On Heartbreak, Loss and Sex

“When will it get better?” she asked, even though I am pretty certain that, in her early 30s and having struggled with her mother’s illness for more than a decade, she knew better.

Her mother had died just a few weeks earlier and, though I didn’t know her well, we found – over dinner with two shared friends – that she and I were part of the same club that no one ever wishes to be a part of and that once you’re in, you can never get out of: that of women and men who have lost a parent.

It was, for me, a tender moment. Telling someone who is around your same age, who you know already knows the answer, that it will never completely get better is heartbreaking. It shatters a piece of you, or it did for me on that evening not long ago.

It would be nice to be able to say something like “give it six months” but such a lie would be cruel. Anna Quindlen once wrote something to suggest that there is a point in some people’s lives that is so poignant and bare that it becomes a dividing line. A clear “before” and a clear “after” on either side of that event or that moment. For me, losing my father drew such a line.

Most of the time I am fine. I know that he is gone, but life is for the living and all that and it goes on. I can talk about it with friends. It can remain tucked away in my mind – present and real, but back there somewhere.

Then there are moments when it becomes achingly real that he is gone. When I’m at a restaurant and someone reaches across their table to taste their father’s good soup and I realize that I will never do that again. That though I may feel comfortable enough to reach across the table to sample the meals of friends and other family members, I will never again share that casual everyday moment that people take for granted, not ever again. It is during these times that I feel utterly and amazingly alone and they strike from out of nowhere, and they hurt. Sometimes the feelings are compounded by other losses, other disappointments, that tear at me. Sometimes it is just that.

There are people you think or hope you can count on and then there are people you know you can always count on. When I lost my father, I lost my biggest supporter, the one I knew I could always count on. I lost the person who, even when I made mistakes and took serious and sometimes brazenly wrong turns, waited patiently for me to get back on track. He didn’t ask when, he just seemed more relaxed when I was back on track. And then I knew that I was, in fact, on firm ground.

What in the world does this have to do with sex? Nothing, I suppose, to most people or for most days of their lives. Everything, I suppose, to others if you catch them on the hard side of such a moment. There are times in life when we lose – when we lose a friend, a hope, a dream, a lover, or the idea of a different life we could have had. Or when someone stretches out an open hand to you, only to pull it away and turn their back. And there are times we feel alone and experience grief like no other. Maybe this has happened to you. And maybe you wondered how or when you would ever smile again or laugh again or be able to kiss your partner with joy (instead of sadness or a secret feeling of loss) again, let alone make love to them again. (There is, after all, a stark difference between “have sex” and “make love”). Things do get better, I suppose. Not perfect, never the same, never like the “before” but they do get better. Even after heartbreak and loss.

Grief often gets in the way of sexual desire, interest and sex in general. It’s common to feel uninterested in sex (or even a kiss on the lips), to have difficulty getting or keeping an erection, even to feel uncomfortable taking your clothes off in front of your partner. After all, clothes are the last refuge of those who feel utterly vulnerable, ripped open and on display.

If you’re feeling stuck yourself, you may find it helpful to meet with a counselor or therapist, read How to Survive the Loss of a Love or to be extra good to yourself for a while, to take it slow and to start with baby steps, with hugs, with closed-mouth kisses – and with asking for patience from those around you. And you might look for kindness and compassion, both within you and around you.

About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.

  • P

    Hi,
    I’m glad to have found your page. I am currently going through a time in my life that I had hoped would never come, but I knew would eventually. The death of my father/best friend. He hasn’t passed yet, but he’s had colon cancer for the past 3yrs and two months ago, the docs said there was nothing more they could do for him as he’s become too weak for chemo. So each day goes by, and every time I see him, he seems to get weaker and weaker and has mentioned that he has lost his will. This breaks my heart from a thousand pieces into a million.
    Part of me doesn’t want to see him suffer anymore, but the other part of me (the selfish part) wants him to be around for at least another 20yrs. I don’t know what to do with all this “stuff”…I don’t know where to put it.
    I have heard others talk about putting it in their “sex”. The last thing I want to do when this happens is have sex. Can you explain to me why this happens?
    I’ve had this boyfriend now for the past 4 months now (so it’s still relatively new) and he is quite supportive. However, he is a rather sexually charged individual and I can barely keep up with him on a good day. This being said, I know that once the inevitable happens, I won’t want him to come near me…not even to cuddle (I’m not such a cuddly kind’a person). I’m expecting him to understand, but it may be quite the adjustment.
    One of the reasons I abstain from sex after a loved one passes, is (and this may sound stupid), but I believe in the afterlife and I believe that this person can see what I’m doing (told you it sounded stupid). Is there anything you can tell me to curb that notion?

    thank you for your help

  • P

    Hi,
    I’m glad to have found your page. I am currently going through a time in my life that I had hoped would never come, but I knew would eventually. The death of my father/best friend. He hasn’t passed yet, but he’s had colon cancer for the past 3yrs and two months ago, the docs said there was nothing more they could do for him as he’s become too weak for chemo. So each day goes by, and every time I see him, he seems to get weaker and weaker and has mentioned that he has lost his will. This breaks my heart from a thousand pieces into a million.
    Part of me doesn’t want to see him suffer anymore, but the other part of me (the selfish part) wants him to be around for at least another 20yrs. I don’t know what to do with all this “stuff”…I don’t know where to put it.
    I have heard others talk about putting it in their “sex”. The last thing I want to do when this happens is have sex. Can you explain to me why this happens?
    I’ve had this boyfriend now for the past 4 months now (so it’s still relatively new) and he is quite supportive. However, he is a rather sexually charged individual and I can barely keep up with him on a good day. This being said, I know that once the inevitable happens, I won’t want him to come near me…not even to cuddle (I’m not such a cuddly kind’a person). I’m expecting him to understand, but it may be quite the adjustment.
    One of the reasons I abstain from sex after a loved one passes, is (and this may sound stupid), but I believe in the afterlife and I believe that this person can see what I’m doing (told you it sounded stupid). Is there anything you can tell me to curb that notion?

    thank you for your help