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Five Tips to Help Your Marriage Survive Catastrophic Loss

Five Tips to Help Your Marriage Survive Catastrophic Loss by Gary Thomas, author of Sacred MarriageBy Gary Thomas

Loss brings heartache. Catastrophic loss brings catastrophic heartache.

Unfortunately, some marriages are buried alive by the avalanche of grief, and they never recover. Joe and Janell found a way to push forward in the face of the worst kind of loss.

If you talk with Joe on Zoom, his head is framed by a giant baseball jersey with the number 17. That was the number Joe’s son, Garrett, wore as a celebrated high school catcher. Garrett was Joe and Janell’s only child, a gifted boy with a promising future.

Everything changed on November 4, 2012, when Joe and Janell got the worst knock on their door you could ever imagine.

Garrett, their only child, was dead.

For the next year, Joe and Janell had to work hard to keep pursuing honesty, to process their grief, and to learn how to stay together. Here are some tips they learned along the way.

Understand You’re Both Grieving in Different Ways

A catastrophic loss changes you, but it changes you differently than it changes your spouse. Your spouse is going through a similar, but in another sense completely different, transformation. A mother’s grief and a father’s grief are both just as deep, but they are different.

Joe sought refuge in an incredibly challenging vocational task. He couldn’t afford to stop and think. Janell had her worship music and friends to help her process her grief. Hers was definitely a healthier approach in the long term, but what really helped Janell was finally realizing why Joe was hesitant to come home to her. When he explained that her face reminded him of the son he had lost and that it was difficult to reconcile past loss and current devotion, Janell reached a new level of empathy and understanding.

Accept the Fact That Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds

When you face a catastrophic loss, you’re not just experiencing grief; you’re experiencing trauma. And medically speaking, trauma takes a long time (and usually professional counseling) to heal from.

Janell cautions couples, “When you lose a child, the pain does not go away. Time does not heal. What happens is you become stronger and you learn how to live with the hole and live with the pain and hopefully develop the emotional strength to help others. But even years later, there will be times of overwhelming grief when you just need to cry.”

Professional licensed counseling can provide tools to process your hurt and help you develop inner strength, as well as offer strategies to face anxiety, depression, manic episodes, or panic attacks when they hit.

Fight Bitterness with Gratitude

An early church father named Ambrose lost a beloved brother who was his closest earthly companion. In his reflections on his brother’s death, he said something particularly memorable: “To this must be added that I cannot be ungrateful to God; for I must rather rejoice that I had such a brother than grieve that I had lost a brother, for the former is a gift, the latter a debt to be paid.”

Joe and Janell celebrate the two wonderful decades that Garrett had with them. He had influenced many young people. He was a son to be proud of. They had enjoyed many wonderful times together, watching him play ball and spiritually encourage younger boys. They are as grateful for what they had as they are sad for what they’ve lost.

Maintain Your Faith

Joe and Janell couldn’t make the grief go away, but they could allow God’s Word to come in and speak God’s message to them. As the psalmist promises, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105).

Joe explains: “We have sought to live out our faith in the full expression of all that it means: singing and dancing, teaching classes, being a deacon, being a choir mom, cooking hamburgers for outreach events—whatever the church needs.

“In the end, there was no question of where our strength came from. Because of all those years from when I became a Christian at seven and Janell gave her heart to Jesus at thirteen, everything that God had poured into us came into fruition and strengthened us. We don’t know what new challenges we’ll face in the future, but we want to keep growing in the Lord and growing our marriage to face them.”

Take Hold of the Hope of Heaven

This is the part of Joe and Janell’s story that inspired me so much. They have a profound theological understanding of the hope of heaven and have applied it to their loss. “God didn’t just take Garrett from us,” Janell told me with deep conviction. “He called Garrett to something. It is God’s will that Garrett is in heaven this day. I believe that Garret is fulfilling his heavenly calling in a glorious way.”

I teared up thinking about this application of faith. The real promise of heaven—to be “away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8)—holds Joe and Janell up so strongly that, in one sense, they can see even the benefits of Garrett’s death.

For couples still striving to make the choice of giving in or persevering, Janell counsels, “Your grief will bring you into the fog, but the Holy Spirit is present in that fog. Keep your mind and ears open. I heard songs and Bible verses I needed to hear. Some days it was like I was bombarded with holy missives of help. Just keep your ears and eyes open, and God will bring you what you need. If a couple will just lean into the fog, they’ll find that the Holy Spirit is present in the fog.”


Making Your Marriage a FortressAdapted from Making Your Marriage a Fortress: Strengthening Your Marriage to Withstand Life’s Storms by Gary Thomas. Click here to learn more about this book.

The wisdom and insight every couple needs to keep your marriage together when the trials of life threaten to rip it apart and how you can fortify your marriage ahead of time.

Every marriage will face disaster. Illness or cancer. Job loss or financial burdens. Addiction. Anxiety. Infidelity. Loss of faith. It’s not a question of if your marriage will face trials. It’s a question of when.

Whether you’ve been married for five years or fifty, your marriage will either become part of the problem or part of the solution, and it’s within your power to ensure your marriage is prepared for those seasons, is a place of refuge and safety throughout those seasons, and can recover well after those seasons.

In Making Your Marriage a Fortress, Gary Thomas, bestselling author of Sacred Marriage, guides you and your spouse in building a marriage that can withstand any storm or difficult season. In these pages, you will …

  • Discover helpful and practical principles to protect your marriage from any struggle
  • Learn to detect the warning signs of trouble and how to act on them
  • Understand how the state of your marriage is magnified during a crisis and how to improve it
  • Be encouraged through stories from Gary’s marriage, as well as others, that you and your spouse are not alone
  • Gain spiritual insight about God’s view of marriage and how to live it out in all circumstances—for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, till death do you part

Every marriage will face setbacks and seasons of disappointment, but this book will help you keep your marriage strong before and after a setback happens.

Gary Thomas’s writing and speaking draw people closer to Christ and closer to others. He is the author of twenty books that together have sold more than two million copies and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. These books include Sacred Marriage, Cherish, Married Sex, and the Gold Medallion-award winning Authentic Faith.

Gary holds a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Western Washington University, a master’s degree in systematic theology from Regent College (Vancouver, BC), and an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Western Seminary (Portland, OR). He serves as a teaching pastor at Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.

Nine Interpersonal Traits of Unsafe People, adapted from Safe People by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John TownsendLooking for More?

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