When we lose a life partner, there are so many secondary losses we are forced to come to terms with such as financial stability, our sense of purpose and changes to our lifestyle. However, there’s one loss that is rarely spoken about, one that we find so hard to talk about openly and honestly: the loss of sexual intimacy, also known as sexual bereavement.
As human beings we are biologically wired to crave connection to others, both emotional and physical. When we are in a loving relationship, we experience that connection in many forms: being touched, hugged, kissed, caressed or sexually fulfilled. It becomes part of our everyday lives and is something we often take for granted. And so, when we lose our loved one, we are left with this unspeakable void. Whilst our partner is gone, we are still here, living, breathing and desiring human affection and yet our wants and needs are suddenly no longer being tended to.
This blog will explore the subject of sexual bereavement in widowhood. It will look at what shows up for us when we experience intimacy loss and the ways in which we attempt to fill the void it leaves. It will explain how the feelings and behaviours that surface when experiencing this loss are perfectly normal and indeed very common during grief and we should not judge them. However, it will also suggest some ways we can steer this loss and mitigate it more constructively.
For some people, the overwhelm and pain experienced during grief lead to a disconnection from intimacy, which can be either temporary or long-term. However, for many of us, the yearning for intimacy, the desire and need to be touched, to be held, to be loved and nurtured in all the little ways we were with our person, lives on. Whether it’s enjoying an active sex life, awaiting that goodnight kiss or just exchanging glances- these are the moments that we desperately miss when our loved one dies. They may go unnoticed by others, but we grieve this loss so heavily.
And when confronted by this loss of intimacy, so many feelings and behaviours show up for us, feelings and behaviours that we may not understand, that may cause us conflict, that we may struggle to normalise or even discuss. However, it’s important to realise we’re not alone in these. They are very common.
Rediscovering intimacy during grief is complicated. It’s never quite as simple as just going out and finding someone to be intimate with one evening, because intimacy is deep rooted. It is borne out of an unspoken understanding you had with your partner, a safe, emotional connection you held with them. And so, it is perfectly normal to doubt whether you will ever share such a deep closeness with anyone else again, whether you will ever again feel secure or hold the same bond that you held with your loved one. You can’t imagine it, you can’t see it and you can’t feel it and because you’re missing your loved one so much, you don’t want to either.
When we grieve it is perfectly natural to miss that feeling of intimacy we once shared with our loved one and to crave sexual fulfilment. After all sexual instinct is a primal urge. However, when we grieve, we often interpret this longing as a betrayal of our loved one, of their memory and of our life together. We judge and berate ourselves. We wonder whether this means that we no longer love our person. Actually, is it not the opposite? Is it not a testament to the depth of love we hold for our person, of the enduring connection that still exists, that we still want them and desire to be with them? Moving on, making space for someone else in our life and sharing intimate moments with another person doesn’t mean that we have to sever our love for the person we’ve lost. It doesn’t mean that we have to say goodbye to it before we allow another love in. We absolutely can love two people at once. And it’s important to find someone who holds space for that, who honours that and embraces the person that you’ve lost and with whom you still share such an incredible bond.
When dwelling on thoughts of intimacy and in particular the absence of it in our lives, we may find ourselves reflecting on the sexual relationship we had with our loved one and berating ourselves for not making more time for it. It’s common when we’ve lost someone, to romanticise what could have been, to idealise a life that didn’t exist, to believe that we could have done more and been more to our person. However, we can all look back in hindsight with rose-tinted glasses and believe that everything was perfect. But no relationship is perfect. We all experience little annoyances. We all have good days and bad days, days when we get tired and stressed, or days where we have to work and have little energy left. And all of this can impact our sex life. It’s important not to criticise ourselves for not having done more and to remember that we did our best at that time.
Following the loss of a loved one, our self-esteem quite often nose-dives. As our world undergoes a seismic shift, we can start to lack self-belief and to question who we are. We may begin to construct damaging narratives around what we are capable of and what we are worth and all of this can trigger a great deal of fear about the future. We may worry about our physical appearance and doubt whether anyone else will find us sexually attractive. We might worry that we have put weight on or that we are past our ‘prime’ and feel deeply uncomfortable about letting someone else see our body. We may perhaps fear that no-one will want us because we are widowed with kids, seen as ‘broken,’ or come with a lot of emotional baggage. We often use these fears and doubts to project a future reality in which we will never find anyone to love us in the way our person loved us, one in which we are destined to remain unfulfilled. However, if we fail to challenge these stories we tell ourselves, to question their truth, they could start to become our reality.
