Compassion in a Time of Need

by Dwayne E Smith, Ph.D.

I like good stories and I heard this one from a business person in my community recently. This individual is I presume in her forties, and comes from a large ethnic family from one of the urban areas in our state. She told me of what must have been one of the most difficult days for her family when she was growing up. It was the day that her mother told her father she wanted a divorce.

From what I understand, she grew up in a family like many large families—lots of needs but never quite enough money to go around. Life was quite the grind for both of her parents. Her mother got to a point in her life that she was simply unhappy. Life was hard, and was not getting easier, and she decided she was not all that happy with her husband and his role in the family. In golfing terms, she decided she needed a “Mulligan.” Thus, she made the decision that she wanted the marriage to end, and she met with an attorney, and arranged to have the Sheriff deliver the divorce papers to the home.

When the Sheriff arrived with the divorce papers that day, this action caught her father very much unaware. This is something that he simply was not expecting. When the Sheriff arrived, dad was in the bathroom shaving. He retrieved the papers at the front door, and returned to the bathroom. Mom was wanting dad to leave. Dad was very upset and was not coming out of the bathroom. The kids were crying. It was a very difficult and challenging moment in the life of the family...The next move came from Grandfather—mother's father.

In terms of background, the story that day actually began with my acquaintance talking about her grandfather. He lived near her family and they saw him frequently. He was an integral part of their family life—someone on whom they could always depend. There were nine children in her family. Each month, grandfather would take one of the nine grandchildren to the store and would purchase new shoes for that young person. Thus, each of the children would get a new pair of shoes each year. Sometimes, the young person would also get a shirt as well, or a pair of shorts—not insignificant items for someone from a large family with very little money. Grandfather was the Rock of Gibraltar for this family.

Grandfather must have received a call from someone in the family that trouble was brewing. Mother (his daughter) had surprised father (his son in law) by telling him things were done and she wanted him to leave. Father was very upset, was in the bathroom, and was not coming out. Grandfather soon arrived and did not take long to act. He said to his son in law through the bathroom door, “Come on, Gibby, now you come and stay with me.”

This man, who over the years had already done so much for the family, and who had no responsibility to care for the man his daughter was asking to leave, had compassion on his son in law, and told him that he was welcome in his home. He had another place where he could belong at this very difficult and vulnerable moment.

My friend said that in the end her father decided to stay elsewhere. He spent a few days at the local YMCA, and then went to the home of another family member. Mom was able to get the divorce she felt she needed. Dad understood that he had options. The family moved forward.

I was touched by this story, and later communicated further with this individual about this life experience, the impact it had on her family, and its impact on her. She said she didn't realize it at the time, but she believes it was this period of time when her essential character was truly developed—during what she described as a “rough time. “ She explained that eventually her father returned home, and her mother left. She was the middle child in the family and she and dad took over the household duties—cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, etc. She said she had to grow up fast, and learned from her father that you don't walk out when times get rough. You stick by your family and persevere.

As I heard the story, I was impressed by the act of kindness from her grandfather. What an act of compassion in a time of need. What insight into that which was most needed at this time of crisis. When an unsuspecting person learns from his/her spouse that the s/he is no longer loved, the marriage is over, and it is time to be done, this can be emotionally devastating. Though the spouse who has made such a decision to break up the marriage may not have an intention to cause emotional harm, moments such as these can put people in very dark places. Her grandfather in my view did an amazing thing that day. I can understand why she shared with me her story.

Having worked with people in psychotherapy and family therapy for the past 30 years I have learned to listen for stories of exceptions. When I speak of exceptions, I mean stories where people do creative or dramatic things in situations where creativity is very much needed but would not normally be expected. I think what her grandfather did on that day of family crisis was genuinely exceptional.

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**This article listed on 11/05/2015