Carole’s Story, Part 2: How my Son’s Death Opened the Door to Forgiveness and Healing in my Marriage

(You can read Carole’s story Part 1 here.)

“My story is ultimately about forgiveness—and it actually begins long before David’s death. David’s death cracked open so many doors for Jesus’ love, compassion and forgiveness to enter into my heart and life, but one of the hardest and most painful doors it opened had been shut tight for quite a few years. It was the door to my marriage. Before David died, I felt my marriage had died and there was no hope for resurrection. My heart was broken,” Carole pauses, her long, dark hair cascading across her slim shoulders.

“The pain behind the door to our marriage was deep, with many years behind it. John and I married when I was very young—four days before I turned 18 years old! We decided the first day of winter (December 21st) would be a good day to change my last name to Winter. If we’d waited a year, maybe I would have grown up, and our marriage might have been easier, but John called my Dad to ask if he could marry me and Dad said, ‘Yes!’ 

“From the beginning of our relationship John was the talker and I was the listener. I’d never talked much growing up. I’d be sitting in the middle of a conversation thinking of what I’d like to say and by the time I figured out the words, the conversation had moved on. When I did speak, I felt like my thoughts weren’t all that important or somehow inferior, so I began to wonder ‘Does it matter what I think?’ It’s funny because I talk all the time in my head, but no one hears it! So, growing up I didn’t talk much unless I was with my girlfriends. I had a lot of feelings stored inside but didn’t know how to express them or have the courage to look at people when they talked with me,” Carole looks up, her brown eyes meeting mine, a half-smile playing across her lips.

“John said one of the reasons he married me was that he saw something beautiful in me and wanted to draw it out. Even when we were dating, I really wanted to join in conversations with John, but I’d get physically ill at the thought of speaking. I was paralyzed by this fear that if anyone actually heard my thoughts and saw who I was, they wouldn’t like me and would reject me. Yet I had this terrible turmoil in me—I wanted to talk but just couldn’t!

“So early on in our marriage, in spite of John’s desire to draw me out, we struggled to communicate. I remember one time soon after we married, I failed at making a cream soup for a large group of people. I accidently scorched the milk and it was just terrible! Afterwards John sat with me and told me how much God loved me, that what others thought of me shouldn’t matter. I know he was trying to encourage me, but I felt hurt, missed. I think my heart needed comfort and encouragement rather than what felt like a sermon.

“Then there were times  I spoke using words that didn’t resonate with John, so he responded by repeating himself in different ways, perhaps thinking I didn’t understand what he was trying to say. But all his words felt oppressive to me, so I emotionally withdrew from the conversation. Over time we became stuck in a serious communication problem.          

So, in an effort to help us communicate and grow in our marriage, I began reading lots of marriage books and learned sex was a huge need for a man. I decided to pour my heart, mind, and whole self into trying to meet that need for John. One year I made a new year’s resolution for myself: make sex a priority by responding to him and initiating towards him. I didn’t tell him about my resolution, but I was very available. Towards the end of the year, I told John about my year-long resolution, wanting to hear his delight, but he responded, ‘Now I know you love me.’

“His words took all my joy away. I was hurt. I kept thinking . . .  ‘After all I do for you . . . . In both our everyday living and in the bedroom.!?’  His reaction made no sense to me. At the time I didn’t realize that words of admiration along with physical touch were important for him to feel loved. John showed his love for me through writing love notes, planning dates, and serving me by maintaining our home and vehicles. Both of us, in our own ways, were trying to show love, yet I realize now that we were missing a crucial element in our marriage—heart-to-heart communication.

“So, by the time David was two years old we had a lot of stressors in our life, and I knew our marriage was not going well. I’d been reading a lot of marriage books that talked about conflict being normal in a marriage, so if your marriage had no conflict, then something was wrong. We had no conflict—we just masked over everything! For John’s sake, I really wanted to speak, and I also had a goal for my life—when I was older I wanted to impart bits of wisdom to young women and married couples. John was very good at doing this with our kids—teaching them the Bible, giving them wise sayings to live by and mottos for our sons and daughters about what makes a woman beautiful. I knew I’d never be able to share wisdom if I didn’t start talking. So, one day I just started talking! John didn’t know what to do with me—I went from Silent Wife to Talking Wife!”

I lean forward across the table, not wanting to miss Carole’s soft-spoken words coming out as near-whispers.

“But even though we were both talking, we still didn’t understand one another, and I didn’t realize it, but over time my habit of not looking John in the eye and my struggle to engage his words made him feel disrespected. John is servant-hearted and good at fixing things, but my disrespect became this big boulder between us, and he no longer wanted to do the larger projects I felt were important. I had this rule for myself when it came to asking John to do things: “Once, twice, but never thrice” because I didn’t want to be a nagging wife. But when he stopped doing the things I asked him to do, I felt crushed, like my needs/wants weren’t important to him, so I became angry, demanding, and disrespectful, hiring my sons to do the tasks John wouldn’t do. If we’d just been able to communicate, we could have overcome so many boulders!

“In this very difficult, intense time God used one of my closest girlfriends to strengthen and hold me up. She was a safe place for me—praying constantly for me and with me for my marriage. Really, without her I don’t think I would have made it.

