Three people share their stories of what it was like for them.
Sex and intimacy are vital, primal needs that do not just naturally fade into extinction after our so-called “child-bearing” years. These are enduring needs that can be beautifully met throughout all life stages. Believe it or not, many of our grandmothers and grandfathers are still playfully twistin’ the sheets. If not with the same vigor they relished in their young adulthood, at least they’re enjoying it with the same instinctive enthusiasm! According to The New England Journal of Medicine, 53 to 73 percent of older Americans between the ages of 57 and 74 participate in some form of sexual activity on a regular basis. But what happens if our beloved partner dies?
There are countless resources for those who have lost loved ones, but surprisingly few which offer definitive information and advice about sexuality for those who have lost the love of their life or who have become widowed. One of the precious few experts who are willing to talk about sexuality after loss, Joan Price, the author of Sex After Grief: Navigating Your Sexuality After Losing Your Beloved and eminent authority on sexuality in our later years tells O.school, “We all experience grief in our own way, and that includes the myriad ways we invite sex [back] into our lives — or don’t — or we change along the way. We all respond differently … and however you respond is normal.”
O.school spoke with several widows to learn more about their own personal experiences with sexuality after the death of their loved ones.
On coping with the desire to love and be loved
About four years after the death of her husband of 45 years of marriage, Judy S., 72, had a short and sweet Bucket List she wanted to fulfill. It consisted of only three things. The first, to love and be loved. The second, to have a sex life again. And the third, to travel within her home country of Canada. So, while she had the desire to start dating again, Judy worried that, should she meet someone she was interested in, her “waterworks” might not still be functioning properly because she and her late spouse had stopped having sexual intercourse ten years before he finally succumbed to cancer and it had been 14 years altogether since she’d had penetrative sex.
Judy actively summoned the courage to speak with her general practitioner. Much to Judy’s surprise, her GP assured her that she was not “the Sahara Desert” as she’d feared she might be. Her doctor prescribed low-dose estrogen pills and offered her hearty and enthusiastic encouragement to “go for it.” Which she happily did. Judy used the power of the internet to begin her foray back into the world of sexual self-discovery. She searched for articles about sex and pleasure, subscribed to a dating site, and even bought her first vibrator online.
Today, Judy recalls that while searching for a forthright website that wouldn’t sugarcoat the topic of sex, she found O.school. She says she is most impressed by how honest and candid O.school’s articles are. “Back in the day” her generation was never afforded such a wide variety of information about sex. “O.school,” she claims “is such a wonderful vehicle for intimate discussions with [her newfound love, and lover] Brian. We enjoy reading the articles together, trying all sorts of new things we read about,” says Judy. And, they delight in exploring the wonders that their “geriatric bodies have to offer.” Judy adds, “The best thing about sex [at this age and stage of life] is the sheer happiness [it brings]. My daughter even remarks on how happy I seem now. I feel desirable and, yes, young. It’s so refreshing to feel this way again!”
On not wanting to be alone
Even though she was often surrounded by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren which provided her with a lot of love, hugs, and attention, Rosie R., 80, still felt a physical and emotional void after the death of her husband of 58 years. She was able to occupy her mind and her time during the day, but once evenings fell, she couldn’t help but to deeply feel her solitude and her loss. It was especially difficult to sleep alone in a bed that she had spent so much of her life sharing with her beloved.
“After my husband passed away, I knew I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted somebody in my life. I prayed that I would meet someone special. You know, just the touch of a man’s hand and being held is such a comfort,” Rosie tells O.school. She didn’t need a husband for financial support. “I just wanted someone to share the remaining days with.” As it turned out, Rosie happened to reunite with an old acquaintance, David, who was a widower himself, at the funeral of a mutual friend.
Sex was not something that Rosie consciously missed. She imagined that “at my age, I pretty much thought [sex] was off the table.” Because she and her late husband had been very conservative in their marital and sexual roles, sex had been more of a marital duty that brought comfort, but not passion. Rosie confides that she was shocked by her own stirring desires after only a handful of dates with her new beau. “I certainly wasn’t expecting to feel that way again. In fact, I don’t think I’d actually ever felt that way before.” When asked if she thinks that she and David share a chemistry that she and her late husband hadn’t shared, she laughs, “Well, we have something I’ve never had!” After her initial shyness, David was able to encourage her to be more comfortable talking with him about sex. She explains that their open communication is probably at least one reason why she is enjoying the discovery of a newfound intimacy relatively late in life.
Rosie is quick to mention that she and David did not engage in sex before they married. “I’m old-fashioned. We both are. So, it was important for us to wait for the honeymoon, even at our age.” Then, she adds with a grin in her voice, “I will say it was worth the wait.”
On being happily self-partnered
It’s been 13 years since C.J., 71, has been with a partner and that’s just fine by her. “Trust me, I didn’t lose my sexuality when [my husband] died, but I don’t want a new relationship at this stage of my life,” she says, adding with a lighthearted laugh, “I don’t need the hassle.”
C.J. says that coming into her sexuality in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, she’d tried unbridled sex and found it lacking. She quickly discovered that one-night stands were not appealing to her in any way. “Sex without an emotional connection is just clumsy and awkward. I actually find it distasteful.” So, when male acquaintances began asking her out again, she demurred. “My life was already so busy … with work, church, and family, I didn’t need to add another component. I frankly enjoyed my solitude.”
When asked about her favorite sex, C.J. quickly perks up and declares, “The best sex I’ve ever had always involved a lot of passion. It didn’t have to involve love, per se, but there had to be real tangible passion.” She adds that she doesn’t actually miss having a partner now. “I’ve always been an affectionate person. Very huggy, kissy. But, the seat of my affectionate nature is separate from my sexuality — which I fully embrace. No, human contact needn’t be enjoyed only in a sexual venue. I don’t feel at all deprived.”
As if to prove her case in point, she says she sometimes recalls her most passionate lovers of the past. “Look, when I self-pleasure I’m in control. I’m in charge. It’s my fantasy. I go anywhere and with anyone I want. And, guess what. It’s always perfect!”
The bottom line
As an older, wiser person, you are likely to be able to look at your sexuality and explore new options with open curiosity rather than fear or judgment. Mature sexuality offers freedom from the everyday worries and stresses of life. No longer trying to climb the ladder of success in your chosen work field or worrying about the burdens of child-rearing and keeping up with the Joneses allows you to focus your energy more deeply into yourself and into your partner. You’re also more likely to have garnered communication skills that allow intimacy, both emotional and physical, to flow more smoothly. So, the death of a loved one need not equate with the death of your sexuality. In fact, after you’ve allowed yourself time to grieve and heal, it may be the beginning of a grand new adventure.