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Why and How to Talk About Sex While Grieving

Reaching for our partner in bed during grief.

Key points

  • It's not uncommon for people to respond to grief by either losing all feelings of sexual desire or experiencing heightened sexual needs.
  • A sex conversation between partners in a time of grief can increase understanding and add to their bond and security when they need it the most.
  • Don't be afraid to express delicate and important sexual feelings during grief rather than relying on assumptions that may be wrong.

Grieving is a complex topic. Sex is a complex topic. Talking about both may seem awkward, but for anyone in a relationship, the reality is, sex and grief will eventually converge. During this pandemic and with the new Delta variant, couples are facing the terrible loss of loved ones, and this conversation can comfort and add to their security with each other when they need it the most.

Source: fizkes/iStockphoto
Man comforting woman in bed.
Source: fizkes/iStockphoto

“I know it feels counterintuitive to have a sex conversation during grief, but if you don’t have the conversation, you’re left with your assumptions,” says therapist George Faller, LMFT, my Foreplay Radio podcast co-host, in our grief episode.

Sexual intimacy while grieving

During a recent podcast, George Faller and I explored grief through the lens of sexual intimacy. As therapists, we often see clients who successfully navigate the emotional aspects of grieving while failing to address the sexual side of their relationships.

It’s not uncommon for us to work with couples who are not having sex. Often, those couples can trace the loss of intimacy back to a period of grief. It’s understandably a difficult position: How do you maintain a sexual connection with your loved one while honoring the grieving process?

Sex and grieving: What’s normal?

While we may be familiar with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's grief stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—really, we bounce between these feelings, and what impacts a person’s grief cycle is so unique and personal that there is no normal. Sexually, while grieving, people might tend toward one end of the continuum or the other:

  • They lose feelings of desire.
  • They experience a heightened sex drive.

When a person is overwhelmed by depression, loss, or sadness, it may be difficult to feel aroused. For some couples, this leads to a disconnection of intimacy that can last for months or years. For others, loss of libido is temporary and caused by the body’s response to stress chemicals.

An increase in desire for sex can ironically be used as a way to avoid feeling. The partner of the grieving spouse may not feel connected because the goal of the sex is escape—not necessarily unhealthy or unreasonable, but perhaps confusing without a conversation and understanding between the couple. Or sharing a sexually intimate moment might provide tenderness and comfort, important resources that are often missing while grieving or simply hard to absorb in more cognitive ways when our minds are clouded with sadness. Reaching for your partner in hopes of finding comfort in their arms and bodies is a vulnerable act that can strengthen our attachment. Sexual release may also be the feeling most affirming of life and living, providing hope to go forward in the face of loss.

Shifts in sexuality might also impact the partner who is supporting the person who is grieving. If that partner has been yearning for connection, it’s not uncommon for their body to respond sexually when their partner opens up emotionally throughout the grieving process. Turning toward each other may be the key that ignites desire, as emotions are raw and vulnerable. George Faller says, “If you’re the partner who’s in the supportive role, and this is the closest you’ve been emotionally in years, it would make sense why your body responds to that and wants to be more intimate.”

For many couples, sexual intercourse is a safe space where they can be vulnerable, knowing that they can reach out to their partner, and their partner will reach back. No matter what you are experiencing while working through sex and grief, the goal is not to force one behavior or another but to communicate so that you can return to that safe space when the time is right.

How to talk about sex while grieving

So how do you open the door? How do you start the conversation?

Changing the conversation from emotional to sexual needs shifts the focus from processing emotions to mutual needs in the present moment. This can be a difficult transition, and it’s not uncommon for couples to miss it altogether. The conversation you need to have will depend on if you are supporting someone who is grieving or experiencing grief.

If you are supporting someone who is grieving

If you are in the supportive role, the conversation should start with stating what you feel. It might sound something like, “I listen to you, and I feel so tender. I want to make love to you, but I’m wondering what you’re feeling and if you want that, if you need that.

Perhaps your partner will respond, or maybe they aren’t ready, but approaching the topic makes space for future discussions or other forms of physical intimacy.

If you are grieving

If you are grieving, try to be open about how you feel to help your partner understand you and give them insight into what’s going on. I want to encourage you to be as plain as you can in communicating this. Making love is such a connector, but sometimes you might not be ready for it. Or the vulnerability of sharing a sexual moment might break open your grief, and maybe you’re not prepared for that.

Instead, reflect on where you are and use that as a springboard to connect with your partner.

Even if you don't feel like having sex, you can talk about what it’s like not to want to have sex right now. Perhaps you need holding and touch instead and feel that as deeply reassuring. You can still engage and create space for sexual intimacy when you are ready.

You might try saying, “I’m so bottled up and choked with my grief. I just can’t think about sex. I’m afraid I would feel too much, and I can’t bear it. I want you to know you are so important to me, though, and I love that you are willing to be there for me.

On the other hand, if your sex drive is high, your conversation might look more like, “I just have so much need right now… sex feels like life to me and gives me relief from my sadness. If we could make love more often in this season, I really think it would help me.

If you hide from these conversations, it can create more isolation in a period where you are already feeling isolated. If ever there were a time when we need connection, it’s when we’re in grief.

More from Laurie J Watson PhD, LMFT, LPC
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