The Caverlys Ride to Rescue of Relationships

BALLSTON LAKE, N.Y.—Jim Caverly helps the grieving fathers of slain police officers keep from killing themselves in anger.

Jeanne Caverly reassures the bereaved mothers they're not going crazy when they find themselves screaming, cursing God and pounding their fists.

Together, Jim and Jeanne are embarked on an unusual ministry: preserving marriages among the parents of police officers killed in the line of duty. It's a ministry they've developed thanks to their Catholic faith, their mutual interest in teaching and Jim's decades of experience as an FBI agent.

Approximately 150 law enforcement officers die in the line of duty each year, according to Concerns of Police Survivors, or COPS, a national nonprofit agency. Parents of slain children run a high risk of divorcing. A marriage that was fragile before can be shattered after a child's death, especially if the death occurs amid the violent circumstances associated with police work.

But rescuing marriages at risk comes naturally to the husband and wife team from Ballston Lake, N.Y. And the Caverlys' services are in demand around the country.

“They're wonderful people,” said Suzie Sawyer, executive director of COPS in Camdenton, Mo. “They do good things for police survivors.”

For example, Jim met the Rev. Ray Payne in Washington, D.C., about 10 years ago during the annual observance of National Police Week. Payne's only son, David, had just been honored after being killed in the line of duty. Payne, a Protestant pastor, took the death very hard. Payne found himself questioning the existence of the God. He became suicidal, tempted to let his car run off the road at the next curve along the interstate.

Soon after they met, Jim found himself responsible for organizing an FBI-led training session for law enforcement personnel in Burlington, Vt. The goal was to teach officers how to manage stress following a “critical incident” like a bombing or shooting. Caverly invited Payne, who lives nearby in Schroon Lake, N.Y., to appear as a special guest. Payne's job was to provide the perspective of a man who'd lost his son to police work.

Payne jumped at the chance. The opportunity to tell the story of his son's sacrifice in front of an appreciative audience proved deeply therapeutic. “To see all those police officers there,” Payne said, “to see the way they received it, was just mind-boggling.”

Jim's prior service with the FBI gives him special credibility with grieving men. He can persuade even the toughest tough guy that crying is OK, even if it's only in the shower.

“He comes highly recommended,” Sawyer said. “He's very highly respected.”

Jeanne is a big asset, too. Last September Sawyer rented two houseboats for a cruise along the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. Guests of honor were women who had lost husbands and sons. Ostensibly the goal of the cruise was to let the women relax by sunbathing, fishing and splashing down the slide attached to the boats. But Sawyer's real agenda was to give her guests a safe place to grieve.

Sawyer asked Jeanne to come along because she'd seen her fit in so well among grieving women in the past. Sure enough, when one of the women began screaming profanities and slamming her fist on a table, Jeanne behaved as if she witnessed that type of behavior every day.

“She was just one of the group,” Sawyer said. “She's very accepting.”

Jim and Jeanne know what they do isn't easy. “Anybody who loses a child is in dire straits as far as making it through their marriage,” said Jeanne.

“Especially if it's a traumatic death, sudden, unexpected or unfair,” added Jim.

Taking It Out on a Spouse

Often the parents' grief spills over and poisons their marriage, threatening to compound the loss. When an officer has been killed by a criminal, parents are so angry, it's common for hostility to be directed against the nearest living thing, which unfortunately may be an innocent spouse. If one partner chooses to visit the grave and the other doesn't, it's easy for one to accuse the other of not caring. Sooner or later, one member of the couple may decide it's time to feel better. If the other isn't ready, this can add more emotional distance between spouses.

So the Caverlys respond with a kind of emotional first aid Jim learned how to use in the FBI. The treatment is easy to remember because it contains three rhyming steps: ventilate, validate and educate. First the Caverlys allow the grieving person to let their feelings out. That's the ventilate part. Next they reassure the griever that this response is normal for people who have suffered such a loss. That's called validating. Lastly they teach the grieving person what kinds of emotional responses to expect from themselves in the future. People educated in this way feel comforted and fortified.

For the Caverlys, to be serving God by teaching together should come as no surprise, since both hold master's degrees in education from East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania. Both devoted much of their early careers to teaching.

