The shock may leave you reeling in disbelief, and then the weeks, months and years that follow will be a difficult, painful journey through the many ups and downs of grief.
However, there may come a point after your partner dies that you feel ready to be intimate with someone again.
This may be a purely physical, sexual thing, or maybe you find yourself falling for someone with a deeper, emotional connection. When this happens is different for everyone. There is no ‘right’ amount of time to wait before connecting with somebody new. And meeting a new person or having sex with someone else doesn’t mean you are no longer grieving, or care any less about your loved one.
However, having sex with somebody new after your previous partner has died inevitably throws up complex and challenging emotions.
‘Loss changes you and grief takes you to unknown places where the future feels uncertain,’ says Corinne Laan, a grief specialist and author of The Art of Grieving.
‘The key to embracing a new partner in your life is by getting to know the changed person you have become since the loss. Give yourself the space you need to explore the new you first.’
Corinne believes that even though the life you once had changes forever after loss, you can still live a joyful life.
Take your time
‘There is no rush to get intimate if you do not feel like it,’ says Corinne. ‘Intimacy with a new partner can take time and in the case of a traumatic loss you may need even more time. Take all the time you need to explore this new relationship.
‘If you do feel sexual desire, embrace the fear and doubts with self-love and compassion. You can still grieve the loss of your partner while embracing this new relationship.
‘Sadness and joy can co-exist.’
It’s normal to think of the person you lost
When you are with your new partner, you may think of your past loved one. Corinne says this is completely normal because the love you once shared is still there.
‘Love lives on,’ she explains. ‘Try to relax, breathe, calm your mind and be present in the moment.’
She adds that healthy communication is essential when building a new relationship after a loss.
‘Express what you need emotionally and physically from your new partner and listen to what your partner needs from you by having an open, respectful and honest talk,’ she adds. ‘Communicate with compassion.’
Be kind to yourself and seek help
If you feel resistance when it comes to intimacy, Corinne says it’s important to explore the reason why and the emotions and feelings behind it.
‘Get help from a coach or counsellor to help you move past the obstacles you are experiencing,’ she suggests.
Let go of the guilt
‘Guilt at moving forward too fast is very common and normal as you may feel you are betraying the memory of your loved one,’ says Corinne. ‘Let go of the guilt.’
She adds that keeping the memory of your loved one alive while embracing a new relationship can be tricky, especially when it comes to anniversaries and holidays.
Corinne says: ‘The key here is to do what feels right for you and find ways to blend memories of the past and new experiences into your life.’
Keep working on your grief
‘This is a major life transition and making time and space to reflect on the loss and working through your grief is crucial,’ says Corinne.
‘Keep working on your grief as it will help you gain greater awareness of your strength and ability to build a future you did not think was possible.’
Others may have opinions of what you should do, but Corinne reiterates that it is important not to allow these opinions to influence your decisions.
‘Doing what is right for you is vital when building something new with someone new,’ she adds.
AMA CXO Todd Unger discusses caring for LGBTQ seniors and addressing disparities during end-of-life care with Carey Candrian, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver.
0:00 AMA Moving Medicine for June 21, 2022 1:04 What disparities affect LGBTQ older adults, specifically? 2:04 What is driving these disparities in LGBTQ older adults? 4:06 How have previous stigmas taken a toll on LGBTQ seniors mental health? 5:35 Why are LGBT older adults at particular risk for receiving inequitable end-of-life care? 8:17 How is end-of-life care different from other areas of health care where we don’t see these huge gaps? 8:43 What are the drivers of this discrimination? 9:53 What kind of data would be helpful—and how can it best be collected by care providers? 11:46 What do you mean by “breaking the script” when it comes to communication with LGBTQ older adults? 13:30 How would you like to see end-of-life care evolve and what do we need to do to get there?
When Desiree Celeste begins to feel emotional while discussing the death of their grandmother, they refuse to apologize — instead, they make space to explore and feel the depths of their grief.
“I’m not sorry, actually. I will be mourning her for the rest of my life,” said Celeste, who uses they/them pronouns.
Celeste said that their grandma “always was and always will be” their best friend. When she died after a three year stay in hospice, the emotional care Celeste and their family received was lacking.
“Her death almost killed me, that’s how deep my grief was,” they said. “Don’t get me wrong, the hospice workers were amazing, they did a great job. But I was still left feeling like I needed more. I needed someone outside of that group that could hold space for me and my grief.”
