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How long should you wait for intimacy after death of a spouse?

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The subject of sex for a widow or widower is a difficult one. It is a subject that nobody talks to you about.

Photo credit: Samuel Muigai | Nation Media Group

As much as we say that it is fine for a man to cry when he feels distressed, it is still a rare occurrence in our communities. I was therefore moved when Geoffrey walked into the consultation room and for 15 minutes, cried his heart out, unable to explain the reason he had come to see me. He was 45 years old and a widower. His wife of 17 years died and left him with two children. She was 40 years old at the time of death.

“But that is not the reason I am crying, doctor,” Geffrey explained, “it has been three years since my wife died and I have had time to mourn.”

The reason he found himself distressed is that he had tried sex for the first time as a widower and all the memories of his wife came thrashing vividly in his mind. He lost his erection midway, got confused and went into a state of emotional turmoil.

“I remembered the last time I tried sex with my departed wife”, he said, “she was weak and could not manage and she apologised for letting me down, promising that we would make up as soon as she got more energy. She died three days later.”

For the three years of widowhood, Geoffrey frequently felt like having sex. He wanted to talk about his feelings but nobody, not even doctors, brought up the subject. He wondered whether it would be morally okay to have sex again; whether sleeping with another woman on his marital bed would be acceptable, whether he would be betraying his departed wife, etc.

New relationship

His pastor told him that it would be fine to get into another relationship and have a wedding but did not advise on how to handle sex in the new relationship. “So, I get it that you lost erection midway through sex because at the heat of the moment you met your wife but that the person present with you in bed was someone else,” I said absent-mindedly, to which Geffrey nodded in affirmation, wiping his tears and staring at the horizon.

The subject of sex for a widow or widower is a difficult one. It is a subject that nobody talks to you about. People watch you closely and if you happen to show sexual feelings towards anyone, they are likely to accuse you of not loving your departed partner. They may even say that you let your partner die because you had another lover. Despite all these, you will still desire to have sex because your body is used to frequent sex as a once-married person.

Some widowed people will, as a result of the urge amidst social stigma, hide and have sex for the sake of satisfying their bodily needs without investing any emotions in it. Others will be like Geffrey—not able to have sex, three years into widowhood.

When finally sex with emotional investment happens, a person may feel guilty, fearing they have betrayed their departed partner. It gets worse when the new partner seems to make moves that are more pleasurable than what your partner used to do. The feeling may translate into strong guilt, and the body may just give up, in which case a man loses erection and, in the case of a woman, lubrication goes and sex becomes painful.

Self-confidence is also likely to wane in widowhood. There is a feeling that you are no longer as perfect a human being as you used to be. This is understandable because, with the death of a partner, you have lost a part of you.

It is possible to start treating a new partner subconsciously as if they are your departed partner.

It is important to be conscious of this and always ask your partner to remind you that they do not understand you when you behave in uncertain ways.

“But so, doctor, can sex and romance be satisfying again after losing a wife I so much loved?” Geffrey asked, appearing more confused than when he first came into the consultation room.

Mourning the loss of a loved one can live with you forever. You cannot wish away cherished memories. Despite this, it is possible to get into another relationship, and new romance and sex can for sure coexist with the ongoing mourning.

Getting professional help to manage the complex situation is highly recommended.