Relationship Connection: I discovered my grandfather’s double life

Question

I was very close to my grandma who passed away a few years ago. She was truly an angel; you couldn’t find a kinder person. Sadly, it was a long physical and mental decline before she died. Toward the end, she told us that my grandpa had been abusive towards her throughout their long marriage. We didn’t know what to think because grandpa had loved and cared for her as she went downhill, no one suspected anything.

However, we later discovered a large amount of pornography (videos and magazines) hidden throughout his house and evidence that showed there had been infidelity. I’m guessing that her claims were true and she probably really suffered for a long time.

I’m really struggling with this as I’ve been doing recovery work in my own marriage due to my husband’s pornography addiction that was hidden from me for years. I don’t want to be around my grandpa. I also don’t want this bitterness in my heart, how can I forgive and move on?

Answer

This is such a tragic and painful way to say goodbye to your grandmother. Your grandfather’s secret life is certainly a distressing shock that can tempt you to retrace your childhood memories to make sense of your story. And, as you mentioned, it can make future interactions with him difficult as you work to reconcile these two realities. However, this whole situation is less about your grandfather’s sins than it is about the remarkable life of your grandmother.

The good news about all of this is that no one, not even your grandfather, can erase the sweet memories you have of your grandmother. In fact, now knowing your grandmother was able to provide you with so much love while she was facing infidelity and abuse can strengthen your bond to her.

Your grandmother reminds me of Roberto Benigni’s character in the movie, “Life is Beautiful,” who sheltered his young son from the horrors of living in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. His son had no clue his father was leaving every day to do forced labor and that they were surrounded by evil and constant danger. Your grandmother was facing her own personal hell, yet made sure her granddaughter only knew love and light when she was with her. You are truly blessed to have had such a powerful woman standing between you and darkness.

Artist Caitlin Connolly beautifully captures this maternal courage in her painting, “Mother Protecting”

Your grandmother may not have had the support or tools to know how to effectively deal with an unfaithful and abusive husband. It’s hard to know what she actually understood about his secret life. Even though she was able to shield her loved ones from the awful reality of her situation, it’s heartbreaking to realize how much she must have suffered in her marriage. It’s not healthy for abuse victims to stay in destructive patterns, and, while she didn’t have the personal resources to escape her circumstances, you can still learn from her experience and make sure these patterns don’t continue in your family.

Now, you are wondering what to do with your grandfather. While you can certainly confront him with your discoveries, I’m not convinced that will bring you any measure of peace. I don’t know what you feel like you need from him. It’s clear that you want peace, which is available to you through the process of forgiving him. It’s understandable that you would want some kind of justice for your grandmother. It’s sickening to know that he has deceived everyone in the family. However, I can reassure you that there is accountability already happening for his behaviors. He knows what he’s done.

Even though he has failed his entire family by mistreating your grandmother, his direct accountability of his actions is to her. My belief is that now that your grandmother is no longer on the earth, he is going to be more consumed with the reality of his situation.

Be careful that you don’t allow your anger toward him turn into a preoccupation that negatively traps you in resentment and bitterness. Forgiving your grandfather doesn’t mean you ignore what he did. It simply frees you from your own private suffering.

Spiritual teachers have taught about the power of forgiveness for thousands of years. Sometimes it’s helpful to understand forgiveness better by understanding what it is not:

  • Forgiving her abusive husband does not excuse or condone his cruelty.
  • Forgiving does not mean forgetting his brutality; you cannot unremember or erase a memory that is so traumatic.
  • Forgiving does not erase the injury he has caused, but it can begin to heal the wounds and ease the pain.
  • Forgiving does not mean trusting him again and giving him yet another chance to abuse (others). While to forgive is a commandment, trust has to be earned and evidenced by good behavior over time, which he clearly has not demonstrated.

You’ll have to decide what interactions with your grandfather feel right to you right now. You have time and space to figure out how that will look. As you allow yourself to see the awful reality of his life and increase your compassion for what he will have to face, you can be filled with love and peace. He can’t hurt you.

Stay connected!

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

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