My wife is grieving for her mum and feels guilty about having sex

“I don’t want to be disrespectful of her grief, but I’m struggling.”

By Suzi Godson

My wife recently lost her mother, to whom she was very close. Understandably, it has really affected her in many ways, one of which is that she feels guilty having sex. She says that’s because she’s enjoying herself, and feels that she shouldn’t be. I don’t want to be disrespectful of her grief, but I’m struggling. What would you advise?

It is difficult to communicate the pain of losing a parent. Whatever the relationship with the parent was like, it is a seismic event for children of every age. Death can create feelings of existential loss that can take a long time to recover from.

You don’t say whether your wife’s mother’s death was sudden, but even when death is expected, it still comes as a shock. Grief must be able to happen at its own pace. Sometimes a grieving person doesn’t have any energy or desire for sex, and they are less motivated to have it because they don’t get the same physiological rewards from the experience.

If your wife is struggling, missing her mum, feeling depressed, it is not surprising that she does not feel very sexual. Grief comes and goes in waves, and even when people appear outwardly to be functioning well and carrying on with life, deep down they may still be suffering. When feeling this way, it can be difficult to surrender to the pleasure that comes with sex. The fact that it may feel as though she is depriving you of intimacy will not be lost on her either, and that may be exacerbating her feelings of guilt.

That your wife lost her mother is also important because research suggests that the death of a mother tends to have a much more profound emotional impact than the death of a father.

In 2006 Dr Elizabeth Lawrence at the University of Nevada explored Gender Differences in Grief Reactions following the Death of a Parent and found a relationship between avoidant coping styles, depression and grief in bereaved women (but not in men). However, when the gender of the deceased parent was examined, the death of a mother – but not a father – was related to increased levels of grief and psychological distress in males and females.

The grief that people experience after bereavement can be very isolating and lonely, and it may seem to you that being intimate might help her to feel less so. Indeed, when people are very sad, intimacy (physical and emotional) can be a hugely important part of the healing process. However, you need to be patient about sex.

The best – in fact the only – thing that you should be doing right now is trying to support your wife emotionally. The worst thing you could do for her, and for your relationship, would be to put pressure on her or give her a deadline to “get over it”. The emphasis needs to be on showing empathy and understanding, not satisfying your sexual needs. It is important to reassure her that you are there for her and that you are comfortable to wait as long as it takes.

If you had a good sex life before, it will come around again in time. But what your wife may need now is hugs, not orgasms. Prioritise her needs, and you will probably discover that kindness and empathy turn out to be a much more effective form of foreplay. Anyone who has felt incredibly sad knows that when a sexual partner is very caring, the non-sexual touch that is such a big part of being supported through a period of intense grief can end up leading to physical intimacy. It is a very different, gentler sexual experience, but it can be a hugely important part of the healing process.

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