Now, years later, Celeste has built themself into the companion they sorely needed in those dark moments.
Celeste works as a death companion. Also known as a death doula or a death midwife, death companions dedicate themselves to supporting people as they experience grief and death. They can help make funeral arrangements, answer questions about death and dying, organize euthanasia for pets, help process grief years after an event and much more.
Although Celeste officially started their work in 2021, they said they’ve been doing some forms of death companionship for most of their life.
“At pet stores I used to take home animals that smelled like death … that I knew would die. I took them home so I could care for them and make sure they didn’t die alone,” they said.
But everything truly came to a head when Celeste lost their grandmother. On top of the grief of losing their best friend, they never had a chance to come out to her as nonbinary, which added a unique and terrible pain to Celeste’s experience.
“I never came out to my grandma, she never knew who I really was,” they said.
Influenced by that pain, Celeste is a death companion focused on providing services to other LGBTQ+ individuals, for whom death and grief can be exceptionally difficult.
“I worked with a client once to help them organize an at-home euthanasia for their pet. They identified as transgender, and were terrified of reaching out to veterinarians because of their fear of being mis-gendered,” Celeste said. “Talking to the vet, picking up the ashes and even getting the body cremated are all opportunities where they could have been mis-gendered, so I acted as a barrier and shielded them from that pain.”
In another instance, Celeste worked with another transgender client who was the primary caregiver for an individual who had died. Living in a conservative and rural area, it was unsafe for the client to come out, and so they would be facing funeral directors, doctors and other professionals as someone they weren’t.
“When someone is experiencing grief, they’re already so fragile. It’s not fair to have to hide who you are while going through that, so I was there to offer emotional support and be someone who knew what was really going on,” they said. “It’s really important to have someone to explore those feelings with without hiding anything.”
One of the most important aspects of their work is the unique variety of care Celeste offers as a death companion.
“The important thing to remember is that it’s not either/or — you can work with hospice and social workers and still need the support of a death companion,” they said. “When people are experiencing the anxiety that comes with death, they need to feel safe. I’m here to offer a vast and flexible variety of services to help with that.”
Starting in February, Celeste began to offer virtual processing spaces for those who identify as queer. The goal of those spaces, they said, is to offer space and time to talk about death and grief in all its forms.
“When I started my work, I wasn’t focusing on queer clients, but over time I think my clients began to see a piece of themselves in me, and they just started to gravitate towards me.” they said. “A death companion’s care is truly unique, I strive to meet people wherever they’re at.”
Losing a partner is one of the hardest things a person can ever go through.
While it wanes, the grief never leaves. As humans, we merely learn to live with it.
And feelings associated with loss can be complex – particularly when it comes to the thought of potentially dating again, or becoming romantically involved with someone new.
While, understandably, this may not be on a bereaved partner’s mind for some time, if (or when) it does happen, it can be difficult.
There are many reasons for this, some more obvious than others.
‘Many people who’ve lost a partner find it difficult to consider meeting someone new because they may tell themselves that it would be as if they were trying to replace the person they’ve lost,’ explains relationship expert Rhian Kivits.
‘They may feel like they’re being disloyal or that moving on is fickle.
‘Some even fear the judgment of friends and family and the idea of meeting someone new is shrouded in shame.
‘Others sometimes worry that potential partners will be put off by the fact that they’ve been bereaved, as it can feel like a heavy burden to carry into a new relationship.’
There are lots of things to take into consideration but the most important element is to be kind to yourself and move at a pace that feels comfortable to you.
Experts have shared some other things to keep in mind.
How to deal with feelings of guilt and anxiety
‘Re-establishing a romantic or a sexual dimension to one’s life can feel disloyal to the person you’ve lost,’ says senior therapist Sally Baker.
‘Plus, developing a new physical relationship can provoke anxiety in someone who has been monogamous for a long period of time.’
Sally suggests that all of these fears and anxieties are natural – but that they might feel greater than necessary if a bereaved person is pushing themselves to get back out there intimately, before they are emotionally ready.
So, it’s important to move at your own pace.
However, feelings associated with guilt are often complicated and it’s not always connected to starting a new relationship.
‘People can sometimes even feel guilty for surviving when their loved one has died,’ Sally explains. ‘I would remind them that the person who they lost wouldn’t want them to just survive, but to thrive.’
