The Loss of Physical Intimacy: Another Disenfranchised Loss

Earlier this month an article in the NY Times caught my eye. Written by Jane E. Brody, it was entitled “When a Partner Dies, Grieving the Loss of Sex.” It explained that the loss of physical intimacy is often a disenfranchised loss because we simply do not discuss it with friends or therapists. “Sexual Bereavement” is a hidden loss.

The article describes several taboos which contribute to our lack of discussion or awareness of sexual bereavement. We tend to avoid considering senior adults as sexual beings, so if the bereaved person is an older person we might assume that their sexual life is unimportant. There also seem to be some prescribed societal norms around sexuality for widows and widowers; one widow commented upon a supposition that a “good widow” should not crave sex. This common belief that older and widowed people should not miss or want physical intimacy can foster shame or guilt for those experiencing sexual bereavement, and promote silence.

Any mention of disenfranchised loss always catches my attention. There are so many losses which are unspoken or misunderstood. As always, it is helpful to shine a light on these losses, to let those experiencing them know that they are not alone and to normalize their experiences.

I also thought that the article was a good reminder of the many secondary losses which we experience after the death of a loved one. There are many different types of secondary losses which we might experience. Some are concrete, like a loss of financial income. Others pertain more specifically to the roles and function of our relationship to the deceased. The loss of an intimate partner, as discussed in this article, can create a loss of a piece of our identity. Our relationship with our spouse may have been the only place where our sexual and romantic life took place.  After they die we might mourn for that part of our life and identity.

Our lost family member or friend often held many roles in our life, and we might have relied on them for a variety of reasons. Maybe they were our number one confidante, or the person who gave us cherished advice. Perhaps they were the only one who shared our passion for poetry, or for milkshakes, or they were the person we turned to for a late night chat when we had insomnia because they lived in a different time zone. Our secondary losses are unique to our relationship with the deceased.

It seems that the loss of someone we love creates a collection of voids for us. Those secondary losses may often be disenfranchised or unseen by others.

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