By Hara Estroff Marano, published on March 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 21, 2012
My boyfriend of seven years lost his mother to cancer after a four-month illness. At first, he was in denial but a month later he really started to withdraw. He became very distant, threw himself into work, and didn't seem to care about anything. He broke up with me three months to the day after his mother died, saying he wanted to find himself again and he has to do it alone. He wants me out of his life completely, and I am devastated. How could he turn his back on seven years together? He said the spark between us is gone. Did we break up because he is lost or because he fell out of love with me? I'm having a hard time coping.
You broke up because he is in intense pain and is trying to protect you from it. His first anchor in life died fairly rapidly, he is feeling lost, and his spark is probably gone for everything—at least for a while. Throwing himself into work can be a healthy way to cope with loss; it's a way to stay anchored with minimal emotional demands. The loss was relatively sudden; you don't know the things he never got to say to his mother and vice versa. It's all the more difficult because it came at a time of transition, after he lit out on his own but before he made his own lifetime commitment to a partner. He isn't turning his back on seven years; he is doing what all animals do when wounded—going off on his own to regroup. I'm sure it hurts to lose his attention, but this is a time when you need to take the focus off yourself and help him—not by pressing for attention but by letting him know you're available to talk whenever he wants and reassuring him that you'll be there for him when he is ready to rejoin the world of others.