrible," says Mick, a former pastor who now travels widely teaching at marriage conferences. "It's like somebody cuts you down the middle and rips your guts out."
While the Yoders' tragedy might have been unusually severe, few marriages survive for long without having to navigate the turbulent waters of a crisis. Sooner or later, challenges appear that threaten our most cherished relationships. The death of a loved one, a serious illness, a job loss, permanent disability, and other crises can stretch even the most loving relationship to the breaking point.
Tragedy strains a couple's sense of togetherness in many ways. One spouse may cope with grief by talking about the loss frequently, while the other may prefer to keep quiet. One may prefer to visit a loved one's grave often, while the other, unable to bear the pain, stays home. Sometimes one spouse becomes so overcome by grief that the other begins to wonder if he or she still matters.
Then there's anger. It almost always accompanies grief and can poison any relationship. Helen became intolerant of others. She would become irritated if one of her girlfriends complained about things such as having to buy groceries with a sick child in tow.
"Life was tough," Helen recalls. "I didn't have much patience for a few months."
Ways to Cope
Jim and Jeanne Caverly specialize in preserving marriages among parents of police officers killed in the line of duty. Their ministry, based in New York, has developed from their faith in God, their mutual interest in teaching, and Jim's experience as an FBI agent.
If tragedy darkens the door of your home, they recommend these eight tips to help you cope.
1. Commit to keeping your relationship intact.
Commitment is the foundation of relationship survival. It needs to be verbally expressed by both partners before and during a crisis. Each partner needs to know that the other wants the relationship to survive. Speak or write your commitment; don't rely on assumptions.
Mick and Helen demonstrated their commitment by attending a FamilyLife marriage conference a few months after the crash, while Mick was still on crutches.
"We refused to characterize our marriage as the problem," Mick says. "We knew the crash was part of the reality of life."
During times of complete frustration and overwhelming despair, try to do what needs to be done next. If you're hungry, eat. If you're tired, sleep. If there's a bill to be paid, pay it. Don't try to think ahead, just do the next thing. In time, you will feel better.
Helen plunged into serving her husband and remaining children. She washed laundry, cooked meals, bought groceries. "I had a family to take care of," she says, "so I took care of them."
She also took comfort from God's word, especially Jeremiah 29:11: "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'"
3. Respect each other's differences.
You and your partner may not handle the crisis the same way, physically or emotionally. You may have different reactions and different feelings. This doesn't mean that one is right and the other is wrong; it means you're different. It is vital to respect and accept your differences. Allow your partner to handle the crisis and heal in the way that is best for him or her.
"If one partner needs to take a whole bunch of people to the grave site, that's fine. The other partner can go completely alone and sit there and cry or not go at all," says Jeanne Caverly. "That's okay. Everybody does things differently."
4. Take a break.
During times of crisis, it's often helpful to find new activities to share. Doing something new together is a way of focusing your energy in a positive direction. It can also provide a temporary distraction from your emotional pain. When was the last time you went bowling?
The Yoders took a long vacation at Disney World during the first anniversary of Benji's death. That way they were spared some of the pain of reliving those fateful days just before Christmas. Since they were not at home, Mick and Helen had fewer reminders of their loss. This also freed the parents to focus attention upon the surviving children, something everyone enjoyed.
5. Schedule priority talk time.
If one partner wants to talk all the time about the person who died (or the job or health loss) and the other partner doesn't, compromise by setting aside priority talk time. This can be daily or weekly for fifteen to thirty minutes, or whatever meets your needs. During this time you both agree to share your thoughts and feelings about the crisis. If you schedule a time and stick to it, the talkative spouse knows he or she will be listened to while the more quiet spouse knows he or she only has to endure talking about the painful subject for the specified interval.
6. Avoid haggling about heavy issues in the bedroom.
Deep that a sacred place. Sex can be very difficult during these times. Use any other room in the house to talk about your loss or leave the house altogether, if that's what it takes to preserve the marriage bed as a place of harmony and unity.
7. Join a support group.
Walk with others who have been through a similar experience. Try to attend meetings together, but don't force your partner to go. The American Self-Help Clearinghouse will help you make contact with support groups in your community. Or start your own.
The Yoders never found a formal support group where they felt comfortable, but they didn't feel unsupported. For six months after the crash, they were visited every other weekend by friends, family, and staff members from Campus Crusade for Christ. Mick and Helen sat in the living room, telling the story again and again to different guests, and each time they did so, reality sank in a little deeper.
