Breaking the Heart of One You Love

My mother said some memorable things. “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?” was among her greatest hits. Another was borrowed from Groucho Marx: in the middle of a less than scintillating party, she might utter, “I had a wonderful time, but this wasn’t it.” Quietly, of course.

Mrs. Stein proclaimed one habitual belief I never quite understood: “Regret is a painkiller for fools.” I gather she was being dismissive of those who looked back in sadness. Though I never took the statement to heart, I regret little about my lucky life. One old sorrow sticks with me, however.

Breaking the heart of a loved one is never harder than when the one is seven-years-old.

“Dad, is Santa Claus real? Nicole (a friend) said he isn’t.”

I had learned long before this, the importance of being honest.

I looked at Jorie, but perhaps didn’t recognize just how invested she was in her belief in Santa.

What I valued, however, was her trust in me. Before I answered, I decided I ought not break her trust.

“No Sweetie, he isn’t.”

I can still envision her little face melt into a waterfall of tears. I comforted her as best I could; so did her mom.

This was not the last time I caused pain to someone I love, but was the first time I remember doing so to any child of mine.

Welcome to the real world, honey; the place where things aren’t always as they seem or as we would like them to be. A place where hard reality trumps fantasy; a place where someone who “loves you to pieces” breaks your heart into pieces.

That was a long time ago. I’ve wondered what else I might have done instead to save this little person from the pain of a message amenable to postponement.

Should I have said, “What do you think, Sweetie?” Was a Socratic dialogue possible — a perfect sequence of questions leading her to the same truth without hurting her so much?

A change of the subject, perhaps, to avoid the answer and let her continue to believe anything she wanted?

Or, should I have lied? “Of course Santa exists, Sweetie.” And then left her open to potential ridicule of friends, as well as some doubts about whether her dad was trustworthy.

Janet Landman, in her book, Regret: the Persistence of the Possible, likens regret to the dilemma of coming to a fork in the road and making a choice. You walk down the chosen path for a while, before you realize your selection isn’t quite as good as you hoped. “I probably should have gone the other way.”

No matter which road you chose, “the persistence of the possible” is present. Nothing in life is perfect, but in your imagination the alternative remains idealized. Only in your mind – in the world of abstraction and fantasy – does perfection reside: the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect result, the perfect performance of whatever kind.

And, for me, the perfect answer to a simple question.

Sometimes in life no ideal solution is available, no right path, only a bunch of imperfect possibilities. We never know the alternative from lived experience, nor return to the moment; because, as Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” With the passage of time, the river changed and so have you.

No, you cannot un-ring the bell. No do-overs when it comes to the knowledge of whether Santa is real.

We must live with the inevitable heartbreaks when they come. In the one life we have, we can never be quite certain whether a different road would have made all the difference or none at all.

One can only accept the terms life allows. The metaphorical contract we sign by having the audacity to take our first breath at birth grants no escape clause from hard knocks. Not, at least, while life goes on.

I still wish I could have protected Jorie from the terrible knowledge I delivered on the near-Christmas day; not just about Santa, but about life. Indeed, as I think back, it isn’t knowledge from which I wish I could have sheltered her, but from the pain of life itself.

Such things are not in our power. Life will have its way with us. If we are lucky, we will also be compensated by beauty, joy, friendship, laughter, learning, and love.

Jorie and I lost a little innocence that day.

The good news?

Our love abides.


The second image is of a Young Ashaninka Girl in an Apiwtxa Village, Acre State, Brazil. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons and the work of Pedro Franca/Ministry of Culture. This post is a reworking of one I wrote several years ago.

