Grief and Intimacy
By Paul C. Rosenblatt, Ph.D.
During my interviews with bereaved parents, I've heard most say that
the death of a child changes everything. So of course it's no surprise
that many report changes in their sexual relationship after their child
dies. These changes might be brief or might last for months, even years.
But as with other aspects of the grieving process, it can help couples
to know what other bereaved men and women have to say about their experience.
Grief has profound effects on a couple. One or both partners may feel fatigued
or low in energy. One or both may feel too depressed to care or to have
the motivation to do anything, let alone something that requires as much
energy as a sexual relationship. Some feel numb in ways that make it impossible
to get interested. Some say they feel too fragile, breakable, easily injured,
Rosa: It basically killed sex. That part of our relationship died and
it's still not back to where I'd like it to be. Part of it was your grieving.
It was really hard to get you excited [laughs] about anything for a long
time. And if I pushed or tried to seduce, it made you run away.
Some parents describe a feeling of "this is how we made our child,"
that makes intercourse feel inappropriate, uncomfortable, painful, even
Bruce: We went without contact for months. Even the physical act became
frightening and nauseating to me. It was such a gruesome experience for
both of us. I don't recall exactly when we did resume. My guess is probably
six, seven months following his death we started having intercourse. But
all the time we weren't, we were very much in love, hugging and touching.
For some the child's death makes relations a sacred act, so sacred they
hesitate to approach one another.
Glenda: For a long time it was like, That's how we got him. Get away!
I couldn't. Remember how I cried? [Ken: Ooh, yeah.] 1 think more for me
it was very painful emotionally for a while. [Ken: Yeah.] It was like,
We created him this way; we can't do this.
Some bereaved parents are afraid that they might become pregnant; they
feel too vulnerable to risk making and possibly losing another child. Or
they feel they have nothing to give; they don't have the necessary energy
or the capacity to focus on a baby.
Amy: Even though I knew it was hard to get pregnant, 1 did not want
to get pregnant again right away. There was no way. Whatever birth control
we were using at that time, you can't make a mistake. I didn't feel like
I needed to [take the risk].
For a lot of bereaved parents, intercourse seems wrong or strange because
it is pleasurable and in their grief, pleasure seems wrong, maybe even
Some grieving parents feel too distant, angry, upset, or frustrated
with their partner to want to be intimate: How can I be close with him
when he's so unsupportive? When she's not grieving the way I think she
should grieve? When he's partly responsible for the death? When ... ?
In other couples, one or both take an antidepressant that suppresses
sexuality. In a few couples, the gap in relations is linked to problems
in communication, trust, or mutual respect that were there all along but
were magnified by the death. For those couples, staying together may require
competent professional help.
Hannah: Things come to the surface that you wouldn't think about, unless
something happened. Our marital problems have always been there, but they're
more on the surface because of what we've been through. I don't know what's
gonna happen. It's kind of a shame to throw away 30 years. The problems
that we are having have always [Fred: Yeah.] been there. We just never
dealt with them before.
Living with a Change
From the beginning, or after a while, at least one partner wants to
return to something like normal marital relations. Some partners try to
seduce their spouse. But seduction doesn't necessarily work. From another
perspective, grieving couples have to deal with all sorts of differences,
so it's no surprise that they might have to deal with differences in interest
in sexuality. One basis for the disparity might be individual preferences
in what each finds comforting. For some, maybe men more than women, intercourse
is comforting, and in their grief they ache for that comfort.
In couples for whom conceiving a baby is still possible, one partner,
usually the woman more than the man, might want to try to become pregnant.
But her desire to make a baby or her uncharacteristic sexual aggressiveness
may put off her partner, who may then resist her advances.
Tina: I think initially we were very close emotionally and sexually.
