All humans experience loss. This loss can include the death of a partner or spouse. Grief inevitably follows during the bereavement period. What is not commonly talked about is the reality of sexual bereavement. When a long-term sexual partner dies, so does one of the most pleasurable features of that connection.
Sexual bereavement and the sadness surrounding the loss of sexual intimacy are normal parts of grieving.
Older adults statistically experience the loss of their long-term partners more frequently than other age groups.
Seniors are sexually active despite stereotypes to the contrary.
Until recently, both scientific studies and the general public have not addressed this specific kind of loss experience.
There are steps you can take to feel acknowledged and begin healing.
For many, life brings love and sexual intimacy with a special someone. Illness and death require us to experience the journey of grieving. Responses to grief are as unique as each human fingerprint, but we all share some commonalities. The model of the 5 stages of grief, outlined in 1969 by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, is well-known for normalizing what humans encounter over time after a loss.
What is sexual bereavement?
What isn’t so recognized is what is known as sexual bereavement. This is the grief that relates to losing sexual intimacy with your long-term spouse or partner. It may come after the death of the loved one. It can also begin before the loss as their health declines.
Our sex lives are private matters. We subsequently feel deep sadness when our life companion dies, identifying the loss of the profoundly close sexual attachment once shared can be difficult. In addition, older adults statistically lose their spouses at a higher rate than younger age groups. Sexual bereavement, in turn, is a part of grief seniors may not be talking about.
What we know about sexual bereavement
Research in the area of sexual bereavement is sparse. In 2016, the term was coined in a small study of 104 older women, calling it “disenfranchised grief.” This seems to be the only formal study on what seems to be a common occurrence after loss.
One conclusion noted in this peer-reviewed research is that people aren’t talking about sexual bereavement because, as a society, we don’t recognize that older adults are sexually active beings.
What are the barriers to the discussion?
Baby Boomers are starting to shine a spotlight on the fact that seniors do have sex. The old media image of the asexual elder is giving way to a more accurate one of the sexually active senior. Scientific research is now following suit.
Previous sexual wellness studies typically had an age range that did not include those over the Medicare benefit age. Times are changing for the better as evidenced by the increased numbers of sex studies embracing the older population.
Another reason sexual bereavement isn’t commonly spoken about is that sex is an intimate topic. Older adults tend not to talk to their primary care providers about it, and primary care providers typically don’t ask.
Given that professionals are hush-hush about sexual wellness, how safe do you feel in sharing about the loss of sex in your life with your family or friends?
Until recently, research and discussions have primarily focused on a married, heterosexual experience of sex and the loss of intimacy after a death. If an individual is cohabitating or LGBTQ+, and possibly polyamorous as well, there is virtually no relevant public dialogue with which to relate. Any combination of these barriers can be devastatingly isolating.
You are not alone
Sexual bereavement is a legitimate grief response. Nowadays more people are saying it out loud. With the accessibility of the internet, personal story blogs and virtual support groups specifically addressing sexual bereavement are growing in number. Book publishers are giving voice to older authors telling their stories of love, sex, and loss.
Am I normal?
Because grief and bereavement are complex journeys, responses and behaviors can manifest in ways that may be uncharacteristic of one’s baseline personality. Grief tends to undermine decision-making processes and warp the sense of normality.
For instance, grief can pour water on all sexual fire an individual usually has. Energy typically spent in intimacy is now being rerouted to the hard emotional work during bereavement. So, while sexual bereavement is there as an emotional reality, physical sex drive may be absent.
Another authentic possibility within grief is a noted increase in sexual desire. This can be extremely shocking when a long-term sexual partner is gone, and one is left feeling a strong need to connect sexually.
According to science, it can be normal to feel the need to fill the void left by loss with sex. Orgasms and physical touch typically increase dopamine levels in the brain which elevate optimism and calms the nervous system. Oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone”, is also found in the intoxicating hormone cocktail produced with sexual pleasure. It stands to reason that having a rise in libido is the body’s way to seek pleasure when grief brings little.
Steps for healing
- Accept your feelings around loss of sexual intimacy as both normal and appropriate.
- If your sex partner is still alive but is unwell and unable to perform sexually, talk to them and find other ways to support intimacy.
- Don’t compare your loss and bereavement to others.
- Allow for time to grieve without outside timetables or agendas.
- Identify one close person in your life with whom you feel safe and talk about your sexual loss.
- Seek professional grief counseling or a grief support group, either online or in person.
- If you experience physical sexual dysfunction during your bereavement, speak to your primary care provider. What may seem a normal part of grief may be a treatable medical issue separate from the grief response.
- Grief and clinical depression are not the same. Speak to your primary care provider if you suspect mental health changes.
Grief is a complex human experience; so is sex. Sexual bereavement may arrive and complicate the process further. With gentle acknowledgment and conscious processing, this too may be overcome. Remember, you’re not alone in your natural human grief journey.