Compassion for Difficult Family Members?


Last night my mom left a voicemail to call her back. Assuming that a voicemail like that was bad news, I called back pretty immediately. And she proceeded to say:

“Your Uncle Matt is currently in the hospital. He lost his voice last week, and they went in for a checkup and turns out he has a really large tumor in his neck. And two tumors at the base of his skull. And so they’re operating on the one in his throat, first, because it’s the biggest. They’re not sure if it’s cancerous, but it’s probably a side effect from the radiation he had as a kid for that tumor in his face.”

I tried to muster some compassion. This is my mother’s youngest sibling, twelve years her junior, and she was calling to ‘keep [you] in the loop so you don’t hear from the grapevine.’ But honestly…honestly? I couldn’t muster compassion. I tried to imagine my mother’s perspective, caring for her younger brother, especially since she was a mother figure to him growing up, but I just couldn’t do it. I thanked her for letting me know, and got off the phone quickly to head into my yoga class.

And before you start labeling me a horrible human, for taking this news so lightly, I must explain:

My uncle is an asshole.

I mean, not your average run-of-the-mill asshole, but like a certified ASSHOLE of asshole extremes.

It’s hard to put all the stories into one blog post. But he’s 50 years old (ish?) and lives next door to my parents…in the upstairs part of my grandparents house. He hasn’t worked a job in 30ish years, and spends his days sleeping and his nights playing pool tournaments. He is the angriest person I have ever met, and has done shitty things like strangling my parent’s pitbull (not to death, but still), calling and cussing out my family on their voicemail, dispatching the sheriff to the school my mom works at to complain about ‘noise’ (aka the dog barking…note, my parents live in the countryside), disowning his daughter because she married a black man, screaming obscenities at his 3 year old nephew for not shutting the door quick enough, etc. etc. etc.

These incidents have been happening since I was a child. He is angry, probably mentally ill, and has caused HUGE tensions in the family. The most difficult part is seeing my grandparents enable his bad behavior, and justify it, though now as a mom I wonder if I should be less hard on my grandma, specifically. And while his ASSHOLE behavior is no reason to wish cancer, or tumors, on him, I am still having a difficult time mustering up any compassion for his condition.

I am wondering what to do about this feeling. Not going to lie, there have been times in the past that I wished ill upon him because of how awful he has treated members of the family. But lately I have mostly felt neutral. Like, if I don’t have to think about him, or experience him in any way (can you believe it, after 8 years of being together, Boof has still never met him?) then I am much happier. At the end of the day, though, he is my mother’s brother, and she is worried about his health.

 

Thoughts? How do you have compassion or empathy for assholes difficult family members?

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2 Comments

  1. That sounds like a really difficult situation. I think it’s important to keep in mind that, like you mentioned, there’s a good chance that he has untreated mental health problems. That doesn’t excuse him from being an asshole for all these years, but it does help to explain it. His unfortunate health situation doesn’t erase all the bad things he has done, but it would be a hard thing for anyone to go through. Maybe it would help on the empathy/compassion angle if you asked your mom to tell you some stories about him from when he was a kid? Probably he had a kind and loving phase even if it’s been buried beneath anger, bad behavior, and an inability to be independent for the last 30 years.

    • I like this response. I know he has had a difficult life, from childhood abuse, and probably both mental health/drug addiction issues. Maybe it’s because of my profession, but I sometimes have more compassion for my clients and students and others than for family members. Probably because I see firsthand the destruction it causes. I like your reframe of asking me to focus more on my MOM in this process, and her memories and emotions, as a support role. I feel like that is something I can do.

      Thanks!

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