Jim, 56, specialized in stress management toward the end of his 33-year career in law enforcement. His trainees included relatives of passengers killed aboard TWA Flight 800 and survivors of bombings in Oklahoma City and the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Jeanne, 52, fit her educational work around making a home and raising three children. She taught short-term courses in substance abuse prevention, marriage enrichment and stress management. She has also substituted frequently for sick teachers in local grade schools. When her children were young she taught religious education at Our Lady of Grace in Ballston Lake.

To keep up with research in their field, the Caverlys belong to the Coalition on Marriage, Family and Couples Education. The coalition sponsors an annual conference in Washington, which the Caverlys attended two out of the last three years.

During last July's conference at the posh Crystal Gateway Marriott, which they attended, experts from around the world were presenting the results of their research. Some of the research made headlines in USA Today, The Washington Post and other national news media.

Jeanne Caverly even had a role to play during one of the breakout sessions. She was asked to serve as moderator of a panel discussion entitled “Marriage Education and the Internet.” Jeanne had the good fortune to appear alongside big names in the marriage therapy industry including Michele Weiner-Davis, author of the book Divorce Busting, and Shirley Glass, host of a chat room on America Online.

Jim was free to listen to speakers, wander among workshops and browse exhibit booths.

“I get excited about taking back from this conference useful information that will be valuable to other people,” he said.

Web Site Savvy

When they're not traveling, Jim and Jeanne are running the business Jeanne started in their home two years ago. They publish a Web site dedicated to helping people achieve quality relationships at work and at home. They also use the Web site to sell Jeanne's new book, Notes and Quotes to Love By, and publish Two-Part Harmony, her monthly newsletter for couples.

Jim and Jeanne were not always bubbling over with love and compassion for the human race. In fact, there was a time not so long ago when they could hardly stand each other.

They met on a blind date and were married in 1972. Nineteen years later, their relationship hit rock bottom. They both looked at each other and asked, “Is this all there is?” Jeanne describes herself then as “miserable.” Jim recalls sleepless nights fighting back intrusive thoughts about what life would be like after they divorced.

Determined to save their marriage, they reached out to a Catholic program called Retrouvaille. The program began in Canada and takes its name from the French for “found again.” The format is similar to the Marriage Encounter weekend familiar to many Catholics, but more intense.

Encouraged, the Caverlys undertook a major marital overhaul, devouring self-help books and articles, then discussing their new insights. Jeanne volunteered to coordinate Retrouvaille locally for five years. “Retrouvaille was a springboard for a lot of things that made Jeannie and I better as a couple,” Jim said.

By working to preserve marriages, the Caverlys are a small part of a much larger effort. The need for action became clear in July when the Washington Post reported the findings of a Rutgers University study released during the conference. The study revealed that the U.S. marriage rate has declined 43% since 1960 and is now at an all-time low. The study also showed that young women are increasingly pessimistic about their chances for success at achieving a happy married life, so they are trying alternatives like unwed motherhood and single parenting. Not surprisingly, the study also revealed an 800% increase since 1970 in the number of cohabiting couples with children.

Pro-Marriage Forces

These changes have caused promarriage forces to shift into high gear. State lawmakers are passing a growing number of laws aimed at revitalizing marriage. Oklahoma, Florida and Minnesota are offering discount marriage licenses for couples who take a premarital training course. Louisiana and Arizona have passed “covenant marriage” laws in which couples hold themselves to stricter vows. Similar bills have been introduced in 23 other states in the last three years.

In September 1998, the governor and first lady of Utah announced that state's first commission on marriage. The nine-member panel brings together a pastor, a social worker, a journalist, a counselor, several educators and a judge. Together they represent at least three religious traditions: Roman Catholics, United Methodists and the Mormons.

In January, the governor of Oklahoma announced he wants to lower that state's divorce rate by onethird by 2010. In March, the governor and his wife invited 200 leading citizens to attend the first-ever “marriage summit” at the governor's mansion, brainstorming ways to cut the rate, second-highest in the nation.

With all the action taking place nationally, it's no overstatement to call the Caverlys front-line troops in the campaign to preserve marriage in America. They're like the cavalry of old who rode to the rescue when the fighting reached a fever pitch.

Only they ride a motorcycle, not a horse. When Jim retired from the FBI this year they splurged on a new BMW touring machine.

Now they plan to spend even more time crisscrossing the country, showing up wherever they're needed. Where a marriage is collapsing, good advice could be: Send in the Caverlys.

Don Harting writes from Liverpool, New York.