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After a Child Dies: Dancing with Intimacy and Sexuality

December 4, 2012 , by Elaine Stillwell

Everything changes after the death of a child. While struggling with sorrow, we find ourselves overwhelmed with confusion, frustration, isolation, guilt, anger and many other feelings associated with the roller coaster of grief. Some of us cling to our spouses, trying to figure out how to survive as a couple. Some of us keep each other at arm’s length, unable to comfort each other. Some of us are totally lost in our devastating grief. When it comes to our marriages, will we find ourselves dancing a solo or a duet?

Will intimacy and sexuality become the permanent glue of our marriage or will it cause gradual disintegration? Will the blessings of intimacy and sexuality be a strength pulling us together or will these gifts be put “on hold,” unwittingly inviting silence, rejection and anger to creep into the relationship? Will we find it is one step forward and two steps back? What fancy footwork does grief demand of us as bereaved parents?

These were questions my husband Joe and I had to answer when we lost our two eldest children, twenty-one-year old Denis and nineteen-year-old Peggy in the same car accident. We were thrown into a foreign world without even knowing the language or having an interpreter. Luckily, we learned a lot from the discussions at our meetings of The Compassionate Friends. The topic of intimacy and sexuality for bereaved parents is a delicate subject, not too easily discussed in a group setting, but very helpful when addressed so members can realize that others are facing the same challenging issues. Some couples reject intimacy and sexuality altogether, some are putting one or both “on hold” for a while, and some are finding ways to keep intimacy deeply connected through their grief.

As one mom asked, “How can I be close or even feel close to someone who is so unsupportive?” Others grimaced and nodded their heads, looking for the same answer. How do we maintain intimacy and sexual desire, respond to it, give it emergency treatment or revitalize it? Are we doomed to bury such a special part of our married love along with our child? Some parents, including step-parents, had already been battling serious intimacy and sexuality problems due to stressful conflicts with the child who died. What will they feel now, relief or guilt? One mom admitted, “I felt both, relief that I did not have to deal with the chaos anymore and guilt that I felt that way.”

We walk a tightrope hoping to regain balance in our marriages, praying they will get stronger, but not knowing whether they will actually become weaker or even totally end. The bonds of marriage are forged through tears and trials as we learn that it takes a lot of work to “live happily ever after.” It’s like dancing a duet and two solos at the same time. Sometimes marriage’s gift of intimacy and sexuality gets derailed or sidetracked when dealing with a profound loss such as the death of a child. Everything has changed, never to be the same again. Bereaved parents find they have to work very hard to keep that love spark glowing. Some have to desperately search for a way to reignite it. Others are lucky and can relax knowing that their heart light is pretty much weatherproof to the storm of grief. All come to realize that dancing with each other is just discovery, discovery and discovery.

Sexuality can be a rich part of marriage that validates and stimulates the love we have for each other. We want to share every aspect of our everyday lives, not just our happy feelings, but also the rough times, conflicts and setbacks. We want the person, the closeness, the security, not just the sexual relief. This is when sex seems to become an expression of spirituality, a special oneness emphasized in our marriage vows reminding us that “two shall become one.”

However, without care and commitment, the desire for sexuality can diminish and get lost in our busy lives, especially when we are grieving the loss of a child and our sex drives may be out of commission or out of sync. Women can be plain numb with grief, overwhelmed by sadness, very fragile, unable to respond to their partners. Men can love the comfort of sex and the temporary relief it affords from their pain, or their grief can overpower their ability to function sexually. Definitely, sex offers a way to reconnect with our spouses, but the timing has to be just right. As one mom advised, “Sometimes just cuddling with my husband and telling him, ‘This is the best I can do right now,’ lets him know I still want him, I’m hurting, but I’m not rejecting him.” No one needs a bruised ego to add to their sorrow. It hurts to be the wallflower when our partner does not want to dance with us.

Basically, intimacy means you know me, and you still like me; you feel safe with me. It’s a wonderful feeling. Intimacy is how we express our love day by day. To be loved for who you are (flaws, warts and all) is what leads folks to marriage in the first place. To be yourself, to feel relaxed, to let your guard down, to be accepted for yourself with no excuses, no fears, is a special bonding, a treasure to enjoy. So what happens to this heavenly intimacy when we are grieving? Why is staying close so difficult? How do invisible walls appear and sweet phrases disappear? What steps will lead us back to each other?

