At Jo Divine we help many people, young and old, after their partner has died, who miss the physical intimacy and pleasure that they enjoyed with their partner, often for many many years.
Some often tell us how embarrassed they feel about buying a sex toy, others feel like they are betraying their partner, some tell us they have found a new partner. Some women begin to cry on the phone so we tell them to take their time and ask them about their partner if they want to talk about them. Many tell us how long they were married or with their partner, how many children they have, and how much they miss their partner.
We frequently find ourselves giggling together by the end of the call, and they tell us they feel much better, thanking us for taking the time to listen to them as they say they have never discussed this issue with their GP or family or been asked about it either.
One customer phoned to say thank you for the sex toy, she had been struggling with grief since the death of her partner 5 years ago and was considering counselling. However after using her sex toy on a regular basis, she found she was enjoying a better night’s sleep, her mood had lifted and she felt she no longer needed to explore counselling.
It can be hard when you have enjoyed frequent pleasurable sex with the same person for many years and it then stops abruptly. The loss of physical touch is something many people talk about and say they miss.
We know when we cuddle our body releases oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that encourages bonding and connection, the same hormone we release during orgasm.
Why Don’t We Acknowledge Sexual Bereavement?
Sex is in the media every day, we celebrate the fact that older people are continuing to enjoy great sex lives in whatever way they find pleasurable and some healthcare professionals promote having a good sex life as hugely beneficial to your physical and mental wellbeing.
Yet, “sexual bereavement” is rarely acknowledged in research or the press.
New research by Dr David Lee, a research fellow at Manchester University’s School of Social Sciences, and Professor Josie Tetley, using data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing found that people over the age of 80 still enjoy an active sex life (2017).
Desite this, a report published by the Department of Health in 2013, the National Service Framework for Older People, “makes no mention of the problems related to sexual issues older people may face,” despite research that many older people would like to continue to enjoy good sexual intimacy and pleasure, whatever their sexual identity or gender history.
Given that the population is growing older and living longer, more people will experience the death of a long term partner and some will experience sexual bereavement yet there have been almost no studies looking at this loss.
A review of literature of the bereavement experiences of lesbian,gay, bisexual and/or transgender people by Bristowe. K et al published in Palliative Medicine (Sept 2016) found that people who identify as LGBT may face additional barriers and anxiety when grieving the loss of a partner from their heterosexual or cisgender peers.
This may include where the relationship with the deceased is socially stigmatised, not recognised and accepted by family and friends or the attitude of healthcare professionals in making heteronormative assumptions.
A recent report from the Federal Interagency Forum on Ageing Related Statistics of Older Americans (2016) found that 40% of women over 65 were widowed in 2016. Yet much of the focus around enjoying sexual intimacy and pleasure has been aimed at sexual function in older people rather than the loss of a long term sexual relationship.
Dr Alice Radosh, a neurobiologist who lost her own husband when he was 50 and Linda Simkins co-authored a study, Acknowledging sexual bereavement : a path out of disenfranchised grief published in Reproductive Health Matters (2016).
Dr Radosh defines “Sexual Bereavement” as grief associated with losing sexual intimacy with a long term partner.
It is a disenfranchised grief, a grief that is not openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned and publicly shared, a grief that no one talks about, leaving the bereaved unsupported with coping with this aspect of mourning.
“Studies have shown that people are still having and enjoying sex in their 60s, 70s and 80s,” Dr. Radosh said. “They consider their sexual relationship to be an extremely important part of their lives. But when one partner dies, it’s over.”
Rather than causing distress or discomfort to women who had been widowed their exploratory survey involved 104 women, aged 55 years and older in relationships, both heterosexual and lesbian.
A majority of participants were engaged in sexual activity with 40% enjoying sex once a week or more, 15% every two weeks, 11% once a month and 34% less frequently. 86% of all the participants said they enjoyed sex.
The ages range within the group was 55-65 (37%), 66-75 (57%) and 6 % were older than 75.
Almost 72% presumed they would miss sex if their partner dies with 53% saying they definitely would. Over a quarter (27%) said that sex was not something they would miss. Understandably the women who enjoyed more frequent sex said they would miss sex more (75%) than women who had sex once a month or less (26%).
Many of the women said they would want to talk about sex amongst their friends after their partner’s death with 67% indicating that they would probably initiate a discussion and 76% would want their friends to initiate the discussion with them.
Those women who enjoyed sex frequently were more likely to say they would initiate a discussion compared to women who had less frequent sex 79% compared to 54%. Also women enjoying more frequent sex would want their friends to initiate the conversation compared to those having less sex (85% v 64%)
Despite wishing that friends initiate a discussion more than half (57%) said it would not occur to them to discuss sexual bereavement with a friend with 34% saying even if it did occur to them, they would be too embarrassed.
Interestingly half the women said they thought they would raise the topic with women under 60 when they were widowed whereas only 26% would raise the issue with women in their 70’s and only 14% with women who were 80 or older.
Comments that came from this survey included that the majority of women would not be embarrassed if their friend raised the topic of sexual bereavement, it had made them aware of the lack of discussion around this subject and the importance of enjoying sex to those who have been widowed.
Whilst this study only surveyed women, we must not forget men who also experience sexual bereavement after the loss of a partner.
Meeting a new partner
It take courage to find a new partner yet many people are frowned upon if this happens too soon after the death of a loved one, especially family and friends.
So why does society believe there is a suitable time limit for people to wait before entering a new relationship?
Abel Keogh, author of Dating a Widower says
“there is no time frame, we all process grief in our own time and in our own way. It may be a few months, a few years and it is important that you make up your own mind, not be told by friends and family that the time is right”.
A survey by Gransnet and Relate which looked at relationships after bereavement, divorce or separation found that nearly 2 years (22 months) was considered the appropriate length of time to wait after bereavement before starting a new relationships, although respondents said they actually waited nearly 4 years ( 44 months) before starting a new relationships after the death of a partner.
They also felt that men moved on more quickly after bereavement than women, a commonly held view yet not shared by some widowers. Abel Keogh says, “the desire for sex is one of the reasons widowers start dating again.” However there are plenty of widows who miss sex too.
The loss of companionship is huge for men and women.
In general, the majority of women have a better support community of friends to talk to whereas men don’t or struggle to open up with their male friends. Many men find it easier to talk to a woman about their emotions, something they have done with their partner which is probably one of the reasons they seem to begin dating earlier than women do in their grieving process in order to have someone to talk to.
Overwhelmingly 81% said they felt it was a taboo to discuss their new relationship with their children following the loss of their partner.
It can be difficult for children to accept their parent has found someone new and feel they are betraying the memory of the deceased partner. Many people struggle to negotiate their sexual relationships with a new partner just because of the attitude of their children which is very sad.
Making it part of training for Healthcare Professionals
We know that many healthcare professionals struggle to talk to their patients about sex even though they recognise the numerous benefits of enjoying a healthy sex life, whatever that may be can boost your general wellbeing which is why it needs to be included in training and after bereavement to ensure people have the right help and support.
The inability to share aspects of grief can reduce the likelihood of receiving support yet the impact upon health both emotionally and physically can be huge. Studies have demonstrated that grief is frequently associated with physical and mental health issues.
This is why it is so important this conversation needs to become the norm within healthcare and society to help improve the health and wellbeing of people after bereavement, whatever their age, sex or sexual orientation.
Independent Age : www.independentage.org
Age UK : www.ageuk.org.uk
CRUSE : www.cruse.org.uk
Marie Curie : www.mariecurie.org.uk
The Good Men Project : www. goodmenproject.com