These are times when, whatever the state of our affairs, we can reach beyond our comfort zones and extend a helping hand.

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Years ago I heard a story that, to this day, still touches me deeply.

Mother Teresa, a politician and a therapist went to visit an orphanage. While the others were interacting with the children, the politician stood there with his hands in his pockets wondering what to do. A little girl walked up to him and literally wrapped herself around his legs. He looked toward Mother Teresa and asked, “What should I do?” She replied while holding an infant boy in her arms, “This child is in my path and I am taking care of him. That child is in your path and you are to take care of her.”

So what if your ex calls to tell you that he or she has a serious illness and needs your help? What do you do?

This isn’t the right decision for everyone, but some people open their hearts and do what they can to help, simply because life circumstances have placed this person they shared time with back in their path.

If you were in a long-term relationship and there were children or relatives involved, it changes things. It’s now a family affair — even if your relationship wasn’t so hot.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not underestimating the complications this kind of situation can cause, especially if you or your former partner are now with someone else. But these challenges can give us the opportunity to grow up and let go of our pretenses and resentments. These are times when, whatever the state of our affairs, we can reach beyond our comfort zones and extend a helping hand.

Fears from current mates or children, unresolved feelings and financial considerations all play a part in the decision-making process. But this is life and death. And everyone I know who has been there for an ex said that they would do it again. In addition, their mates shared that this is why they love their partner — because they will put themselves out to help someone in need.

Taking on something like this is not for the faint of heart; it will be an arduous and emotional process for all concerned. It is very important to remember what your priorities are (like your current relationship), set appropriate boundaries and hold firm to them. Know also that you can only point someone in the right direction, not carry her or him. And realize, too, that sometimes the best thing you can do is to just stay out of it.

If you are willing to be there for an ex in a time of extreme need, it says a lot about you. If your current mate is supportive of your actions, it speaks volumes. In a case like this, giving some support could save a life.

Dr. Barton Goldsmith, a marriage and family therapist in Westlake Village, Calif., is the author, most recently, of “100 Ways to Boost Your Self-Confidence — Believe in Yourself and Others Will Too.”He also hosts “Emotional Fitness “on NPR. E-mail him at