Physical intimacy and death: when is it time to have sex again after a bereavement?

When a loved one dies and you're grieving, the need for sex tends to take a back seat, at least for a while.

Physical intimacy and death: when is it time to have sex again after a bereavement?

When a loved one dies and you're grieving, the need for sex tends to take a back seat, at least for a while. But at some point the desire comes back - albeit often combined with a bad conscience. Can it be "too early" for sex? That says a pastor and theologian.

Suddenly he is no longer there, the person whose wrinkles and birthmarks you knew inside out. Whose smell you loved. Skin on skin, intimacy, rumpled sheets: all of that no longer exists. What does it mean for your own sexuality when your loved one dies? The pastor and theology professor Traugott Roser from Münster explains in an interview why it is by no means absurd if the libido is stimulated in times of mourning.

Why is sex such a big taboo subject in times of grief?

Traugott Roser: That has to do with traditional ideas of what mourning should be like. We also have that in our culture, for example the specification of a year of mourning in which a widower or widow dresses in black. And so the clothing signals: I'm not available.

In the year of mourning, one must also consider the origin. It used to be about potential children who could still be born. It had to be clear whether they were entitled to the inheritance of the deceased person.

Another point: Many people have the image in their heads that mourning someone is also an expression of the quality of love. Then the duration of loyalty - including sexual loyalty - is evidence of the depth of love. Or the other way round: Anyone who soon flirts or kisses someone else probably didn't really love the deceased person.

What does it mean for your own sexuality if you lose your partner?

Sexuality is an expression of being human. And it's not just about intercourse. Touching, caressing, sensuality are also part of it. The moment a partner dies in a relationship, it's not just the other person I can talk to at the breakfast table that's missing. The body in the bed next to me is also missing. After all, the body is used to staying in touch with the other. If one of them dies, this communication breaks off.

But of course sexual arousal and needs are still there. However, they go nowhere. This is a very painful process for many mourners. It's like losing a language.

The sexual needs remain. After a while, you may feel ready to engage with someone new. It's not easy emotionally at first, is it?

In studies, those affected say that this is associated with shame. It's very difficult to talk to anyone about it. It is already difficult for oneself to perceive: "I still have sexual needs, but now my partner died not too long ago. How can that be?" It is a contradiction of feelings - and it is difficult for those affected to bear.

In addition, grief throws the entire body into disarray. Also the hormonal balance. And in this context, there can also be a noticeable sexual neediness or feelings that you don't even know how to deal with.

What exactly makes it so difficult to deal with?

A lot of people don't have the language for it. You never learned to talk about sex. How do I formulate what concerns or confuses me to someone else?

And of course also: Who can I tell about it anyway? You usually can't tell the children, after all, you didn't talk to them about sex with your deceased partner.

When those affected talk about their feelings and thoughts, a lot is gained. What is the best way for outsiders to behave then?

As an outsider, the most important thing is to let the grieving person know that these feelings are perfectly normal. There's nothing fanciful about that. Not immediately after death, but after a while one can ask: "How are you with your grief, with the physical absence, with the empty bed? Would you like to talk?"

Avoid statements like "Don't you think that's a bit early?" if there is someone new that the grieving person is seeing. It's important not to go straight into the evaluation, into a critical undertone. Better alternatives are phrases like "What would have to happen for you to have a nice evening if you go out with someone tonight? What are you afraid of?" It is important to speak openly - without judgement.

Rules are not good. Also vice versa, like "What, you're still wearing black?" or "It's time for you to go out and socialize again". Saying this without being asked and from the gut is not very empathetic and not helpful at all.

About the person: Prof. Traugott Roser is a pastor with a focus on palliative care and author of the book "Sexuality in Times of Grief. When Longing Remains". He is also a professor of practical theology at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster.

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