One mom offered, “I thought that sharing the loss of a child created and loved by both of us would surely deepen the bond between us. I was in for a surprise.” Another shared, “We clung blindly to each other until the shock began to give way to ugly reality. As we moved to our individual patterns of grieving, differences began to emerge. I felt like a time bomb was about to explode.” A young couple agreed, “Our grief tends to take over our sex life.” An older couple offered, “Intimacy is not necessarily sexual. It’s just sharing yourself.”

Other comments heated up the discussions. “I stopped trying to communicate,” blurted one dad. Another piped up, “I felt, rejected, unloved, terribly alone.” A mother added, “Where was my helpmate, my best friend?” Many claimed to be so angry they could not relate to their spouses, not blaming them, but just being so tied up in general anger they were unable to reach out to their partners. They felt they had a big enough job trying to stay alive themselves, much less trying to uphold someone else. “I’m clinging to my own life raft without the energy to throw a rope to my spouse. It’s a lousy feeling thinking only about myself, but that’s all I am capable of right now,” admitted one devastated dad. A bereaved mom interjected, “But having pleasure seems wrong.” Another mom voiced, “I cried for eighteen months during and after sex, and that was a turnoff for my husband.” So the dance of intimacy is challenged. We might be afraid, self-conscious, scared of doing it wrong or just not having any rhythm.

In the beginning, most of us feel the situation isn’t real, but more like a bad dream that we hope will go away. Overwhelmed, we know our child is gone but we can’t really process that so quickly. As one parent states, “We keep waiting for the door to open and to see him come home again.” Another adds, “You want to hear that booming voice again, see that big, goofy grin, and get that bear hug.” Once we realize our child is never coming back, the most painful aspect of grief commences. Many of us feel like we are going crazy, falling apart at the seams, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. As one mom sadly put it, “I just wanted to jump in the grave with my daughter.” Another related, “I don’t remember anything of those first six months.” And her husband added, “She didn’t even know I was there. The kids had to fend for themselves.”

Exhaustion seems to be a universal feeling; all energy goes into just breathing. “I didn’t have the strength or desire to answer the phone so I let it go to voice mail,” one young mom cried. An emotional dad declared, “I just had to get out of the house, get away from the sadness there.” A weary mom shared, “I did not have the strength to make love. I had a hard enough time just getting out of bed.”

Many claim to have no sexual desire, can’t even think of it in the early stages of grief. As one mom states, “It is the last thing I want to do.” Another says, “I need his arms entwined around me, infusing me with his strength, reminding me how much he loves me and telling me we will get through this together, but something stops me.” “We can barely hold a conversation,” admits one mom. “How could we even think of entertaining intercourse?” Our bodies are numb; our minds are riveted on our child who died. We are practically paralyzed with pain, fear, anger and/or confusion. We admit feeling incomplete, like a vital part of our body has been wrenched from us and we are busy searching for it. Everything else is “on hold.” Grief is all consuming.

Even though we normally try to be there for our spouses, the loss of a child disables us, isolates us. We are paralyzed in our own grief. We have nothing to give. We are both suffering the same loss and are totally drained. One dad cried, “I tried to hold my wife to comfort her, and she pushed me away. That made me angry. I didn’t want to be angry, but I was hurting too. I needed her as much as she needed me, but we seemed to be in two different worlds.” Rejection adds another dimension to our pain.

Most of us found that we had to try to explain our feelings, to let our spouses know how we felt and what we were thinking. Without some input as to what we are experiencing, our needs cannot be met by a spouse who is not a mind reader. Some found writing their feelings in a journal helped them to put their thoughts together, sort them out and make them easier to share with their partners. As one mom said, “I had no idea that seeing me wear our son’s clothes bothered him until we sat and shared what was difficult for each of us.” Another mom added, “I just took it for granted that he wanted to be alone like I wanted to be.” Finding out what part of grief is most painful for each of you opens doors to understanding.

“Do I know you?” seems to be the cry. Moms and Dads eventually figure out that most men and women grieve differently. “Why doesn’t he cry like I do?” moans one mother. “Why did he put all our child’s pictures away?” adds another. “Why won’t she go out for dinner with friends?” he asks. “Why won’t he go to the support group with me?” she wants to know. One irritated dad claimed, “Everybody asks, “How is your wife?” I felt invisible; I lost a child too!”

Comparing the pain, claiming that your loss is greater than your spouse’s, serves no purpose or benefit. Grieving is not a competition. For parents, it should be more of a collaboration, like dancing, which can be a communication, expressing what is too deep for words. A variety of reasons can keep us apart, not in step, not ready for that “slow dance.”