"You want to honor the child by not neglecting his memory, but every time you do, you cry," Mick Yoder says. "That was so therapeutic."
8. Keep a journal.
Writing can be one of the most helpful ways for navigating a crisis. When there's no one else to listen, no one with whom you feel comfortable enough to share your deepest thoughts, your journal is ready to safely and nonjudgmentally accept whatever you say. With pen in hand, search your soul and write it all down—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Here are two journaling questions to get you started: (1) Whom can I call and where can I go for strength, encouragement, and support? and (2) If my life is changing and I need to adjust to a new reality, how am I going to function from this point forward?
Today, two decades after Benji's death, Mick and Helen Yoder
are still married. Their fifth child, a daughter, was born sixteen months after Benji died. They named her Hope, because that's what her birth restored in her parents' hearts.
Mick and Helen will never forget Benji, the little boy with the sweet spirit who got along so well with adults. But they have learned to live without him.
"His death isn't the controlling force in our life any longer," Mick says. "We laugh now. We never thought we'd laugh again."
Does Tragedy End Marriage?
Parents who have lost a child often hear that there is a 75 percent chance that they will break up. Although cited frequently, people in the bereavement field have a hard time locating any solid research to substantiate the statistic.
Two professors at Montana State University, Mark Hardt and Dannette Carroll, carried out a survey, published in 1999 by Bereavement magazine, that asked parents who had lost a child if they had divorced subsequent to the child's death. Parents who had not divorced were also asked whether they had considered it. According to survey results, only 9 percent of respondents divorced following their child's death; 24 percent of the remaining respondents had considered divorce but not actually done so.
Rev. Paul Metzler, director of the Center for Living with Loss in Syracuse, New York, believes that we should stop telling grieving parents that they're at a higher risk of divorce. "Divorce in our society is a reality, but stories of even higher divorce rates among bereaved parents is a myth that must end. While it is beneficial for newly bereaved couples to understand the importance of communication and the fact that each family member will grieve differently, it is not beneficial to create an expectation that their marriage is doomed."
Don Harting is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. He works from his home near Syracuse, New York.
Center for Quality Relationships. Specializes in teaching couples how to provide support for their partner in times of crisis. Contact Jim or Jeanne Caverly by calling (518) 399 -1727, or visit www.qualityrelationships.com.
Emily's Foundation. Dedicated to preserving marriages among parents who have lost a child. Offers scholarships to marriage conferences sponsored by FamilyLife Ministries of Little Rock, Arkansas. Call David or Judy NuHavun at (315) 488 - 2693 or visit www.emilysfoundation.org.
The Compassionate Friends. A non-profit group aimed at supporting parents after the death of a child. Call toll-free (877) 969 - 0010 or visit www.compassionatefriends.org.
American Self-Help Clearinghouse. Maintains a searchable database aimed at helping Americans find or start support groups in their communities. Call (973) 625-3037 or visit www.mentalhelp.net/selfhelp/.
When Life is Changed Forever, by Rick Taylor (Harvest House). The author, who lost his 5-year-old son in a drowning accident, speaks of the raging of the soul in the aftermath of death.
Help Your Marriage Survive the Death of a Child, by Paul Rosenblatt (Temple University Press). This book is recommended by members of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. The author is a widely published professor of psychology.
When a Man Faces Grief: 12 Practical Ideas to Help You Heal from Loss, by Thomas Golden and James Miller (Willowgreen Publishing). This small book is a quick, simple read for the grieving man in your life.
After the Darkest Hour, by Elizabeth Mehren, with foreword by Rabbi Harold Kushner (Fireside). This inspiring guide to coping with the loss of a child combines the author's words with the experiences and wisdom of others who have gone through this tragedy.
An Exercise for Couples
Check off the statements which are true for you now. Check your progress in three to six months.
I try to keep my marriage alive: we _____________________.
I do not blame myself or my mate for what we were powerless to prevent.
I recognize my extreme sensitivity and vulnerability during the time of grieving/stress, and I am alert to the tendency to take things personally.
I remember grief has no timetable. Everyone goes through grief differently, even long-time partners.
I try to remember my spouse is doing the best he or she can.
I try to keep the lines of communication open.
I value my marriage. I have lost enough.
Adapted by Jeanne Caverly from Understanding, Coping, and Growing Through Grief (Hope for Bereaved, Inc.)
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.