We can learn from one woman’s journey through grief to a new relationship. For many years, Joan Price, now 75, has been a prominent expert on older sexuality. Her books include Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex. Price enjoyed exuberant older sex with the love of her life, Robert Rice. Then, a decade ago, Rice died.
Price plunged into inconsolable grief. As time passed, as she slowly began to rebuild her life, she read many of the dozens of books about grieving. None discussed grief’s sexual implications. Price felt disappointed but not surprised. Sex guides largely ignore older sexuality, and many of the grieving resources she perused bought into the mistaken notion that elders are “too old” for sex to begin with, and certainly wouldn’t think about it after suffering mate loss. So, Price wrote Sex After Grief: Navigating Your Sexuality After Losing Your Beloved, a fast informative read that combines her own insights with those of dozens of other widows who struggled with sex after grief.
Myths Friends and Family Tell Grievers
Grievers who mention any interest in sex are almost certain to hear misguided falsehoods, even from well-meaning family and friends:
- Myth: You’re not missing sex, but touch. Hug friends. Get a massage. Hold your grandchildren.
Truth: Of course, you miss touch … but if you’re a sexual person, as the agony of grief yields to the less intense aching of loss, you also miss what loving touch produces—sexual arousal, genital play, and orgasm.
- Myth: Wait at least a year for sex with any new partner.
Truth: The one-year (or more) rule is useful for marrying anew and blending finances. But you’re the best judge of when you feel ready to twist the sheets. Sex is comforting. There’s nothing wrong with using it to help comfort grief. Focus not on the calendar, but on your feelings. Feel free to return to partner lovemaking whenever you feel ready.
- Myth: Sex with a new lover betrays your departed mate.
Truth: In marital vows, spouses often declare faithfulness “till death do us part.” But after one spouse dies, the other is free to move on. You’re unlikely to jump into a new bed soon after the funeral, and perhaps for a long while. But interest in new partners doesn’t betray your deceased love any more than leaving home as a young adult betrays your parents. If the roles were reversed, wouldn’t you want your surviving mate to find new happiness?
- Myth: Before having sex again, make certain the person is your new one and only.
Truth: If you’re deeply religious, you might feel this way. But if not, there’s nothing wrong with one thing leading to another. The vast majority of Americans have engaged in casual sex. Widowhood doesn’t disqualify you from experimenting with new partners.
Myth: Wait until you’re no longer grieving.
Truth: Grief is not baseball—nine innings then it’s over. There’s no clear moment when grieving ends. Over time—usually many months to a year or two—feelings of devastation evolve into less acute heartache, but grief doesn’t disappear. You never completely get over the loss of a mate (or anyone close). When you return to partner sex is up to you. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
- Myth: Enough already. It’s time you started dating.
Truth: Again, you have every right to decide when you return to dating and sex.
When people invoke these myths, Price suggests snappy replies:
- My partner had a long illness. I grieved the whole time. Now it’s time for me to live again.
- I have my own timetable. I’ll know when I’m ready to date again and have sex.
- Thank you for sharing what worked for you, but I’m not you.
- I’ll let you know if I need your advice, thanks.
- Actually, that advice isn’t helpful.
Myths Grievers Tell Themselves
The myths others relate often emerge from the sex-negativity that haunts our culture. Growing up, you, too, may have internalized sexual guilt and shame:
- Myth: Masturbation is wrong, immoral, a sin.
Truth: While grieving, masturbation offers several benefits: pleasure at a time it’s in short supply, better mood, easier sounder sleep, and less likelihood of jumping into bed with the wrong person out of acute sexual frustration. Self-sexing is the foundation of enjoyable partner sex. Virtually everyone has experienced it. Sexuality authorities explain that if you can’t enjoy making love with yourself, it’s difficult to delight in it with anyone else.
- Myth: Casual sex is wrong and shameful.
Truth: The vast majority of Americans—including religious conservatives—have enjoyed casual flings. You’re an adult. You can make your own decisions. Nothing you do sexually is wrong or shameful as long as it’s genuinely consensual, honest, and safe.
- Myth: I’m old. I don’t have to worry about sexual infections.
Truth: There’s no age limit to sexual infections. Lovers under 30 are at greatest risk, but plenty of elderly folks turn up with chlamydia, herpes, genital warts, and other infections. Choose your partners carefully and use condoms every time until you both commit to monogamy.
- Myth: No one would want me anyway.
Truth: You’ve already had one lover and probably more. Which proves you’re desirable. While in the midst of grieving, you may not believe you’re attractive. But you still are—even if your looks and body aren’t what they used to be. Take your time and when you feel ready, open yourself to the possibilities.
- Myth: You only get one true love. I’ve had mine. Now I’m done.
Truth: Millions of widows find new love. It will feel different, but it will be just as real.
Recently, Joan Price welcomed a new love into her life. She’s not entirely over her loss. She never will be. But her life goes on—and so does her sex life.