Grief and Sexuality

By: Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC 

A reader writes:     My mother died recently, and although she was older and it happened rather quickly, still it was the saddest thing I’ve ever experienced. Now, three months later, I’m finding it very difficult to become intimate again with my husband. Even being in close proximity to him is difficult for me. It almost scares me. Especially because I want so desperately to know that my mom is watching over me, but I don’t want her to see me having sex with my husband! Can you give me some direction on this? 

My response:     You say you want desperately to know that your mom is watching over you, but you don’t want her to see you having sex with your husband. I am not an expert in these things, but in your belief system, if your mother’s spirit is watching over you (just as she did when she was physically here with you), then now that your mother is part of the spirit world, I see no reason why she would not continue to respect your privacy here in the earthly realm, just as she did when she was physically here with you.

I’m sure there must be other things you do every day in private, and I would expect that your mother’s spirit would know which of them would require her vigilance and protection and which would not. At our current level of understanding, so much of what we believe about the spirit world is taken on faith and is based on what we choose to believe. In this case, it seems to me that whatever you choose to believe is what is real for you.

Grief and Sexuality     Without knowing anything about the state of your relationship with your husband before your mother died and how it may have changed since, I can only offer you some general information about grief and sexuality, in hopes that it will shed some light on what really may be going on with you.

For most married couples, being sexually intimate with each other feels good. Nevertheless, people in mourning often get the idea (whether it is rational or not) that when they do anything that makes them feel good, they are betraying the person who died. In addition, there are cultural prohibitions and some religious traditions against feeling good in the wake of death. In Judaism, for example, during the seven-day shiva period following a death in the family, sexual relations and other activities of daily living, such as shaving, bathing and the like are strictly forbidden.

Grief and Gender     In addition, men and women experience and respond to grief differently. As a woman in grief, you may long for your husband’s compassion, tenderness and affection. You may simply want to cuddle and be held. At the same time, even if your husband is mourning his own loss at the death of your mother, even if he is wanting desperately to comfort you in your grief, he may not know how to be intimate with you without involving sex. In our culture, men are socialized to be strong and virile, to hide or control their own grief, and to take care of their women when we are hurting.

As Harold Ivan Smith writes in his book, Grievers Ask:

Lovemaking, or sexmaking, sometimes offers men a chance to lay aside the armor and be human. If you, however, are not ready, you need to convey that to your partner. Leslie Schover, who works with cancer patients on sexuality issues, offers this advice: “Let your partner know that you will want to have sex as soon as you feel better. Give your partner some ideas on helping you feel more sexual again, such as, ‘Try being affectionate in a relaxed way,’ or ‘Let me know you still find me attractive.’” 
Sexual orgasm offers some relief from sadness because of the release of brain chemicals like endorphins and phynylethylamine, PEA, into the bloodstream during orgasm. The sexual intimacy is, for some, a welcome break from the all-encompassing reality of grief. Talk to your spouse about your sexual needs and about how you perceive your partner’s sexual needs. If you do not want intercourse yet, say so. Make certain your partner hears that you are rejecting intercourse and not your partner. Truth be told, your spouse may be equally unready. Find ways you can honor the needs of your spouse (p. 125).  
~ Harold Ivan Smith, in Grievers Ask: Answers to Questions about Death and Loss

 Grief and Loss     I hope this answers your question my friend. Like everything else in grief, you may not get back to the same place you were with your husband before this death happened. But with good communication, patience and understanding, together you can get to the point where it’s okay to feel good again, and you may create a new sexual normal that still feels good enough for both of you.

Related Articles:

© by Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC 

Marty welcomes reader questions and comments, and can be contacted at [email protected] or through her websites,

Thank you to Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC for permission to reprint this piece.

About the Author

On June 14th, 1999 my son Noah Thomas Emory Lord age 4 and a half died following complications of a tonsillectomy. That first day it was impossible to imagine taking my next breath much less taking the first steps on what was going to be a continuous walk through grief. On this journey I have cried an ocean of tears, screamed myself hoarse and felt pain so intense that it seemed unbearable. There are no magic words or process that take will take away the pain of grief. Calendars and clocks have no place in the grieving processes, what we all need are a set of tools that we can pick up and decide how and when to use them to re-build our lives. It was this realization that inspired The Grief Toolbox. The Grief Toolbox is both a resource and community for those who grieve and those who work to help them. With a desire to help the bereaved I have been involved with the New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire chapters of the Compassionate Friends, a national support group for bereaved parents. I have served on the National Board of Directors of the Compassionate Friends. I have a passion to serve the bereaved and a desire to help the people who work with them. If you are interested in joining The Grief Toolbox community or to have me present or run motivational workshops please contact me at [email protected]. Together we can bring hope to the bereaved.

Helping The Bereaved