Grief will touch most people at some point in their lives. Whether you’re mourning the loss of a loved one or pet, the loss of a job, or even grieving changes in your body, everyone’s experience of grief is unique. Whatever their individual experience of grief, some people find that it impacts their sex lives. Not a lot of research has been done about grief and sexuality, but for those navigating sex after loss, the insights of others who’ve gone through the grieving process, as well as support from a mental health professional, may be helpful.
How can grief impact sexuality?
Some people find that their sex drive doesn’t change at all, while others experience a dramatic decrease, or increase, in libido. Joan Price has written extensively about older-age sexuality, and is the author of Sex After Grief: Navigating Your Sexuality After Losing Your Beloved, based on her own experience of losing her partner and dozens of responses from other grievers. Price tells O.school: “We all respond to grief in individual ways. Some grievers go numb. They can’t imagine having a sex drive. They don’t crave sexual touch for months, maybe years. Others need sex quickly. Others are somewhere in between. Some are conflicted about their libido. Some act on it with someone new. Some stick to masturbation. There’s no “right” way to deal with sexual feelings during grief. There’s no one timeline that works for everyone or that we should aspire to.”
Price adds that the type of grief someone is experiencing can be a factor in how someone’s sexuality is impacted: “If you're mourning the death of someone close to you, that can look a lot different than experiencing grief when we have a scary medical diagnosis or even the kind of grief many of us have felt during the pandemic.”
For some, grief causes a loss of sex drive
Deep sadness, pain, or anger can mean there isn’t much room for sexual feelings. Clinical psychologist Dr. Bethany Cook tells O.school: “When the mind and body perceive a threat (grief can cause this to happen) the body goes into survival mode which shuts down the libido to ensure there is enough energy to stay alive. It’s natural and totally normal.”
Sex therapist Becca Hirsch, LMFT, CST, tells O.school: “When we are experiencing any kind of loss, we can often have similar symptoms as those diagnosed with depression, such as a decrease in libido, lower energy levels, trouble sleeping, feeling disconnected from those around us, change in appetite, feelings of low self-worth, and general feelings of hopelessness. When we feel sad, angry, scared, guilty (or any of the other big feelings that may come up during a grieving process), it's hard to have psychological and emotional space for desire.” She adds that the feelings of numbness or disconnection that are part of the grieving process for some people can also diminish sex drive: “When we're experiencing any intense or difficult emotion, one of our defense mechanisms as a human is to try to disconnect our feelings and body from our day-to-day life. When we're shutting off our emotions and disconnecting from our body, that will absolutely impact desire and libido as well.”
For others, grief makes them feel horny
While some people lose their sex drive when they’re grieving, others experience the opposite effect, and find that their libido increases after a loss. Because sex and physical closeness release “feel-good” hormones, like oxytocin (1), sex may help to relieve feelings of sadness and anxiety brought about by grief. Sex can also bring emotional comfort to people in mourning. Dr. Cook tells O.school that sex “could be an individual's way of feeling connected and close to someone after a loss." Price agrees, telling O.school that people who are grieving may be “craving the solace of touch. The feelings can be physical or emotional or both.”
Dr. Cook tells O.school that, for some people, sex can be a way to escape the difficult feelings that come up during the grieving process. “[Sex] might be a way to avoid, distract or disassociate from the grief.” Price tells O.school that “people may use sexual activity as a way to cope with the feelings of sadness or to help them feel better. Sometimes, we may turn to sexual encounters to avoid the pain or distract ourselves. Sex for many people is a fun, pleasurable, and connecting way to escape their reality.”
Increased sex drive after loss may also be a response to a new awareness of mortality, and a desire to live more fully and authentically. Price tells O.school that some people may have “more desire for their partner or feel more sexual in general since grief can make you ask yourself existential questions and reflect on your own life and mortality.” Price adds that someone might crave sex as a way to “reclaim their own life” if “their relationship was sexless for a long time due to the partner’s illness or other reasons. Often, they need a release from the built-up tension and grief.”
6 tips for navigating sex when you’re grieving
Both Price and Dr. Cook emphasize that there’s no standard timeline when it comes to sex after loss. When to start having sex again during or after a period mourning — and whether you want to at all — is a personal decision. Here are some tips for navigating sex after loss.
1. Let yourself feel. Price tells O.school that it’s important to let yourself experience whatever feelings come up. “We have to carve out time to let go and completely give in to the big emotions. The more you allow yourself to feel your feelings, the better you'll be in the long-run within your relationship and in your sexual connections (both with yourself and with others).” She continues that “when we try to suppress our feelings or judge our feelings, we're more likely to experience low libido or feel like you're just going through the motions instead of being present and experiencing [sexual connection].”
2. Give it time. “It's important to be patient within your relationship if there's grief and loss,” Price tells O.school. “It can take people a long time to feel somewhat like themselves again, and even then, grief may never fully heal or go away. It may be less intense over time and not feel quite as all-consuming, but it'll be there. When it comes to your libido, the more space you give yourself to be exactly where you're at emotionally and sexually, you'll notice more ebbs and flows with your desire.”
Dr. Cook encourages the partners of people who are grieving to “allow the person grieving space and time. When they are ready to initiate intimacy again (mentally and/or physically) recognize that they may still not be fully “back to normal” and be comforting and supportive.”
3. Start slow. Even for those who want to resume a sexual relationship, it can take time to feel ready for sex. You can experiment with different types of sensual touch, or even take sex off the table for a while. Dr. Cook recommends non-sexual touch like “a foot rub or back massage as a way to slowly introduce intimate touch.” She adds that “even if you start being intimate again your partner may suddenly ask to stop touching. This is normal.”
4. Be open with your partner. Even if your partner doesn’t share your grief, being honest about what you’re going through can build intimacy and allow them to support you. Price encourages O.school readers: “If you're in a partnership and you're experiencing loss, talk to them about it! If you're grieving, and you really let go emotionally and show true vulnerability, AND they're able to hold your emotions (listen without judgment or problem solving) and be a stable and comforting presence, that has the potential to really add to the intimacy of the relationship.” But for someone whose relationship feels less supportive, Price tells O.school, “grief can feel especially terrible and lonely if you're not in a loving and trusting relationship and don't feel safe being vulnerable with your partner. If this is the case, it may be helpful to seek couples counseling or consider if this is the right relationship for you.”
5. Seek support. Grief is a normal part of life — but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Seeking support from friends, loved ones, a community of others also experiencing grief, resources for those in the grieving process, or seeking a caring mental health professional can help ease the transition represented by loss. Price tells O.school that it’s important to have “close and trusted people you can talk to and lean on.”
6. Don’t let others’ judgment affect you. Whether you feel like you never want to have sex again, or you want to have sex nonstop, there is no “right” way to experience sexuality when you’re grieving. Price tells O.school that “you’re not broken if you crave sex after loss. You’re not doing grief wrong. You’re not betraying your partner. There are people who think they know what’s best for you — they don’t. No one has the right to judge you.” On the flip side, Dr. Cook says that “Pushing someone to have sex too soon or saying it will help them ‘get over it isn’t actually healthy or beneficial.”
The bottom line
Everyone experiences grief in their own way. Whenever you feel ready to be sexual during the grieving process — or if you never do — you have the right to be affirmed and supported. Reaching out for support, taking your time, and letting yourself experience the full range of emotions during mourning can help you to navigate sexuality when you’ve experienced loss.