Sexual bereavement: The grief we don’t talk about

We’re getting better at acknowledging that sex in later life is important, but grieving for physical intimacy when a partner dies is rarely spoken about

When Alice Radosh’s husband of over 40 years died in 2013 following a serious illness, she turned to books in an attempt to better understand the immense pain she was feeling. Unflinching memoirs about the death of a partner such as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking or Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story were cathartic reads but Radosh’s overpowering feeling was that something was missing. In the swirl of overwhelming emotions that accompany grief, she felt blindsided by the realisation that the sexual intimacy between her and her husband Bart was gone for good. “It was absolutely amazing to me that there were hundreds of pages about these very close, wonderful relationships but not a single word about sexuality,” she says.

Silence around sexual bereavement – the immense loss of sensual enjoyment and shared intimacy felt when a long-term partner is gone – makes those grieving for their beloved feel even more alone, believes Radosh from New York. When she tried to raise the issue with friends, the subject was swiftly changed. And if loved ones did respond, their well-meaning advice often missed the mark. “They suggested going to the hairdressers or getting a dog,” she reveals. “It really seemed to me that the message was: don’t talk about this.”

"It was absolutely amazing to me that there were hundreds of pages about these very close, wonderful relationships but not a single word about sexuality"

But studies have shown that unexpressed grief can lead to health problems such as insomnia, anxiety and depression – and even physical symptoms like unexplained pain and stomach problems. Failing to openly acknowledge an aspect of bereavement is known as ‘disenfranchised grief’, says Radosh. But how do you talk about sexual bereavement when it feels like it is a subject people draw the line at?

Losing touch

One taboo we are getting better at talking about is that people are enjoying sex well into later life. Research shows people in their 60s, 70s and beyond consider physical intimacy a vital component in their lives and relationships. This can even have unintended consequences - charity Age UK found rates of sexually transmitted infection diagnoses rose by 23 per cent between 2014 and 2018 in those aged 65 and older.  But why are we not also acknowledging that people in this demographic are dying, asks Radosh – and that the loss of a long-term partner will leave their other half grieving the end of this shared sexuality?

"But how do you talk about sexual bereavement when it feels like it is a subject people draw the line at"

Author and sex educator Joan Price from California felt this like a ton of bricks when her husband Robert died from cancer in 2008 when she was in her early sixties. “People are so sex negative that they think we as grievers shouldn’t be feeling our sexual urges or that it dishonours our partner,” she says. “But sex is so much more than body parts. It’s connection, intimacy, excitement and pleasure.” Even though Price has made a living writing about and educating people on sexuality, she found the experience of sexual bereavement gruelling. “I was numb in my body most of the time,” she shares. “But I would have other times where I just needed the touch and to feel the excitement of being aroused by a person that I am attracted to and feel comfortable with.” Like Radosh, Price was dismayed to find that none of the grief books she came across mentioned sex, so she decided to write her own. Sex After Grief: Navigating your Sexuality After Losing Your Beloved includes not only Price’s own story, but many other people’s experiences of sexual bereavement and how they dealt with the difficult feelings.

As well as being a topic that is rarely openly discussed, sexual bereavement is also under-researched. Radosh, a neuropsychology researcher, set out to change that and find out how other people really felt about what happens when sex and grief collide. She and her colleague Linda Simkin mailed an anonymous survey to 104 women in the US, who were all over 55 years old and in relationships. They asked the participants how often they had sex, whether they enjoyed it and if they thought they would miss it if their partner died. The researchers also asked the women if they felt they’d be able to talk to friends about this aspect of grief. The results were stark. Almost three quarters of women said they would miss sex if their partner died. But while many (67 per cent) said they would want to talk to friends about sexual bereavement, more (72 per cent) said they would rather have the friend be the one to bring up the topic first. Yet 57 per cent of participants reported it would not occur to them to initiate a discussion with a widowed friend about sexual bereavement. The findings are published in journal Reproductive Health Matters.

The elephant in the room

Sexual bereavement is a stigmatised issue because people are not keen to acknowledge it, says sex and relationships therapist Rhian Kivits. “It feels like an elephant in the room.” She has noticed that her own clients don’t usually bring up the topic without a gentle prompt. Shame is the overriding emotion for many who miss physical intimacy after a partner dies, she reveals. “They may worry they’re devaluing their loved one by focusing on these feelings or think there’s something wrong with them.” In some cases, Kivits says, deliberately repressing sexual feelings because of the guilt or confusion can lead to sexual problems down the line when the bereaved person does feel able to seek out intimacy again.

"Sexual bereavement is a stigmatised issue because people are not keen to acknowledge it"

Rather than bottling up uneasy feelings, Peter Saddington, sex and relationships counsellor at Relate encourages people to discuss the topic with a potential new partner. “It becomes a bigger issue the more you keep it a secret,” he says. “It’s much better to talk about it and say how you’re thinking and what you’re feeling.” He also recommends speaking to a trained grief or sex and relationship therapist. These professionals should be able to talk easily about the subjects most people feel intimidated discussing and will be able to provide tailored support, he says.

The more we acknowledge sexual bereavement, the better we will be at finding ways to address it says, Radosh. She hopes health professionals can play a bigger part in the conversation in future. But research shows doctors generally avoid talking about sex – especially with older patients. This is a missed opportunity, says Samantha Evans, former nurse and co-founder of sexual pleasure retailer Jo Divine. While she advises many older people who have lost a partner, she acknowledges there are many others “who wouldn’t dream of buying a sex toy who are suffering in silence”.

No right or wrong approach

Of course, sexual bereavement is not just a phenomenon that applies to older people. Sadly you can lose the love of your life at any age – and during the coronavirus pandemic, we are more aware of that than ever. Alex Delaney from London was 34 when her husband died of a pulmonary embolism three years ago when he was 39. “You’re not just missing them because of their character, you’re missing them because of their physical presence,” she says, revealing that she sought casual sexual encounters early on in the grieving process. While most of her friends were very understanding, she says others were baffled when she told them she was having one-night stands.

The important thing to bear in mind, says Price, who has since met a new long-term partner, is there is no right or wrong way to grieve. And the same applies to sex. Whatever your age, gender or sexual orientation, there’s no prescribed method for bringing sexuality back into your life after you lose a partner. “What I want to reassure people is whatever your timeline is, it’s okay,” she concludes. “If you need the relief of being with someone quickly, don’t judge yourself for that. If you go years without being ready and your friends are pushing you to move on, don’t judge yourself. And it doesn’t have to be all or nothing - there are a lot of things in between being alone and falling in love.”