FEB 2022 - Unexpected Compassion
My husband, son, and I lived in the same community as his ex-wife and two daughters. Since the girls’ mother and I were friends, the girls freely walked to our house whenever they felt like it. My son teased them, as boys do; they shrieked and retaliated, as girls do. Although there was often tension between the girls and their father, when he wasn’t around, the girls, my son, and I had lots of fun—sort of like when the cat’s away the mice will play.
The call came midday, without warning, from a neighbor. My husband’s ex-wife was having a psychotic break, would I come get her daughters right away. This wasn’t her first episode, but it was the first the girls had witnessed in its entirety. When I arrived, instead of our usual hugs and chatter, they stood, waiting for me--two white-faced frightened children—tightly clutching each other’s hands. I hugged their stiff bodies, reassuring them as best I could that their mother would be okay. She had had previous episodes and recovered, but in the meantime, they’d be staying with me and their father.
Dinner that night was difficult. Despite my making the girls’ their favorite foods, neither of them could eat. My son was 11, the girls were 12 and 13. In the past, the four of us had had talks about growing up that interested the girls but bored my son, who, when he could, left the room. Now, despite my urging them to talk, they remained silent, pushing food around their plates, filled with misery, their mother’s threats and screams still resonating. Their father seemed at a loss as to how to help his daughters.
Then, my son who wasn’t known for his compassion or sympathy or talking about his feelings, spoke to the girls in a tender voice I’d never heard. “I think you need to talk about what happened with your mother. I know she said terrible things and scared you but if you don’t talk about them you’ll only feel worse.”
The girls continued to push food around their plates. My son kept talking to them, gently, trying to comfort them. “I know what you saw was horrible but if you don’t talk about it, it will stay inside you. You need to talk about what happened. Who better than us?” He kept looking at them with such concern I felt teary-eyed. I’d never seen him so caring.
After more urging, the older of the two began to talk, her voice barely above a whisper, frequently stopping to look at her sister, encouraged by my son. “She said she wanted to kill us. To save us from the danger. She kept yelling and screaming and threatening. We didn’t know what to do so we ran outside. The neighbors heard her. Someone called 911. We saw the ambulance people carrying mother out. She was strapped to a board, but she was struggling and shrieking until they gave her a shot.” In a comforting voice, my son kept telling the girls they needed to talk about how they were feeling. I was filled with love and astonishment and gratitude. His surprising kindness was making it possible for the girls to begin to let go of the worst of the day’s horror.
When they stopped talking, their father looked as if he were about to speak. I didn’t trust him to say anything helpful so I asked him and my son to clear the table. For once they didn’t object. When the girls stood up, I hugged them. Although they were initially rigid and unresponsive, I kept hugging them until the tears came, followed by loud sobs and desperate hugs. That night, I tucked them into bed and sat with them until they fell asleep.
Their mother did recover. The horrific memories lessened in intensity. The girls and I continued to talk.
How do you release feelings after being in a nightmarish situation?
2/3/2022 04:26:45 pm
Nancy, what a poignant and heartbreaking story. But again, I am struck by your silent strength, your ability to create a safe boundary and your patience, and quiet listening. Those two young girls were so incredibly lucky to have you in their lives at this very pivotal moment. It could have ended so very badly. Even with all the pain and anguish you have suffered with your own mother, you remained unjudgmental of their mother and kept the situation from escalating and from causing more hurt on both sides. It really is such a profound moment in the lives of everyone involved. And I loved how your son rose to the occasion and really helped his sisters in the most loving and grown-up way. Truly remarkable.
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