Every Thursday on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:
My husband and I work paycheck to paycheck. Getting something new means getting something from the local thrift store. We have two teenage sons but last year had to take on our 10-year-old niece permanently. We tightened our belts a little more and were able to clothe and feed her properly, but she was sleeping on a blow-up air mattress and kept her stuff in plastic bins.
Ten months ago, a member of a neighboring church tragically lost their young daughter to cancer and couldn’t stand the sight of their little girl’s things. They donated them. Our preacher was able to pass on the bedroom set and many of the toys to us. It was a beautiful antique iron rod bed with a nearly new mattress and several well-built wooden bookcases and a hope chest that had been lovingly hand-painted. My niece cried when we presented her with her new bedroom.
Recently, the original owners contacted us and told us they had made a mistake in their grief and wanted the items back. Not only did the items belong to their little girl but they had been either family heirlooms (the bed frame came from a great aunt) or been decorated by them (the hope chest had been painted by the late grandmother).
My husband and I are not heartless, but we have a little girl to look out for ourselves. We discussed it and told the couple we would happily give everything back if they could replace everything with a similar good quality. They told us they were deeply in debt, had no money, and to find God in our hearts.
We offered them the choice of the bed or the painted shelves and hope chest, with the plan that I could take a few more shifts to replace the furniture. We tried, but the couple refused to compromise and ended up cursing us out multiple times. They said we were stealing from their dead daughter. They went public with their grievances, both on social media (which they later deleted) and in our small community.
Our pastor has approached us several times over this, and we have explained our side and showed her the text messages between us and the couple. While we grieve for them, we are not making our little girl sleep on the floor again. We gave the pastor the hope chest and a handwritten letter explaining about our little girl’s struggles and how we empathize with the other family’s loss. Do you have any other advice on how to handle this?
—Hurt and Hoping
Dear Hurt and Hoping,
This is a situation in which nobody (except perhaps your pastor, who never should have shared your contact information and could have taken up a collection to replace the furniture) is really the bad guy. I feel deeply for you and admire your commitment to your niece. And I can’t imagine what the grieving family is going through, so I don’t judge them for going back on their word or for lashing out, even though I wish they hadn’t. I want your innocent 10-year-old niece to have what she needs, and I want to minimize the grief of the people who lost their daughter, too.
If the other family had asked for advice, I might encourage them to think of this differently and consider how good it would feel to know they were doing something to improve the life of a child in need by allowing you to keep the furniture. That would be a wonderful legacy for their daughter. But they didn’t ask, so I felt stuck and asked for help sorting it all out.
A few readers insisted that you should just give everything back. I don’t think it’s that simple, and I don’t like the idea of ripping this furniture out from under a child whose life has already been thrown into disarray.
But others suggested a compromise. Instead of agreeing to return some of the furniture, agree to return it when you are able to replace it (which could be soon, if you keep an eye on your local Buy Nothing group or request support from your church) and to take good care of it in the meantime.
I think the LW can be compassionate but they can also be practical - they could ask the church about soliciting donations to replace the items and return them to the original folks AFTER those replacements are secured. —@sphericalthink2
Often when people are anxious about getting things back, the worry is that they will be damaged or destroyed. I would lead with a promise to care for everything before returning it, ask for time to find alternatives, and thank them for their generosity. —@BeerAndPie
This one hurts. I would give back the bed when, and only when, they are able to replace it, so they don’t put their niece through more disappointment. Can they ask the church or another charity for help? I would hope someone in the community can connect them with resources. —@davlinnews
It seems to me the most generous thing to do - for all parties including the LW - is to give the bed etc back as they are able to replace them. Regardless, I suggest they find a new religious community with the fortitude to guide families in grief and need. —@carlyrhodeside
I think this plan makes a lot of sense and will ultimately make you feel better. The other parents will undoubtedly be grieving forever, so there’s not a lot of urgency in terms of timing, and under this plan, they will eventually have their daughter’s stuff back. Meanwhile, you won’t have to leave your niece sleeping on the couch after you return everything—she definitely doesn’t deserve that.
And a note about how replacing the furniture could happen more quickly: A few readers have reached out to me saying they would like to help pay for it. Slate can’t be involved in the fundraising, but I could certainly put you in touch with these generous people if you’re interested. You didn’t leave contact information when you submitted your letter, so please fill out the question submission form with the same signoff you used last time, and include your email address. Also include the date and time that you originally submitted your question so we know it’s really you!
Before my paternal grandmother died, she would buy me an original American Girl doll every year for Christmas. I had the dolls, the books, and most of the accessories. My fondest memories of my time with my grandmother were playing with those dolls. I took very good care of them, and when I went off to college, I packed them up to be stored at my mother’s house. I have graduated and have my own place, so I went back to my mother’s to get my stored stuff. My mother gave away several of my dolls!