24 thoughts on “Breaking the Heart of One You Love

  1. Thank you for sharing this. The story is so precious, but the analogy is profound. There’s a person I love very much, but I’m not “in love” with him. I don’t know how many kind ways to say it to him, but I do enjoy hanging out with him. I don’t want to break his heart, but I also want to preserve the closeness we have–our friendship, our mutual trust. I also want to take some time to see if things change to where we would be compatible. He is addicted to a substance, and I keep reminding him to seek help. I don’t believe in throwing away relationships simply because they don’t “live up” to my moral standards, but I also won’t get into a romantic relationship that is unhealthy. I desire a partner who is healthy or at least strives for health; he need not be perfect, but he must not have behaviors that harm himself or others. I remain friends with him because I believe that support (not enabling) is what people need to remain encouraged. I refuse to be a rescuer, because I believe it is important that people find their own strengths, their own reality, their own truth, and grow from there. That is, at least, what I would want for myself in therapy; it’s not about rescuing or advice, but rather about discovering areas I need improvement on as well as the strengths that can help me to grow and improve on areas. We all hold different beliefs and fantasies, ideals, and wishes. Sometimes our dreams don’t come true, but we can always form new dreams, and we can always enjoy the creative escape of lost dreams through movies and books and art. To build on the analogy of the Santa Clause reality, the truth may be that he doesn’t exist, but the cultural practice of pretending, dressing up, adult “make-believe,” gift-giving, decorating, helping, loving, and embracing that which we learned in childhood is real–so, in this sense, Santa Clause as a cultural practice (a verb, not a noun) is real. It’s an existential reality that brings us together, that allows our childhood pretend play to live on in adulthood, that brings fun and enjoyment to the monotony of life, and that reminds us of our kind nature as human beings who are capable of so much imagination, innovation, and creativity.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad you emphasized the role of “play” in adult life. We seem to have lost even the recognition of it in professional sports, where “child’s play” has been made into big business. Thanks, PP.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with Peace Penguin’s Santa analogy. You erred not in telling the truth but, perhaps, with your adult directness. A more poetic response may have softened the blow. Parenthood has no manual and we all say things we regret. When my oldest daughter was 6, her father got angry at all the stuffed animals she insisted accompany her to the dinner table. In a moment of anger, he said: “They’re not even real!” She swallowed her tears. Later, a handwritten note appeared on his desk: “THEY ARE REEL IN MY HART!” He still has the note.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Evelyn. Aw, your poor 6-year-old back then, but kudos to her for writing a note and standing up for her stuffy pals! By the way, I um didn’t mean to say that one way of divulging the truth about Santa is better than another. I think I was speaking more about my 43-year-old self who holds onto the culture of Santa Clause and embraces that iconic symbol, and the fact that I want to hold onto some fond childhood memories and practices like watching cartoons on the holidays (I love the Santa Clause cartoons and Charlie Brown and some Winnie the Pooh stuff). For the parents who tell the truth in one way or another, it is still heartbreaking for the parent and the child. I didn’t have a Santa Clause childhood; we knew the entire time that it was our parents who bought gifts, and some years they weren’t able to afford gifts. But in my heart I held onto the spirit of Santa Clause, and I pretended that I believed in him. It is a wish I will cherish like that which is depicted in “The Polar Express” and “Elf” films. I love Christmas, even if I’m alone or with the company of close friends.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Not the last time I erred, Evelyn. Nor the last time ever, but still, as difficult as any thus far. I never did think of another way to do it, but do you have a poetic solution? If so, you might save the readers here, and their children, the heartache of my little girl. By the way, I have a similar note, about something different than your daughter’s father did, from one of my kids.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m not so sure you “erred”. When kids come to you and actually ask, they already pretty much know the answer and by confirming what your daughter’s friend had already revealed to her, however much it hurt, also reinforced that she can count on you to be truthful.

        The poetic solution might be the 9/21/1987 editorial from The New York Sun, written by Francis Pharcellus Church, which in part goes: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I wonder, but thank you for your generosity to me, Brewdun. If she “knew” I don’t think the tears and hurt would have been so overwhelming.


    • Still, you really had no choice but to give an honest answer. Had you said anything but the truth, you would have made your daughter’s friend into the liar in her eyes and possibly ended their friendship in addition to possibly losing Jorie’s trust once she found out the truth. You did not err!


      • In the absence of an alternative not yet clear in my own mind, I made a decision I’d likely make again. I’m not especially troubled by the notion of a “mistake,” as I am of participating in a situation in which any choice was going to cause negative consequences of some kind to someone I loved. What I’m talking about here is existential, in the nature of our situation in life as it is.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The truth often hurts no matter the age. Being the truth-bearer can hurt even more. As in the case with your young daughter, it’s better to learn the truth from someone you trust and love.