She says: ‘Even though your partner died, you are still alive. Living a meaningful and full life is the best antidote to death.’
Dr Venetia echoes Sally and suggests considering what you think your partner would want for you, and how you would feel if it was the other way round.
‘If things had turned out differently and you were the first to die out of the two of you, how would you feel about your partner starting a new relationship?’ she adds.
‘Your love for your partner never dies. You may always carry your partner and your shared memories within you.
‘However, this doesn’t mean that there will be no space in your heart for someone new.’
Try to not let feelings of guilt consume you, and remember that this doesn’t mean you are replacing your partner.
‘It helps to acknowledge that you’re not looking to replace your loved one, and to remember that the new people you’ll meet are unique, so they’ll bring different qualities and experiences into your life,’ adds Rhian.
‘You deserve to enjoy companionship, affection, love and sex and you still have a precious life to live.’
Know there’s no timeline
Every person is individual when it comes to their readiness to date after bereavement.
‘Rather than impose a timescale on it, I prefer to encourage the person to understand their motivations for dating,’ says Rhian.
When someone has found peace and acceptance around their loss and feel ready to begin rebuilding their lives, this is when someone is likely to be ready.
‘If they’re using dating to avoid or alleviate their grief, or they have the idea that dating will help them erase the past, they’re probably not quite ready yet,’ she continues.
While there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ time, Sally suggests that, often, the most acute pain of a bereavement fades to a more manageable level between a year and two years.
‘However,’ she says, ‘there is no carved in stone timeline and the circumstances of their loss and the quality of their relationship means feelings of sadness can be exacerbated or eased.’
She adds that it’s completely acceptable not to feel ready for a long time.
However, you may have to learn how to navigate other people’s expectations and be very clear what’s up for dialogue or discussion.
Don’t worry about what other people think
Some people may feel that there is a ‘stigma’ attached to moving on too quickly with rebuilding your life.
However, this fear of other people’s judgments could prevent you from getting back into considering dating, stresses Dr Venetia.
This is why it’s important not to place emphasis on what other people have to say, and listen to your own emotions.
Family and friends will likely have had a relationship with your partner as well, and this can impact their opinion on things.
‘There will always be people who believe the bereaved should stay in mourning and never embrace a new life,’ says Sally.
‘However, a close brush with mortality that losing a loved one can bring often spurs people on to live their life as fully as possible – or at least to believe it’s their time to make decisions that suit them best.’
Sometimes, it can even go the other way, with people who care about you usually being too keen to find solutions that they think will make you feel less sad.
‘Suggesting or even pushing you towards a new relationship may be how they express their concern towards you,’ says Dr Venetia.
‘They think that this is what will make you feel better. However, you will know best when (and if) you are ready to meet a new person. Take your time, listen to your heart, and don’t allow anyone to rush you through.’
Ultimately, experts say it’s not up to anyone but the individual to decide whether it’s time to start dating.
Rhian adds: ‘If other people are judgemental, it’s possibly because they haven’t fully processed the bereavement themselves or have a fixed perspective based on misplaced morals.’
However, she stresses that most friends and family will want the person to be happy, and understand that the desire for company, love, affection and sex is only human.
Fill your life with other things
While moving on might be the right thing for some people, it’s completely acceptable if you feel that you don’t want another partner in your life.
‘After their partner’s loss, many people find ways to live a fulfilling life which do not involve a new relationship,’ says Dr Venetia.
She suggests that finding other ways to fill your life with happiness is a good tactic.
‘Spending more time with friends or family, focusing on work, discovering new hobbies, reconnecting with your faith or spirituality, travelling, helping others or finding ways to honour your partner’s memory,’ she continues.
‘All of these things can all give meaning to your life and bring joy.’
Go at your own pace
For those who do decide to put themselves back out there after such a loss, it can be scary – however, you are not alone.
‘Take your time and go at your pace,’ suggests Sally.
‘Try to resist pressure from others to meet their expectations. You’ve suffered a huge loss and earned the right to put your own needs first.’
It’s normal for things to feel a bit strange at first and there’s never any need to rush or make commitments.
Rhian adds: ‘Be clear about your boundaries and what you feel able to offer a potential partner.
‘And know that if it doesn’t work out, or if feels like it’s a mistake, you can pause and return to dating again when you feel more aligned.’
