- It's normal for people to miss sex and intimacy with a dying or recently deceased partner.
- Friends and therapists may find it uncomfortable to initiate a discussion about sex after widowhood.
- The loss of a partner can erode self-confidence, which can initially make it difficult to start anew sexually.
Yesterday, I listened to a friend describe the last intimate physical contact he had with his wife before she died. Weakened from pancreatic cancer, she summoned enough strength to give her husband a tight hug and lingering kiss.
It wasn’t sex, but their intimate moment whispered, “We would if we could!”
He has recalled this cherished goodbye over and over—for himself and for friends who’ve heard the story and listen with sincere attention whenever he tells it again.
The incident made me think of three different, but equally valuable, written works that widows and widowers might want to read if they feel this: “One of the things I miss about my partner is having sex; I want to have sex with someone again.”
Let’s start with the work of neuropsychologist Alice Radosh and her co-author Linda Simkin, who coined the term "sexual bereavement," that is, mourning the loss of sexual intimacy when your partner dies. In their paper “Acknowledging Sexual Bereavement: A Path Out of Disenfranchised Grief,” Radosh and Simkin propose ways for friends and professionals to help those who are losing, or have lost, their spouse and are missing sex with their partner.
The first bit of advice—stated more bluntly than in their paper published by Reproductive Health Matters—might be, “For the sake of your friend or client, get over your embarrassment.” The authors note:
"Despite the fact that participants anticipated they would want friends to initiate a discussion about sexual bereavement, more than half (57%) reported it would not occur to them to discuss sexual bereavement with a widowed woman and 34% reported that even if it did occur to them, they 'would probably be too embarrassed to discuss sex with a woman friend whose partner died.' Of the participants who reported that sex would be difficult to discuss with a friend whose partner had died, 67% attributed this difficulty to embarrassment."
Nonetheless, the authors reported, “76% said they would want friends to initiate that discussion with them.”
In brief, the widows or soon-to-be-widows in the study had sex somewhere in their minds, but wanted their friends (and therapists) to please bring up the subject.
Embracing sexual desires
Carole Brody Fleet, widowed at 40, plunges into the deep end of the pool in her book, Widows Wear Stilettos: A Practical & Emotional Guide for the Young Widow. She warns her readers that friends and even therapists may not say the “right” thing or give you the honest insights you crave.
She gives them a break: They are doing the best they can, even if their best is off-putting or hurtful, so look to yourself. You are the one who lost your partner. You are the one who knows what you need and feel, and that could very well include someone with whom you can share a passionate and compassionate experience.
In her bestseller, the updated edition of which will be released on August 16, 2021, Fleet urges readers to embrace their sexual desires—as well as the doubts and fears that embed themselves in the anticipation of a post-loss sexual experience:
"Regardless of how many or how few people you may have been intimate with, trust me when I say that you will never have been more keenly aware of your real-or-imagined physical flaws than at this moment in your new life. However will you be able to let anyone else see you with no makeup, stretchmarks, puffy eyes or not-so-perfect thighs ... when perhaps the only thing that stands up perkily on your body are the flyaways in your hair."
Fleet concludes by encouraging her readers to seek satisfaction at the same time they take their emotional temperature:
"If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable or sad or even depressed because you might have taken this step just too soon, you must gently and honestly communicate this to your partner. Do not make them play the 'What’s Wrong/Nothing' game."
Fleet’s work in helping widows through the full range of emotional, physical, legal, and financial crises associated with widowhood was cited in The New York Times article that spotlighted the paper of Radosh and Simkin when it was first published.
Moving on sexually
As for the widowers, such as the friend who helped set this blog post in motion, a man-to-man book called Widower to Widower is a must-read. Fred Colby lost his wife of decades to cancer. After struggling with grief, he then struggled with guilt, anticipation, trepidation, and raw desire in trying to find sexual intimacy with another partner.
In full disclosure, I consider Fred a friend—and I consider his advice sound and caring. In his book, Fred offers candid insights about moving on sexually to those who have suffered the loss of a partner:
"In my hyper-emotional state during the first months after my wife’s death, I was often making decisions driven more by my emotions and sex drive than by my mind, which often seems to take a hiatus for the duration of the deep grieving cycle ... I heard from two widowers who said they could have gone to bed with another woman within days of their wife’s passing. After processing my own experience and the things I learned through dating and research, I believe the symptoms have much to do with the widower’s lack of self-confidence while entering his new world, as well as with desperation for a woman’s touch and kindness. The sex act is just a physical manifestation of these other needs."
Carole Brody Fleet and Fred Colby would therefore agree that, whether you are a widow or a widower, the loss you have just endured will likely impact your self-confidence a great deal—and that effect makes you vulnerable in an intimate relationship. Whatever your gender, you may not feel like waiting to have sex again, but at least wait until you can look at yourself in the mirror and, as Fleet says toward the end of her book, see a person of “strength, faith, and courage.”
Radosh, A., & Simkin, L. (2016). "Acknowledging sexual bereavement: a path out of disenfranchised grief." Reproductive Health Matters; Volume 24, 2016 - Issue 48: Sexuality, sexual and reproductive health in later life; Pages 25-33
Fleet, C.B., & Harriet, S. (2021). Widows Wear Stilettos: A Practical & Emotional guide for The Young Widow. Colorado: Armin Lear Press.
Colby. F. (2021). Widower to Widower: Surviving the End of Your Most Important Relationship. Colorado: Front Range Press