  5. I appreciate your realism, Rosaliene, perhaps because it reminds me of myself!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Joseph Patrick Lori

    Dr. Stein:
    This evening, I sent you a comment, (admittedly lengthy) on the general topic of Santa Claus.
    The recent experiences of mine that I related were brought to mind by your story here in regards to the subject of Santa Claus. I made those particular comments because I felt that this was a perfectly legitimate opportunity to get a few matters off my chest, which, ironically, is what I was trying to do when I was going through at least one portion of the experiences that I related here.
    When I finally finished writing, I proceeded to post it, and I saw a notice at the beginning saying that my comment would be ‘subject to moderation’ or some such thing.
    When I checked back just now, I noticed that my original comment, long as it was, had completely disappeared.
    As you may well know, comments of mine have appeared here before without being deleted. If my original comment was deemed to be inappropriate here, and especially for the subject being addressed, may I be permitted to be given (a) reason (s) as to why this was deemed necessary?


    • I don’t know the answer for sure, Joseph. I know that algorithms are commonly used to screen material for spam. I can only assume that the algorithm decided that your first comment was spam. I might hazard a guess. Perhaps because of its length. Perhaps because your history with the people you talked about in the comment had been flagged as troublesome elsewhere. Perhaps because the comment included one sexist joke, albeit one you were only quoting. In any case, it looks like much of the comment was “off-topic,” so I’m going to leave it unposted. That said, I’d welcome future comments you care to post that are more in keeping with the issues being discussed. Best wishes, Joseph.


  7. Dr. Harvey Friedson

    ‘Mistakes of the mind versus mistakes of the heart’. Your motive was pure. You are forgiven.


  8. Your followers write so beautifully on your blog, I hesitate to post anything, but I want you to know I always read and appreciate your articles, Dr. Stein. If I do not respond, it does not mean I have not read them, but I mostly respond so you know that I have done so. Your daughter is very fortunate to have such an involved and loving father. It was her time to learn the truth about Santa and admittedly I recall telling a toddler child Santa did not exist when I probably was her age. I remember being shushed by the mother. More importantly than Santa, was the love, guidance, and attention you gave her. Kudos to you!


  9. Joseph Patrick Lori

    I realize that it is somewhat late to continue commenting on this subject, but I would like to give you a personal theory of mine that has been going through my mind for a number of years now in regards to children finding out the truth about Santa Claus.
    Like a lot of homespun theories, this one may seem annoyingly strange and without precedent, or even logical basis. Even so, I happen to believe that it deserves a hearing, even if the judgement (s) rendered is (are) that it is downright outlandish.
    My theory is that the myth of Santa Claus has chiefly served the purpose of sexual education in a society that clings to Victorianesque sexual principles, and for a long time, now.
    The concept of Santa Claus, which is vigorously reinforced in the minds of young children, is part of a network of mistruths that deal ultimately with the unpleasant question asked by children about where babies come from.
    Having been convinced of the absolutely certain reality of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth fairy, one more lie is added atop the list.
    When young children ask where babies come from, they are traditionally told that the stork brings the babies, and the children believe it, just like they believe in Santa Claus, etc.
    When children finally figure out for themselves that Santa is not real, as they are expected to, much in the same fashion that they are expected to learn how to tie their shoe laces or ride a bike, a domino effect takes place for all of the other mistruths, including the one about the stork.
    Hopefully, the child will get the message that he/she is expected to figure out for oneself where babies come from in the same way that one figured out for oneself that Santa Claus is not real.
    Thus is virtue preserved in the kind of society where people are expected to go to any length necessary outside medical necessity, to avoid any kind of direct reference to sexual activity.


    • This is a new one on me, Joseph. My own introduction to the sexuality question came in my father’s answer to the question of where I came from: “I planted the seed,” he said. I left the room in a daze. Were there farmers in the family I hadn’t been told about?


  10. I couldn’t help but think while reading this, even though she had to feel the weight of that heartbreak she was still offered the cushion of honesty with loving intent and several years of blissfully believing (though, in the moment that likely offered little solace).
    Admittedly, my perspective is shaped by an experience of never having been gifted a belief in Santa… which I think reiterates the point that sometimes there are no “just right” paths, only the path paved by the most loving intentions. And, I think, despite any lingering hurt attached to that memory, you certainly walked that path.


  11. good blog . love this

    Liked by 1 person

  12. very helpful blog

    Liked by 1 person

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