Consider asking for help
While it’s completely understandable, and acceptable, to not want to move on, there might be a time to think about asking for professional help.
Rhian advises the following: ‘If you are concerned that you’re stuck in your grieving process, if you suspect you’ve developed anxiety or depression or worry that you’ve become too fearful to date, it’s worth talking through your concerns with a therapist.’
Whatever happens, never be afraid to ask for help if you need it, don’t worry what other people think and take steps to do whatever feels right for you.
If you’re struggling and think you need help from someone more removed from the situation, you could also contact a support organisation such as Cruse Bereavement Care.
“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.
October is special for a lot of reasons and one of which is Pregnancy and Infant Loss month (PAIL).PAIL is a true trauma that test lovers’ will, relationship, and self-preservation. This month, I brought in an expert, Jeanae M. Hopgood, MFT, M.Ed, PMH-C (@black_angel_mom) to help educate about PAIL, talk to us about resources and how to preserve a relationship when PAIL hits close to home.
Dr. Lexx: Who are you and what are your credentials?
Hopgood: I am an individual, couple/partner, and family therapist specializing in sexuality & sexual identity, perinatal mental health, perinatal loss, family creation, and family of origin challenges. I am also a mother of three (one earth-side, and twin daughters who passed), an author, owner & CEO of JHJ Therapy, LLC, and creator of the Black Angel Mom brand (virtual community, support groups, journal and blog).
Dr. Lexx: What is PAIL and how do we use October to honor it?
Hopgood: PAIL is an acronym for Pregnancy and Infant Loss. October is PAIL Awareness month and involves several global, as well as local events. PAIL Awareness Day and the Wave of Light occur on October 15th yearly. Some people also use the opportunity to have small gatherings to honor their children that have passed; particularly when there are unclear birth or death dates. Others may choose to use the time to address their loss(es) in private during this time of year, with candles, or journaling, or looking through memorabilia.
Dr. Lexx: How did you come to have a passion for this work?
Hopgood: I have always had an interest in perinatal health and mental health, as well as family creation; however, my specific focus on perinatal loss came out of my own experience with the phenomenon. On June 7, 2017, I gave birth to my twin daughters, Aviva Monroe and Jora Nirali, at just shy of 17 weeks (16w 7d) gestation due to Preterm Premature Rupture of Membranes (pPROM).
My daughters were born alive just after 9pm that evening and died shortly after. Them dying was the biggest, darkest, deepest state of grief I have ever experienced. I was already working as a therapist and had some awareness and skill with coping; however, nothing could have prepared me for the depths of pain I would feel. Writing became [such] an outlet for me that I also decided to create a blog. So, the Black Angel Mom blog was birthed.
Dr. Lexx: What are some of your favorite tools to help with grief?
Hopgood: There are many ways one can approach the work but one of my favorites is just telling your story. Particularly in the case of perinatal loss. For folx with this experience, this is literally the only story they will have about their lost loved one (llo). It’s the only memory(ies) of their llo, so it is crucial for them to be able to tell that story.
In terms of actual, tangible tools, my journal is my fav! The Black Angel Mom Guided Journal is chock full of exercises and activities to help identify specific parts of the grieving process, set boundaries for oneself to help create emotional safety with partners, family, and friends. It also has a ton of free-writing space, processing space after activities, and coloring pages that folx can find relaxing. The journal is good for individual use, as well as use with a support professional (i.e., a therapist). I will also soon be releasing a card deck full of conversation starters and processing prompts for personal use, and/or use with your therapist or support group, and partners. Subscribe for the release or join the Facebook Group to connect!
Dr. Lexx: With loss of a wanted child, there is often a rift between lovers. What tips do you have to help people reconnect to their intimacy?
Hopgood: The loss of a child is traumatic, regardless of the gestational age. It feels unnatural for children to die before they have ever really lived any life. The brain literally struggles to compute this information. It tries to make sense of the nonsensical because it’s super distressing to not understand something. This is the case with perinatal loss too.
Lovers/Partners/Couples are both individually and collectively trying to understand WHY their pregnancy ended or their baby died. It’s not uncommon for the pregnant person to blame themselves and/or for their partner to blame them.