“When I look back on all John and I went through, it seems so small, but disrespect and poor communication destroy a marriage. Our marriage looked good on the outside, but on the inside we were hurt and struggling. Our deep hurts led to sinful patterns of coping including theft, lying, alcohol, backlashing, and betrayals of trust. My spirit was crushed. After 30 plus years of marriage I realized our relationship was not what I thought it was. I felt like a fool for not realizing how I’d hurt my husband. We had the goal of having the best marriage centered around 1 Corinthians 13, but we had not accomplished that goal, so I threw away every Christian marriage book we had in the house!

“As our boulder grew, we went to several counselors, but they didn’t help much. In the sessions I talked too much and John said little because he never wanted to say anything negative about me, so we didn’t make any progress in our communication. Then I started some counseling sessions on my own. These times were very helpful for me. I felt heard and affirmed in who I was. I gained self-assurance. The counselor really wanted to help me and be a listening ear, but over time I realized our conversation centered more on my grievances against my husband, and I knew this was not the right direction.

“So, just before David died, I felt desperate to get over this massive boulder in our marriage. I’d come to this point where I realized that in order to be free, I had to forgive John and let go of my anger and resentment. It was this Black Hole that had become a motivation for evil in my heart. I started thinking about God and His love and forgiveness for us, for me. He loves and forgives so much that He allowed His son to be killed for my sins. If God did this for me, I needed to do the same for John. I wanted out of that Black Hole of hurt and anger, but I was stuck.

“When David died, forgiving the driver came so easily for me. Afterwards I wondered why it was so easy for me to forgive the driver who killed my son, but so very difficult to forgive my husband. I thought perhaps because the driver was so repentant, so sorry, it made it easier to forgive him. Also, I knew I would never see the driver again, but I lived every day with John, and since we’d built up so many unresolved hurts, my heart struggled to forgive.

“After David died, John and I saw a counselor who helped us process grief over David’s death and our marriage. Each week we’d meet and process our grief together, and then I’d stay for another hour and talk with her about our marriage. I hurt so much because we’d had this dream of living according to I Corinthians 13, yet it all felt torn out from under my feet!” Carole pauses, remembering the pain of crushed dreams.

“Then the worst day ever happened to me. Behind John’s back I started my own email account. We had pledged to have a joint account for mutual accountability. I broke his trust and he was crushed.  I called and asked the counselor for an emergency session. I felt so bad. I felt like I was going to throw up and was this bawling mess. I confessed what I’d done to the counselor, and she drew this list that helped me see what was going on in my heart: Hurt—Anger—Resentment—Bitterness, in that order. She explained to me that when unresolved hurts turn to anger, they lead to resentment and then bitterness. I realized I’d had all these expectations of John and myself, these dreams of how our life and marriage should be, and when things didn’t go as planned, I had trouble letting go and resentment led to bitterness. I read Psalm 51 over and over and wept on my bathroom floor praying that God would cleanse my heart.

“Slowly, I’ve begun letting go of the anger and resentment I’d built up over the years. Clinging to Colossians 3:13 has helped me grow in compassion for my husband because it reminds me that we both need forgiveness and are to forgive each other as Christ first forgave us. I realize now that in my hurt and disappointment, I got so caught up in pointing out how John could change that I magnified his sins to the point where I couldn’t see my own! Then in my anguish, I spent far too much time focusing on my own hurt and pointed the finger at my husband thinking he was the one to blame. I didn’t examine my own thoughts and actions; instead, I’d sit in church listening to sermons thinking ‘John really needs to hear this!’  It’s easy to read the Bible and think about how it applies to others.  It’s really hard work to read the Bible and think and examine yourself. But I’ve learned that perfection is not possible, and God’s grace is greater than all our sins; it expands out more and more, and if God, in his grace and forgiveness moved towards me, how can I not move towards my husband? 

“As I grow in expressing myself, I’m also learning not just to speak, but how and when to speak. I’m learning to formulate more open-ended questions, inviting John to express his thoughts rather than demanding or accusing. I’m learning how to verbally affirm the good in him that stands out to me. It hasn’t been easy since I’m not good with words! At first I got out the thesaurus because I didn’t want to go around saying the same things over and over again! So, I’m learning to observe John, to point out the specific good I see in him.

“Another big thing I’m learning is simply to let John be John and let go of my own expectations of who he should be. In order for me to be truly free of bitterness and anger I’ve had to relinquish some ‘requirements’ I had of my husband. Letting go of those things has not been easy—it’s an ongoing process, kinda like peeling back onion layers—but I’m learning ways to love, appreciate and respect John for who he is. We are still in process, but are thankful for how God’s love, mercy and forgiveness is making us new. Isaiah 43:18-19 says, ‘Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold I am doing a new thing: now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’ Slowly the marriage I thought was dead, is being resurrected.

“We celebrated our 40th anniversary this year. John has this knack for getting half-dead flowers from Walmart and Aldi, then resurrecting them into blooms of beauty. I call him my plant rescuer, and our yard was beautiful this year—flowers everywhere! I dreamed of wearing this fancy dress I’d purchased for a vow renewal, but I’ve learned I need to let some things go, so I planned a fun 40th Anniversary party with games and pictures of all our kids and grandchildren—32 of us! I wore my pretty dress, took one of John’s favorite Hawaiian shirts out of his closet to match it, and our daughter-in-law took the prettiest pictures of the two of us in our yard. I am thankful for how Jesus’ grace keeps expanding in our marriage, giving it new life.”

But God, rich in mercy, loved us so much that even when we were dead, he gave us life.

 (Eph. 2:4)

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