When my husband and I drove away from the hospital where our daughter, Eve, was stillborn, empty armed and brokenhearted, the future felt like a wide open blank. I didn’t know what to expect – other than to expect to grieve.
I knew that not only did I need to grieve, but that I wanted to. When we arrived home without our baby girl, the phrase “silent as a tomb” became all too real of a description and I wanted to crumple to the floor in the empty silence and sob.
Only I couldn’t. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in shock. The only thing I could feel was nothing. But even that, one of the stages of normal grief, felt expected.
What I did not expect, however, was the effect that grief had on my sex drive.
A change in sexual desires is very normal after a loss. Having or not having sex helps grievers to process their sorrow. In general, women tend to desire sex less after a loss, and men tend to desire sex more.
I found myself among the minority of women who desire sex more after a loss. When Eve died, I felt completely helpless, and when I was discharged after her stillbirth with instructions not to exercise or have sex for at least six weeks, I felt even more helpless. I was restless and terrified and lonely and numb. All I wanted was to be close to my husband, and to run — and I was not allowed to do either.
On top of all these complicated and confusing (and, I must add, normal) emotions, I felt guilty. I felt ashamed of my increased desire. Shouldn’t I be shunning sex forever in the name of sorrow? And yet, my libido was raging. I was desperate for intimacy, and desperate to feel. Sex fulfilled both of those needs, if only for a little while.
If you are feeling ashamed or like an outcast because you have (or had) an increased libido after your baby’s death, I want to encourage you. You are not alone. This is normal. In their book On Grief and Grieving, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler write:
“Sex is a part of life, so it is also a part of grief. . . . The bonding that happens in sex can be comforting [in grief] because for many people, closeness and sexuality are bound together. Sex can reaffirm a connection quickly, and when it does, it’s not about sex; it’s about the closeness that sex makes possible. . . . After you experience the loss of a loved one, a solid boundary suddenly stands before you. It feels as if you’ve hit a hard wall, and you need to find some softness in your life. Death is the breaking of a connection, while sex can be the establishing of one.”
So, knowing that both increased and decreased desire after loss are normal, how do we navigate sex when our babies have died?
When you have decreased desire
Take things slow, and keep the communication lines open with your partner/spouse. Don’t feel that you have to jump back into bed immediately if you don’t want to. If you’re not ready for intercourse but do want to start restoring intimacy, try increasing cuddles, kisses, and physical touch that is not explicitly sexual.
Know that it is okay for the sorrowful emotions of grief to show up during or after sex. Also know that you are not betraying your lost child if you are having sex, especially trying-to-conceive sex. Some parents experience confusing feelings about sex after the loss of a child because it was sex that created that child. This is also normal.
I highly recommend seeing a counselor to help you navigate grief in general, and a counselor can be especially helpful if you have fear or guilt about resuming sex.
When you have increased desire
Take things slow, and again talk clearly and openly about sex with your partner/spouse. If you are not in a committed relationship, I would be careful about having sex with many partners or with someone you don’t know very well because I personally feel that that could easily lead to further hurt on top of the already devastating wound of your baby’s death. You are vulnerable, and it is important to protect your wounded heart so that your grief can proceed as healthily as possible.
Know that you are not a “bad person” for experiencing an increased libido, that this is one of many normal responses to grief. Remember that your increased desire is probably more about intimacy and comfort than about wild and crazy pleasure. Discuss with your doctor what kinds of sexual activity are permissible (or not) after the birth of your lost child if your libido ratchets up right away. For my husband and I, since my labor and delivery were uncomplicated, my doctor said that penetration was a no-go but everything else (i.e. sexual touching/masturbation) was okay. For mothers, be careful to keep your vaginal area clean – you don’t want to have to deal with a uterine infection on top of your loss and grief.
Again, checking in with a counselor about your grief in general and about your sex life specifically can be very helpful and comforting, especially if you’re feeling concerned about whether you’re “normal” or not.
When your desire and your partner’s desire do not match
This is okay, and not unexpected. Share about how you’re feeling and what you want, and ask your partner to discuss his/her feelings and needs. Be patient – either with your partner, or with yourself. Read a book about grief and/or intimacy together to help you both to understand the other’s perspective. See if there are any compromises that you can make to help meet both sets of needs without hurting one or both of you. Once again, seeing a counselor can be a huge help when your grief experience does not match that of your partner, especially in the sensitive area of sex.
Also, remind yourself that you are not doomed for separation/divorce just because you are experiencing a lull in sexual activity or are in disagreement with your partner about sex.
Sex after your baby’s death
Regardless of the state of your libido after your baby’s death, know that once you do resume sexual activity – whether that takes days or weeks or months – it is okay for sex to feel different. You have suffered a traumatic, annihilating loss, a loss that has changed your life forever. Your baby’s death has changed the way you operate, the way you talk, and the way you see the world, so it is natural for your baby’s death to also alter the way you experience or feel about sex. This is okay. This is normal.
The first few times my husband and I had sex after our baby’s stillbirth felt strange and a bit uncomfortable for me, both emotionally and physically. For me, the intensity of my desire eased off as the shock gave way to the emotions of active grieving. Things normalized even further and now, nine months later, our sex life is healthy and natural-feeling.
Remember – there is no one “right way” to approach sex after babyloss. Just as every experience of grief is valid, so is the way you are thinking and feeling about sex. It’s not important whether you want to hop in the sack within days of your loss or if you need weeks or months – what’s important is honoring your feelings, communicating with your partner/spouse in openness and love, and not beating yourself up about what you “should” be doing. Aside from keeping yourself safe, there are no “should’s” in loss.