As we struggle with sexual bereavement, we sometimes try to fill that void by engaging in habits that aren’t good for us. We may turn to alcohol to numb our pain. We may over-indulge in food or embark on shopping sprees that we can’t really afford. We may go out and seek solace in the arms of someone we don’t know, because we are craving intimacy so much that we are driven to go out and find it.
And there’s no judgement or criticism here, because in the depths of our despair, it is natural to pursue the things that bring us happiness and to long for what satisfies us. And there’s no denying that all of these behaviours help us feel better - to feel gratified, perhaps even exhilarated and alive again. I suppose the question is – for how long? For if it is only for a couple of hours, or even a day or two, if after that you start to feel lonely, misunderstood, guilty and even more disconnected from the world around you – then something has to change. So how can we deal with this emptiness more productively?
Before we can change our thoughts and behaviours, we first need to recognise them. Talking about the loss of sexual intimacy during grief can be incredibly hard. It’s a topic we tend to shy away from, perhaps because traditionally, both sexual intimacy and grief have been considered taboo topics. Learning to acknowledge what we’re feeling is so important. Naming it, feeling it and understanding it are all important ways of normalising it. Communicating how we’re feeling to others whether that be a friend or family member, or even within the safe environment of a bereavement group can really help us to rationalise our thoughts and bring us a greater sense of peace. If you find talking too difficult, perhaps try journaling and get what you’re feeling down on paper.
In addition, be open and honest about what you’re experiencing. Learn to be introspective, to analyse your thoughts and behaviours and challenge them. Is it really the case that we will never again experience that same closeness we felt with our loved one? Are our fears around who we are and what we look like really grounded in reality? Does finding intimacy with someone new really mean we are betraying the memory of our loved one? When we spend time with our thoughts, often we realise that they aren’t based on truth but stem from our own vulnerability and insecurity. Learning to challenge what we’re feeling and flip our own narrative can really help us to move forward.
Intimacy comes in many forms, not just sexual intimacy. Take some time to evaluate your relationships with others. Do the people you surround yourself with help you to feel connected and nourished? We can still find the intimacy we desire in the company of people who love and nurture us. The warm embrace of a friend when we’re crying or perhaps a family member sitting with us and holding our hand as we talk, may be enough. Sometimes just going for a massage, attending a reiki session or trying a bit of reflexology can help. The warmth and healing that can come from physical human touch can do so much to lessen our pain. There are many natural therapies out there that can help to settle our inner turmoil and soothe the emptiness we inevitably feel when we grieve.
Grief is a lifelong journey, and during that time, your grief will evolve. And not only will it change, but it will change you - profoundly. The things you used to like, that used to be important to you, that used to bring you joy and make you laugh may well change following the loss of your loved one. And when you reach the point at which you’re ready to look for a new partner, you’re likely to be looking for someone for very different reasons to the ones you chose your loved one, because you’ll be at a very different stage in your life. Your wants and needs will have changed. You’ll essentially be a different person potentially living a very different life.
So, one way to fill the void left by the loss of intimacy is to spend some time figuring out who you are - because who you are, what you want and what you choose to prioritise will help you to determine the kind of person you want to meet. Learning to nurture and build that relationship with yourself, to like yourself, to value your thoughts and trust your actions will mean you put a different energy out into the world. You’ll feel more connected to those around you and will be drawn to people who fill you up, not those that drain you. It will go a long way in helping you to make sense of your doubts and allay your fears and ultimately help you to select someone who can meet your needs and with whom you can embark on a deep and meaningful relationship.
There’s no hard and fast rule around whether we should engage or disengage from intimacy during grief. For some people, the desire for intimacy stops temporarily, for others it may continue and for many of us it changes considerably. We are often plagued by doubt, fear and guilt as we consider the possibility of becoming intimate with another person. We may engage in habits that whilst satisfy our desires in the short-term, in the longer term, continue to feed our emptiness. Try not to judge your thoughts and behaviours but be aware of them. And if they are ultimately causing you more pain, and layering on more suffering, then it’s worth looking at a more productive way of dealing with your sexual bereavement. Whether you decide to talk about it with others and analyse how you’re feeling, invest in yourself and spend time figuring out what you desire in a long-term partner, or just seek the love, support and comfort that good friends and family can offer – there are many ways we can support ourselves through it. Whatever shows up for us is in some ways immaterial. It is how we respond to it that is far more important and will have a far greater impact on our healing journey.