It is quite unlikely to think about grief and sex together. We talk about how trauma impacts our bodies and experiences of sex, but grief isn't any different. In fact, grief and sex both affect the physical, emotional, cognitive, and relational dimensions of an individual.
Everyone's experience of sex during and after grieving is immensely different from each other hence, there are no "normals". But we can understand sex and grief better when we evaluate each individual dimensions affected by them.
Types of Grief
Stigmatized Loss: It often includes feelings of shame, blame, hopelessness, or distress. For eg: losses related to suicide, addictions, HIV, LGBTQ+, infidelity, abortion, infertility, and others.
Ambiguous Loss: It is often an intangible or uncertain losses that are often not acknowledged. For eg: receiving disability/mental health diagnosis of loved ones, estrangement in family, divorce, etc.
Anticipatory Grief: It occurs in anticipation of a death or other kind of loss. For eg: terminal illness diagnosis, battling addiction, people leaving for a military deployment, etc.
Disenfranchised Grief: Grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly mourned. For eg: ending of relationship/friendship, infertility, loss of pet, loss of cultural traditions, etc.)
How we experience these kinds of losses can impact how we process death-related losses. You can also learn about other types of grief from What's Your Grief.
Common Dimensions of Grief & Sex
The pain of grief is not just an emotional pain but also a deeply physical experience. Our brain is activated in very similar ways when we experience emotional pain as when we experience physical pain. So, when we are experiencing emotional pain, our brains will seek out ways to ease the pain response in the brain.
Physically, a need to engage in sex when one is grieving can be because sex releases feel-good neurotransmitters and pain-reducing hormones that can, at least temporarily, give us reprieve from the immeasurable pain or numbness. It can also simply be a meaningful physical connection with another human being at a time that can feel isolating, unstable, insecure, and overwhelming.
For some individuals, the opposite might be true and they may not find sex as positive or pleasurable. Grief can increase stress chemicals in the brain and, in some cases, can cause an onset of depression or exacerbate existing depression. Any of these things can physiologically make it harder to feel interested in sex or to get the same pleasure from sex.
Having sex has its benefits however, it doesn't always mean that having sex will always have a positive impact on a person unless their feelings are in sync with their desire.
More often than not, sexual desire is perceived as shameful and induces guilt in people as they believe having sex is wrong when they are grieving which is absolutely not true. These feelings are a result of internalizing society's view of how to grieve "properly" and pay your due respects to an individual when it really doesn't signify anything. There is no rulebook, no “right” amount of time, so part of the work of being comfortable if and when you decide to have sex is doing your own self-assessment!
On the contrary, for people with lower/no sexual desires, grieving can feel even more lonely and isolating when sexual intimacy is no longer an outlet. In such situations, talking to your partners and allowing yourself to find an intimate circle that can help you with emotional regulation and safety through communication and touch is an extremely important step in building trust ans security in your sexual attachments.
Grief affects our brain which directly impacts our perception of sex. Attention, memory, judgement, and higher executive functions are all affected due to “grief brain” or “grief fog.” Grief can affect our ability to concentrate and make decisions. It's difficult to think clearly, make informed decisions, and remember things. This can also result in using sex as a coping mechanism or avoiding sex altogether to avoid getting hurt or vulnerable with anyone else.
This can also cause secondary losses (experiences that flow due to death) like losing a sense of belonging, confusion about one's identity, re-evaluating support systems, questioning faith, and others. Just because these are secondary does not mean they are any less impactful or less difficult. They can unfold over time or become apparent in the immediate aftermath of the death. Secondary losses are a normal part of grief, and identifying and acknowledging them can often be the first step in grieving them. This creates space to address the feelings and work through them or sit with them. Either way, it challenges in re-routing our brain, bodies, and actions towards choosing safe, secure attachments.
Sex in the aftermath of loss can especially impact partnered relationships or seeking sexual relationships. If it stops, it stops. If it continues, it continues. And if it changes, it changes.
For people who want sex when they are grieving, sex is a way to be taken care of, held, and physically nourished. It is also another way of blowing off steam or Short Term Energy Relieving Behavior (STERBs) where we put our energy in the aftermath of loss in order to diffuse some of the tension, heartache, or pain that we’re feeling. STERBs also include eating, drinking, working, etc.
However, some partners may not feel the same way and experience desire discrepancies. In such cases, each of you must try to identify your own feelings and the meaning that you give to sexuality. Sharing these perspectives sensitively and being open to change can help to make the grief more bearable and draw you closer together. Even if there is a break in sexual intercourse, don’t stop hugging, holding and touching. In fact, you could find yourselves doing this more often, deriving comfort, increased meaning, support and understanding from it. A relationship without intercourse can still be rewarding and you are less likely to feel isolated and afraid of the relationship breaking down if you still maintain some physical ‘connection’. It is important to understand that resuming sexual intimacy can take time. It may require patience and understanding and need not become a major issue.
Grief is universal, and yet individual. Our grief is our own, and all of our feelings and expressions of grief are okay.
There is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve neither is there a timeline. While we may eventually adapt to life without our loved ones, grief never fully goes away.