1. Blame can too often lead to shame & guilt, which are both intimacy-killers.
Intimacy — as in feelings of emotional closeness, safety, security, vulnerability — can be heavily damaged during periods following perinatal loss. It is not uncommon for partners to stop talking to each other about their feelings. Sometimes this is because they do not know what to say, sometimes one partner doesn’t want to trigger the other partner, sometimes one partner appears to be managing “well” so the perception is that they aren’t grieving “enough.”
I think one of the most important tips is to remember that everyone’s grief looks different. There are no grief olympics. When partners stop comparing their grief experiences, they are more inclined to seek understanding and empathy. Another tip is to keep talking to each other! Grief is hard and sometimes it makes you want to turn inward: away from the world and away from connection. Though alone-time is sometimes needed, it can also be dangerous to intimacy. Intimacy is about connection, not disconnection. Don’t stop talking to each other and don’t stop asking questions.
3. Seek support.
Find that support group. Find that therapist who specializes in grief work and/or perinatal loss, and also in sex therapy when possible. Support groups can provide a sense of solidarity and understanding, while therapy helps with actual interventions and deep unpacking of issues affecting relational health.
4. Grace is required.
My fourth tip is to be gentle with your bodies and do things that bring it pleasure. After perinatal loss, the relationship to one’s body can be more complex than ever. Depending on the circumstances, the body may have also recently experienced immense pain and discomfort. Healing is required.
Doing things that simply make your body feel good (e.g. dancing, yoga, sexual acts depending on clearance from a doc, exercise, massages, acupuncture, etc.) can help to nurture and change the relationship to the body making physical and sexual intimacy more desirable.
When Sarah’s husband died of cancer at the age of 50, they had been married 25 years. An accomplished man, active in their community, he was deeply missed and Sarah’s circle of friends joined forces to help her through her mourning. Support and succor were offered, but after eight years, when one friend suggested she try to help her create an online dating ad, she remarked that no one had even brought up the subject in all that time. “I know everyone accepted that I deeply loved my husband, and that was part of it,” Sarah says. “But it was as if my life as a woman died along with him in my 50s.” But she had been lonely for the intimacy she had shared with her husband, and was very relieved when someone finally brought it up.
This problem is one that Dr. Alice Radosh, a neurobiologist who lost her husband, terms:
” ‘Sexual bereavement,’ which she defines as grief associated with losing sexual intimacy with a long-term partner. The result, she and her co-author Linda Simkin wrote in a recently published report, is ‘disenfranchised grief, a grief that is not openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned and publicly shared. … It’s a grief that no one talks about. … But if you can’t get past it, it can have negative effects on your physical and emotional health, and you won’t be prepared for the next relationship,’ should an opportunity for one come along.’ ”
Most adults retain sexual feelings as they age and statistics show that they are sexually active, despite popular misconceptions. The New York Times reports: “In a study of a representative national sample of 3,005 older American adults, Dr. Stacy Tessler Lindau and co-authors found that 73 percent of those ages 57 to 64, 53 percent of those 65 to 74 and 26 percent of those 75 to 85 were still sexually active.”
Older adults are often embarrassed to make their interest known, fearing ridicule or disapproval. Even health care professionals routinely fail to inquire about their older patients’ sexual health. Widows have the added burden of feeling, in some cases, that finding a new partner is disloyal to their lost loved one. Some, interested in intimacy but not necessarily remarriage, are ashamed to be associated with what they see as negative social stereotypes of sexually active older women. Despite considerable progress in our attitudes about sexuality, there is still a great deal of discomfort surrounding this topic.
The Times wrote about a recent survey that found:
“Even women who said they were comfortable talking about sex reported that it would not occur to them to initiate a discussion about sex if a friend’s partner died.” The older the widowed person, the less likely a friend would be willing to raise the subject of sex. While half of respondents thought they would bring it up with a widowed friend age 40 to 49, only 26 percent would think to discuss it with someone 70 to 79 and only 14 percent if the friend was 80 or older.”
Younger widows also feel the “disloyalty” factor when experiencing sexual longings. But older women face another common obstacle to re-entering the romance arena: the older they are the longer they are likely to have been out of “circulation.” There are a few common issues that tend to worry these women. One is that they feel intimidated about starting up a new romance with an unknown person after so many years of marital intimacy. Another major factor is worry about the “baggage” that they bring to a new relationship, usually in the form of children and their problems. No matter how grown-up, our children tend to be central to our lives, and worry that a stranger may not accept them or vice versa is common.