Sexual Bereavement: renegotiating sexuality and intimacy in the context of illness and death
Sexual grief. It seems that no one wants to talk about it. Yet, just like every other form of grief, it can have a serious impact on our health and overall well-being during and beyond the period of our bereavement. So, as uncomfortable as it may be for some of us, acknowledging and attending to that grief is just as important as exercise, nourishment, and sleep are to our self-care as we begin to heal.
Bereavement is both our grief (feelings, thoughts, emotions) and our mourning (what we do about our grief, the healing process). In the case of sexual bereavement we are talking about the loss of access to sexual intimacy with a partner either due to divorce, illness (acute, chronic or terminal) or death. Below I will focus on sexual side effects that result when a partner has a prolonged or terminal illness and after they have died.
For many, grief starts long before a loved one has died. It often begins when chronic or terminal illness pushes one partner into the role of caregiver and the other as patient. As Joan Price writes in her book Sex after Grief: Navigating Your Sexuality After Losing Your Beloved “sex becomes impossible, either due to the illness or because of the shift from lover or spouse to a patient/caregiver.”(p113) Both partners may be feeling the loss of intimacy and sexual connection but the reasons for this and their ongoing needs can be widely varied. It is not unusual for partners to feel guilty or ashamed for having grief about the change in their sexual relationship and to find it hard to communicate about it with one another. For the caregiving partner it might feel that talking about their sexual losses would be an imposition on their partner who is suffering, they may fear upsetting or hurting their partner. For the partner who is ill, they may be uncomfortable with the changes to their body and feel undesirable, the medical treatments may cause a loss of desire or energy for sex, and their illness might make sexual activities that they previously enjoyed painful.
In the early months of getting diagnosis and treatments these losses may go unnoticed and as a health crisis unfolds partners may feel unprepared to communicate about these changes to their sexual relationship. Both patient and caregivers can feel alone and isolated, they may feel shame about having desires and unmet expectations, feelings that get compounded when medical teams, support groups and friends do not raise the topic with them and allow them a safe place to talk about these losses.
For those whose partner has been ill for several years or more, with dementia, Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease, ALS and other life-altering illnesses there can be a long struggle that can result in a kind of “caregiver captivity” and an endurance struggle for both. Yet long term illness and death have sexual side effects and these need to be named and attended to as part of our grief and mourning process.
Sometimes there are medical treatments that can assist with the sexual side effects of illness, there are therapists trained to facilitate conversations to help partners co-create new ways of enjoying and pleasuring one another; some partners may choose to open up their relationship. Once sexual bereavement is acknowledged one discovers there are myriad of options for addressing the sexual side effects of their or their partner’s illness. Price writes “…a major illness can leave your sexuality bruised. But you can learn how to be sexual with one another despite changes or limitations… it can still be satisfying.” Joan Price and Anne Katz and others have addressed these issues in books such as Naked at our Age: Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex, Sexuality after Cancer, and Sex When You’re Sick, that are full of resources, ideas and stories of how straight, LGBTQ+, monogamous and polyamorous partners renegotiated their sexuality in light of serious health crises and after a partner’s death.
A caregiver shares: “My ‘anticipatory sexual bereavement’ began to surface during my wife’s long illness…The only person I could share this with was my sister, who is my confidante. I was able to air my horniness, frustration, sadness, and ache-for-my-beloved with someone I trusted…I didn’t do anything about my frustration beyond solo sex, but it was a good to have someone to listen nonjudgmentally and understand.” (Price, p113)
After our loved one has died we may notice that we are grieving our sexual loss at a different pace than we anticipated. Some people feel a lack of interest in sex while in their acute grief phase, others feel an intensity to their “horniness” or a longing to be with someone in body, even if not ready for a new relationship. There are many myths about how we “should” do our grief, and this is the same when it relates to sexual bereavement.
Price names and addresses some of these myths about sex after the death of a loved one:
- That we’re not really missing sex, just touch. That getting a massage, haircut, a pet, or hugging a friend is supposed to be enough to address our sexual needs.
- That one must wait a year before having sex with a new partner.
- Sex with someone new is disloyal to your deceased partner.
- We can only have sex with someone we see as a potential mate. Or, You can only have sex again with your new “one and only.”
- You need to “get out there” and “should” start dating right away.
- You should wait to have sex for when you’re no longer grieving.
- Casual sex is wrong, immoral or a sin.
- You don’t have to worry about sexual infections.
- You only get one true love. Now you’re done. (Price, p14-23)
Not all people want a sexual relationship after their partner dies; many are surprised when they find a new love, even when they doubted their readiness. Price states “whatever you’re doing about it — or not doing about it — is normal. Feeling sexy is normal. Not feeling sexy is normal. Not knowing what you feel is normal.”
Each person’s grief and mourning is unique, like a fingerprint, and being able to talk about the sexual side effects of our illness or partner’s illness or death with physicians, counsellors, sexologists, in caregiver and grief support groups, with trusted friends, is an important aspect of attending to our sexual bereavement, an important part of grief work.
For more information and ideas for addressing sexual bereavement please join us Tuesday, February 23, (7:00 – 8:00 p.m.) for a Free Virtual Education Session, titled ‘Sexual Bereavement: renegotiating sexuality and intimacy in the context of illness and death, presented by Susan Harrison.