As we moved a little bit further out from it, and then there was talk of
being pregnant, it was like he thought the only reason I wanted to have
sex was so I could get pregnant. And there was a lot of tension about that,
a lot of fights. If he thought that we were gonna be close to being sexual,
it was like he'd do everything in his power not to do anything. I remember,
goin' through my mind, "That's it! We're done! I'm divorced! I'm leavin'
For some bereaved couples, touching, hugging, and cuddling continue.
They can feel loved and the comfort of skin-to-skin contact without going
further. In fact, many people think of touching, hugging, and cuddling
as sexual, so not having intercourse doesn't mean they stop being sexual.
However, just as couples may experience a decline or a gap in relations,
they may experience a decline in touching, hugging, and cuddling.
Brett: There were a lot of things I needed, but I didn't get from her.
And there was a lotta, just even the hugging, the holding, even some talking
about it. And it wasn't her job to fix me. There wasn't anybody that was
capable of doing that.
Joan: I think there would've been times even when he wanted to hug me
or he wanted to give me support, and I just didn't want it. I just felt
like I wanted to deal with my grief myself.
Brett: That was so uncharacteristic, that you weren't there.
Brett and Joan eventually returned to being fully in contact, and that
was the experience of most other couples who talked with me about a gap
or decline in touching, hugging, and cuddling.
For couples who continue to have marital relations after a child dies,
and for those who return after a gap, the experience is often different
in important ways from what it was before the child died. What is most
commonly reported is that relations are emotionally charged and immensely
meaningful in new ways. For many bereaved parents, sex becomes, at least
when first resumed, a powerful, life-affirming experience, a symbol of
healing and being back together as a couple. For many bereaved parents,
the act has new meanings that bring up powerful new emotions. The emotions
may be felt or expressed in different ways, but it is common for tears
to be part of it all.
Joy: I can't even remember the first time that we made love after the
accident, but I remember always just really crying after it, just sobbing,
and just bringing so many emotions to the surface, and I used to think,
"Aw, he's going to quit making love to me 'cause all I do is sob afterwards."
Jane: One thing I've noticed, any time we were intimate, almost always,
even though I wasn't sobbing or anything like this, just the emotion. Almost
every time one or the other of us would say, and it just really didn't
exactly relate, and yet we just really missed him. You just were emotional,
and that was the biggest emotion in our lives. We just missed him and so
frequently I would get tears in my eyes, or my husband would, and we would
just say to each other, "I sure still miss him."
For bereaved parents, it may be helpful to know that our research indicates
that a break or decline in a couple's sexual relationship or in touching,
hugging, and cuddling is not so much a difficulty as one of the things
that often happens when a child dies. It's not a sign of anything disastrous
in the couple's relationship or a warning about future difficulties. As
with other aspects of the grief process, declines or gaps in physical contact
call for patience and understanding. In the long run, many couples move
on to profound depths of intimacy and develop greater mutual understanding,
empathy, and communication through the process of grieving and loving together.
Paul Rosenblatt is the Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor
of Family Social Science at the Universityof Minnesota. His research interests
have long focused the impact of grief on the family. His grandson, Eli
(Eliahu) Rosenblatt, died at age two in 1990. Paul is the founder of the
Grief and Families Focus Group of the National Council on Family Relations
and the author of five books and dozens of scholarly articles on
grief. His book Help Your Marriage Survive the Death of a Child (Temple
University Press, 2000) is available through Amazon.com and other booksellers.
Some quotations in this article are from Parent Grief. Narratives of
Loss and Relationship, ©2000 by Paul C. Rosenblatt, and from the article,
"Grief and the Sexual Relationship of Couples Who Have Experienced a Child's
Death," by Annalies Hagemeister and Paul C. Rosenblatt, published in Death
Studies, ©1997, reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis, Inc.
Other quotes in this article are from Help Your Marriage Survive
the Death of a Child, ©2000, by Paul C. Rosenblatt, reprinted
by permission of Temple University Press.
~Article reprinted from We Need Not Walk Alone, Winter 2002/2003