How to Help Kids Grieve When Adult Relationships End

 (iStock/Andrii Yalanskyi)

In my mid-forties, I was a single parent with an 8-year-old son and a boyfriend when rather unexpectedly, the relationship ended. My boyfriend realized—about two years after we met—that with his own kids leaving for college soon, he wanted freedom, not the busy rhythm of raising another child.

So there I was, in shock and grieving, but I knew that my son, who had become attached to my boyfriend, would be experiencing his own version of grief. I dreaded telling him, but of course, I would have to.

I did it while we were eating dinner, and I tried to keep it simple: Boyfriend and I had both decided (poetic license) that we weren’t going to be together after all.

His face fell. He looked both surprised and confused. (Welcome to the club! I thought.)

“Why?” he asked. I told him that before two people got married, they needed to figure out if they’d make good partners, not just for the moment, but for the rest of their lives, and even though Boyfriend and I loved each other, both of us realized (again, poetic license) that we wouldn’t and that it was better for us to find other people who would.

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This was, basically, the truth—minus some details and plus a few pronoun changes.

“Why?” Zach asked again. “Why wouldn’t you be good partners?” His face was a wrinkle. My heart ached for him.

“Well,” I said. “You know how you used to hang out with Asher and then he got really into soccer and you got really into basketball?”

He nodded.

“You guys still like each other, but now you spend more time with people who have similar interests.”

“So you like different things?”

“Yeah,” I said. I like kids, and he… doesn’t?

“What things?”

I took a breath. “Well, things like I want to be home more and he wants to travel more.”

“Well,” Zach said, brightening, “Why can’t you both compromise? Why can’t sometimes you stay home and sometimes you go traveling?”

I mulled this over. “Maybe we could, but it’s like that time you were assigned to work with Sonja on that poster and she wanted to put pink butterflies all over it, and you wanted it to have Clone troopers, and in the end, you ended up with yellow dragons, which was pretty cool, but not really what either of you wanted. Then on the next project you worked with Theo and even though you had different ideas, they were similar enough, and you still both compromised, but not as much as you had to do with Sonja.”

He was staring at the table.

“Everyone has to compromise to get along,” I said, “but if you have to compromise too much, it might be hard to be married to each other. If one of us wanted to travel a lot and one of us wanted to stay home a lot, we both might get frustrated a lot. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah,” he said. We sat together for a minute, and then suddenly he looked up and blurted out, “Are we killing a banana if we eat it?”

“What?” I said, thrown by the non sequitur.

“You know how you kill a cow to get the meat and that’s why vegetarians don’t eat meat?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well,” he continued, “if we pull the banana off the tree, aren’t we also killing the banana?”

“I guess it’s like hair,” I said. “Hair falls off our heads when it’s ready to die, and then new hair grows in its place. New bananas grow where the old ones used to be.”

Zach leaned forward in his chair. “But we pull the bananas before they fall off, when they’re still alive. What if somebody PULLED YOUR HAIR OUT before it was ready to fall off? So doesn’t it kill the banana? And doesn’t it hurt the tree when we pull the banana off?”

Oh. This was Zach’s way of dealing with the news. He was the tree here. Or the banana. Either way, he was hurting.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe we don’t intend to hurt the tree or the banana, but it’s possible that sometimes we hurt it anyway, even though we really, really don’t want to.”

He went quiet for a while. Then: “Am I going to see him again?”

I told him I didn’t think so.

“So we’re not going to play Goblet anymore?” Goblet was a board game that belonged to Boyfriend’s kids when they were young, and Zach and Boyfriend sometimes played it together.

I told him no, not with Boyfriend. But if he felt like it, I’d play it with him.

“Maybe,” he said quietly. “But he was really good at it.”

“He was really good at it,” I agreed. “I know this is a big change,” I added, and then I stopped talking because nothing I said would help him right then. He was going to have to feel sad. I knew that over the next few days and weeks and even months, we’d have many conversations to help him through this (the upside of being a therapist’s child is that nothing gets shoved under the rug; the downside is that you’ll be totally screwed up anyway). Meanwhile, the news would have to marinate.

“Okay,” Zach mumbled. Then he got up from the table, walked over to the fruit bowl on the counter, picked up a banana, ripped it open, and with dramatic flair, sunk his teeth into it.

“Yummmm,” he said, a strangely gleeful look on his face. Was he murdering the banana? He devoured the entire thing in three big bites and then went to his room.

Five minutes later, he came out carrying the Goblet game.

“Let’s give this to Goodwill,” he said, placing the box by the door. Then he came over to me for a hug. “I don’t like it anymore anyway.”

As a psychotherapist, I’m no stranger to grief—adult grief, that is. I know what it’s like to sit with adults who are reeling from the loss of a parent or child or partner or best friend. But I knew from my training that just as depression often looks different in children, so does loss.

I didn’t have my therapist hat on when my son went through his grief—I was just his mom, muddling through it alongside him. But I did know to look out for certain signs that he might be suffering: being quieter than usual; saying nothing at all about Boyfriend, as if he’d vanished from my son’s mind as quickly as he’d vanished from our lives; being extra sensitive or becoming unusually angry at little things or for no apparent reason (the reason being: grief).

I also knew it was important for me to check in with him about this big change in his life, but also not to hover, not to inquire about every facial expression or mood.

And while there was no way around the fact that he’d feel sad at times, there were also steps I could take to make the process easier, such as making sure our family rituals—pizza night, movie night, Saturday basketball—gave him the predictability he needed to feel safe.

Of course, we both moved forward, but we also took our time, and in the end, that was the gift that many kids need. Yes, it’s hard to see your child suffer, but trying to hurry it away (“Hey, let’s go to Disneyland!”) often makes it last longer.

Now that Zach is older, he probably wouldn’t use trees or bananas to express his grief were he to experience another loss. He has more tools that come with age. But he also has this earlier experience to lean on, to know that even when something seems painful or hard, he will feel his feelings and also, when he’s ready, get through it.

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Lori Gottlieb writes The Atlantic’s “Dear Therapist” column and is the author of MAYBE YOU SHOULD TALK TO SOMEONE: A THERAPIST, HER THERAPIST, AND OUR LIVES REVEALED, from which this is adapted.

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