I wasn’t interested in having sex after Evelyn died. I was grieving and not looking to replace her.
This is contrary to one of the main conclusions in Sienna Jae Fein’s article, “Sex and the Grieving Widower,” published in the Huffington Post. Her female readers were surprised by how interested widowers were in having sex, even early in grief.
When my wife unexpectedly died in her 40s, I felt battered like a Mack truck had hit me. I couldn’t taste any food I tried to eat and lost ten pounds in the first week. There was no holding of hands. No bumping hips as we moved around the kitchen cooking dinner. No scent of her skin when she stepped out of the shower. No soft touch of her cheek. No running my fingers through her hair. No intimacy.
Evelyn’s physical absence was so profound that this part of my life shut down, and a dull, heavy ache settled into my bones.
Sex is not an emotion. It’s an expression of something else. What are widowers looking for when they’re having sex? The answer is more complicated than Fein’s pleasure principle.
Sex is a Physical Activity
It’s strong enough to push aside the intensity of grief for a moment. It’s exciting, gets our hearts pumping, and for men it can feel like the challenge of going on a hunt. If they’re successful, they feel they have re-established the beachhead of their manhood. But trying to find one’s heart through one’s penis is iffy.
When grief hits, men want to do something, and having sex is something they can physically do. Some people think that men are biologically wired to seek sex in all situations.
In Fein’s article, sociologist Katherine van Wormer says that having sex can be a way for men to deny that they have suffered a loss. The danger is that rather than connecting to another human being, having sex with anonymous people can leave us feeling even more alone.
In my first months of grief, several women at work were unusually attentive and kept asking how I was doing. Some were my age and a few were college women twenty years younger. If one of them had asked me out on a date, would I have gone? And what if they had wanted to be intimate?
Sex is a Diversion
Grief is unrelenting. It churns through our heads 24 hours a day. No one wants to grieve. It’s painful, messy, and we desperately look for anything to distract us. We’re likely to turn to whatever brought us an escape in the past (sex, drugs, alcohol, food, sports, music).
If we discover that our old ways of coping with loneliness don’t even blunt the sharp edge of grief’s trauma, we will take greater and greater risks until we find something that does.
In her book, Wild, Cheryl Strayed details her attempts to cope with the devastation of her mother’s death. She slept with everyone she could find, then moved in with someone who used narcotic drugs, and when nothing filled her emptiness, she backpacked alone on the Pacific Crest trail from California to Washington. She figured that either she would find what she needed or die, and she didn’t care which.
Sex is Control
Grief takes over so much of our lives that we don’t feel in charge of anything. Having sex is one way of taking control back, because we are choosing to do it.
When grief sweeps in, it comes with a tsunami of emotions that knocks us off our feet. Anger and despair have us bouncing off the walls. We’re crying every hour, and we feel guilty for not doing something that might have saved our loved ones. We haven’t cried this much in years, if ever, and it undermines our sense of self.
Men want the emotional stability they had with their spouses. We want our hearts back, and the loneliness we feel is an emptiness that nothing will fill except the presence of the one we loved. Sex is an attempt to open the door that death closed.
Sex is an Addendum to Companionship
When a man loses a spouse, he loses companionship. He loses that one person who was always there if he needed help or consolation. He loses the intense moments of physical and emotional intimacy.
Men need the comfort of human touch as much as women, but women generally have a better support community of friends to talk to on an ongoing basis. Men basically have their spouses, who now are dead. I think men find it easier to talk about their emotions with a woman, if they talk about their emotions at all, so they begin dating earlier than women do in their grieving process in order to have someone to talk to.
There is the danger of this physicality slipping into sexuality because men have learned to get what they want by being pushy. In Fein’s article, Abel Keogh, author of The Ultimate Dating Guide for Widowers says, “the desire for sex is one of the reasons widowers start dating again.”
In Elegy for Iris, John Bayley wrote of the months after his wife died. He said he “fumbled” around with two women who came to his house wanting to help, not knowing what he, or they, wanted. When he realized that he wanted companionship, he began to date a woman who wanted the same thing.
Needing to escape the gauntness of home, I went to Yosemite and hiked in the mountains for fourteen hours a day, hiking through blazing sun, thunderstorms, and snow.
I took the risk of hiking alone because I wanted to be where life and death touched. I hiked in the backcountry among mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and bears, with the possibility of dying if I encountered them, broke an ankle, lost the trail, or was caught by a sudden shift in the weather.
The extreme physical demands, and the repetitive cadence of hiking, created a rhythm for working my way through grief.
Was hiking my replacement for sex? I did experience a rush of euphoria when the endorphins kicked in, and the hours on the trail lasted longer than sex does for most men, unless they’re doing Sting’s seven-hour tantric version. The place I went to for escape became the place where I found my new home.
Sex is a Relationship
For some widowers, having sex is just a pleasurable experience, like eating a five-course meal or sipping a fine wine. There are no lingering feelings attached. I’m closer to Sting’s view, feeling that while sex is a celebration of the senses and the physicality of life, it’s also an expression of personal emotions. It takes us into a sacred space where we share the intimacy of our hearts.
Female friends arrived on my doorstep wanting to help, and their hugs kept me connected to humanity. But no one wanted to have sex, as far as I know. They helped me unknot my emotions, and to realize that what I wanted most was to love someone and be loved back.
Photo: Getty Images