Some of us are just too deep into depression. Grief has taken every bit of our energy and joy. Thinking of making love is not presently in our galaxy. Although we have much in common with our spouses, we also have much we can’t give each other right now. One young mom declared, “I have nothing left to give. I need time and no pressure to refuel.” Sometimes our spouses have to gently push us back to life just a little at a time, letting us know how much we are loved and how much our they wish us to be whole again. It takes lots of patience, but honest communication is the key. Sometimes, parents feel that sexually lessening their pain will weaken the tie with their child. It’s an honest feeling.

Sometimes just getting started, honoring our spouse’s desire, even though our enthusiasm is lacking, offers us a chance to try to get back to normal. It’s okay to have sex even if you don’t have the desire, as long as there’s no coercion and you are doing it to let your husband or wife know that you would like to reignite that passion, but right now the passion meter scores low. Trying to get a spark from his wife, one dad told us he half-jokingly suggested to her, “Tonight, you be the airline passenger and I’ll be the conscientious TSA officer.” He said they both actually laughed at themselves, which was a beginning! We all agreed that beginning steps opened windows of fresh air in the relationship. It was like saying, “May I have this dance?” After all, you can dance in many forms, with the feet, with ideas, with words and with the pen. Find what your strength is and what works for you.

Of course, our TCF members admitted that marriages could be viewed as being on different levels. Before our children died, some of us were very close with our spouses—joined at the hip, on the same wave-length, true soul-mates. Others were more in the comfy pattern, simply used to each other. Some marriages were experiencing signs of frustration, dullness, fraying at the seams, health challenges, money troubles, addiction problems, perhaps in need of counseling or permanent separation. Add the loss of a child to any of those marriages, and you have a whole new scenario, the marriage never-to-be-the-same again.

Unfortunately, spouses are not always on the same time-line, and that is one of the hardest parts of bereaved parents’ grief. Spouses might resemble Irish step dancers, one with a smiling, happy face, the other with a rigid upper body and feet going a mile-a-minute to catch up to the other. As one mom pointed out, “Reclaim those memories that made your heart go pitter-patter.” Revive those sultry moves of the cha-cha or that gliding action of the romantic waltz. After all, dancing is the hidden language of the soul.

A good marriage takes work and commitment. A marriage undergoing the loss of a child needs that a hundredfold. We learn to listen to our body’s wisdom. We do what feels comfortable and we follow our hearts, trying to avoid frustration and aggravation. Some days we are doing the smooth, flowing waltz and on others, it’s more like doing the jive, hanging on for dear life trying to do those lively dance steps.

Our inner wisdom tells us what feels right and what is definitely a “red light.” We try to develop a realistic view of our relationship. We work on areas that need a jump start. We look for things that bring us together in a good frame of mind, and we avoid areas that are difficult right now. We realize that some problems will never be solved, but we try to work around them. We continue practicing the dance steps we are confident about, and gradually we try to add new, exciting ones to our repertoire; we learn there are no basic steps, so we make up our own.

Choose the steps that lead you to trust with your deepest feelings. Enrich each other’s life by showing honesty, warmth and appreciation. Practice bringing joy to the relationship. Do things that make you feel connected. Share hopes, dreams and aspirations. Encourage a relaxed atmosphere and don’t forget to steal a kiss.

As sex becomes a life-affirming experience, a welcome symbol of healing and hard sought togetherness, you should be ready for “Dancing with the Stars” or at least dancing with stars in your eyes! Now, you can enjoy new, emotionally charged feelings and the glow of reaffirmed intimacy and sexuality.  May the *Mirror Ball trophy be yours!


* The first place trophy for TV’s popular program, Dancing with the Stars.


External resource for consideration: Death of a Child by Elaine Stillwell.


Posted by Elaine Stillwell

Wife, mother, grandmother, educator, author and speaker, Elaine E. Stillwell, M.A., M.S., shares her gifts of hope and inspiration with the bereaved, simply telling what she has learned to cope and survive following the deaths of her two eldest children, twenty-one-year old Denis and nineteen-year old Peggy, in the same 1986 automobile accident. In addition to being Founder (1987) and Chapter Leader of The Compassionate Friends of Rockville Centre, Long Island, New York, (along with her husband Joe), she is also a Charter Member of Bereaved Parents/USA since 1995. She is the author of two crafts books for grieving children, Sweet Memories and A Forever Angel (Centering Corporation), a pamphlet of spiritual meditations, Stepping Stones for the Bereaved (Liquori Publications), and a book filled with suggestions for parents who have lost a child of any age, The Death of a Child (ACTA Publications)