Relationship Changes and Endings

Four people in a group talking.
Three are sitting, one person is a wheelchair user, the fourth person is standing using a cane. Photo credit:
Disabled And Here – Affect

By Mad Hatter Wellness

All relationships will eventually end. 

That may feel odd or uncomfortable to think about, right? But truly, all relationships will eventually end. We here at Mad Hatter Wellness have been thinking a lot about relationship loss, especially as people in our community have passed away over the last year. We started thinking about grief for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and how to support this process for them. 

In our Sexuality for All Abilities curriculum, we teach about relationships, particularly how to start and maintain relationships. We talk about rejection, how that is a normal experience with crushes and dating, and how to move through those feelings. We might even talk about what to do if a friendship or relationship ends. But we don’t really talk much about reasons why relationships might end. Now, in our recently created Modified Lessons for Learners with High or Complex Needs in the Sexuality for All Abilities Curriculum, we address relationships ending. 

Here are some reasons that relationships might end:

  • Argument
  • Breakup
  • Abuse
  • Not interested in each other anymore
  • Moving away
  • Death

There’s a sequence to most relationships. The relationship starts. The people get to know each other over time. The relationship ends. That can be really tough. Sometimes the ending is permanent, like death. Sometimes the relationship just changes. A relationship can change from romantic partners to friends, if that is what both people want. No matter how the relationship ends, even if it is amicable, you may feel grief about the situation.  

Some people, including people with certain intellectual and developmental disabilities, start the grieving process months after the loss. That can be so confusing for others who may start grieving right away. Whenever and however someone processes grief is okay, as long as they aren’t harming themselves or others. People may respond with feelings such as denial, anger and despair. Supporting people with disabilities as they grieve will be unique to the individual as they process the grief in their own way.

Ideas for processing grief:

  • Some people like to grieve with a ceremony or rituals. This may be within a cultural or faith community.
  • Creative outlets can help. Some people like to write poems or songs, create visual art, or dance.
  • It may feel good to do something spontaneous and fun. You could do something new to take your mind off the grief and give you a new perspective. You could also do something the two of you used to together to remember the person you’ve lost and to heal.
  • Having someone to talk with like a therapist or support group can be really helpful and essential in the grief process. 

We spoke with Anne Murphy, a death educator who also facilitates ceremonies and home vigils, about some of her experiences working with people who are experiencing death and grief.

  • There is no set timeline for grief. Allow for grief to show up at any time.
  • Grief is very individualized. Allow space for all feelings and emotions.
  • Society often ignores suffering and grief. Allow people to grieve and acknowledge their suffering.
  • Everyone needs to talk about and share their grief. When we don’t talk about it, it can become bigger and harder to process.

However you or people around you grieve, it is a feeling of loss after something changes. Sometimes it is because someone dies or because a relationship ends or changes. Death and grief are a natural part of being alive, and everyone should have the right to move through feelings of grief in a way that feels right for them.


How to Get Out of an Unhealthy Relationship – A helpful video on ending an unhealthy Relationship from Amaze

Relationship Changes Social Stories in the Mad Hatter Wellness Shop – When relationships change, people may need support to navigate those changes. Social stories can be used to help make sense of our ever-changing and challenging world. These social stories were created to help people understand changes in relationships. – Death Educator Anne Murphy’s website  – She Climbs Mountains provides “opportunities for adult and youth motherless daughters to connect with each other and to grieve in a safe and loving environment with the ultimate goal of (re)discovering joy and gratitude through the exploration of mother loss.” – Supporting Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities Through Grief, Loss and Bereavement by Helen Goltzoff, Speech Pathologist

Grief – 10 Things I Know | Adult Down Syndrome Center – A resource for grief and Adult Down Syndrome – Grief Webinar with Rose Reif from the Down Syndrome Association of Delaware – Simple, pocket-sized and beautifully illustrated, this color­ing book helps children and adults alike understand and facilitate the natural process of grief resolution. Lynea Gillen writes with a deep understanding of the healing process from her years of experience counseling children and adults.