“My head knows moving on is best, but….”

“My love for my husband was so great that I am having a very difficult time considering another man,” Jean, age 74, wrote to me. “My head knows moving on is best, but my heart puts up a very good fight. Yes, it gets very lonely at times and then, at other times, I appreciate the solitude. I do believe that at this age, finding someone with whom you are compatible from a distance is best. His and her homes with visitations rights, perks, and genuinely being there for one another sounds like a plan to me! Easy to say and difficult to find!”

Jean’s email came at exactly the moment that I was trying to make sense of similar feelings. I had a “date” with a man with whom I had shared an intensely sensual relationship 27 years ago, when I was 40 and he (get ready) was 23. We had enjoyed each other immensely, then both of us had gone on to other relationships, and he had moved many states away.

Suddenly we discovered that we would be in the same city last Saturday. With anticipation and fantasies abounding, we made arrangements to meet.
How lovely, I daydreamed. Here’s a smart, gentle, witty man from my past, who gloried in giving me pleasure, and we were always able to talk candidly. Surely the 27 years apart could be wiped out for an evening of sensual nostalgia, couldn’t it? I needed to rise from grief and rediscover my sensuality with a live person rather than with sex toys. This sweet man could be the one to take my hand and lead me there.

We met, we hugged, we talked excitedly about where our lives and loves had taken us in the past decades. But then… when the time came to kiss and discover… I couldn’t. I felt myself sinking into sadness. His kiss wasn’t Robert’s. His body type wasn’t Robert’s. I pulled away.

“I really hoped I would respond sexually to you,” I told him, “but I’m not.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, cradling my head against his chest.

“I even packed condoms and lubricant, and chose my underwear with care,” I added. He laughed with me at that last revelation. “But it’s just not happening. I still miss Robert so much.”

“Tell me about him,” he said, maybe the sweetest comment he could have made.

I am grateful to my friend for his understanding, although I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe when I read “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be” on his Facebook page early the next day. I decided to laugh and post the comment, “Here’s to nostalgia.”

So when Jean wrote to me just after my friend and I parted, I had to agree with her sentiment, “My head knows moving on is best, but my heart puts up a very good fight.”

Man writes, “Did I get dumped–or what?” She’s recently widowed.

A male reader, I’ll call him Mark, writes that he recently reconnected with his high school sweetheart from 35 years ago, whose husband had died less than a year ago. Mark and his former sweetheart met again, enjoyed each other’s company (no sex), then later spent a week together and made love joyfully.

Their last day together, she became distant and uncommunicative, and when he returned home, she retreated from the usual phone and email messages they had exchanged regularly before that. She emailed him only once, saying she was having a hard time and was depressed with grief for her husband. She felt strong chemistry with Mark, but wasn’t ready for the kind of relationship that Mark seemed to want. She needs to deal with her issues and doesn’t want to talk to him right now. She hopes he’ll understand.

Mark loves her and is confused. “Did I get dumped — or what?” he asked me.

I don’t know either of them, but I have strong feelings that I do know what’s going on with her because I know the emotional turmoil of grieving and yet wanting to grab onto life. Let me share my experience, hoping that it will help Mark and others in this situation:

For the first six months or so after Robert died, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting a relationship again. After all, I had been honored with seven years of the most profound love with my soul mate — no new man could compare, and why would I want second best after experiencing “best”?

Then the life within me started stirring, then surging. How strange and wonderful that the life force is as strong as it is! I started to feel my sensuality gently knocking on my emotional door, asking to be let in (or maybe let out). I was bewildered and excited by my attraction to a casual friend who was becoming a close confidant.

Fortunately this friend is as committed to honest communication as I am, and was open about discussing my feelings and his own. We both understood that I was heavily into my grieving process still, and it wasn’t the right time to make any decisions or take any actions that I might regret later.

We’re all different in the “right” way to grieve. Not taking our relationship to the next level was the right path for me, and I am grateful to my friend for understanding (even better than I did) that pushing our friendship into something more had potential to hurt, even destroy, the friendship.

I probably would have reacted the way Mark’s lover did — throwing herself into sex and joy and the feelings of coming back to life after an emotional death, but then realizing she was not done grieving and in fact was now having a harder time because she had let herself get involved with someone else too soon.

Mark tells me, “I don’t want to lose this special person in my life.”

So here’s my advice to Mark:

Let her know that you do understand, and that grief is a powerful process with its own timeline that can’t be shortened. Tell her that you want to be in her life in whatever way is possible for her right now, and if that means going back to being non-sexual friends, of course you’ll do that. You do need to understand what she needs and wants from you, even if that changes hourly (grief mood swings are powerful and unpredictable). If she regrets getting sexual with you, could she please tell you so you understand better?

And then let her be. If it’s right, she’ll be back when she’s ready. If it’s not, I hope she can tell you so you can move on.

I hope this is helpful, Mark. Thank you for sharing it with me and with my readers here.

Too soon to be intimate with new man after spouse dies?

Susan, age 65, sent me this email regarding intimacy after death of spouse, with permission to post it and respond here:

Joan, I found your website while browsing and really enjoyed it. I was widowed 5 months ago, and a friend of mine lost his wife shortly before my husband’s death. We had known each other casually for 20 years.

A social event brought us face to face about a month ago and we both have been smitten since that night. We are both young for our ages; both being 65, good physical condition and both exercise daily. I am experiencing a lot of guilt from wanting to see him after such a short span of time since my husband’s death. Although he has discussed me with his family and I with mine, I still have some guilt. I also, don’t hear the “approval” from other members of my family.

However, at our ages, how long is considered appropriate? I am also experiencing whether or not this could become a moral issue with me. He is a wonderful man, who cared for his wife, who was ill for many years, as I did for my husband.

He has expressed to me that he may be impotent. He had not had sexual relations with his wife for many years before her death, nor had I with my husband. I did, however, use a vibrator from time to time. Although I am 65, I certainly have been experiencing strong sexual feelings toward him.

I guess my questions to you are:
1) what is the appropriate time frame?
2) Is sex outside of marriage a moral and/or guilt issue?
3) How do I get rid of trying to please everyone else?
4) Should we pursue sexual intercourse or just “play around”?

Thank you so much for your input and can’t wait to get your book!

Susan, thank you so much for writing and for sharing these feelings.

I can’t tell you what the appropriate time frame for sharing intimacy after the death of a spouse is for YOU. I’m not a therapist, but I’ve heard some therapists say that it’s good to wait a year, because people need to grieve, then rediscover and reclaim who they are alone before they’re ready to enter into a new relationship.

I’ve also heard from/about people who were caretakers of ill spouses and did much of their grieving while their spouses were alive. They then needed to reach out to someone who could bring joy and intimacy back into their lives.

I can’t say what’s “right” for you — only you can know that. If you’re questioning whether it’s too soon, that maybe that’s your own heart saying it is. If this relationship will be right for the two of you, it will be right if you wait a few more months, too.

Meanwhile, you can develop a friendship and enjoy each other’s company. But do learn to enjoy your own company, too — see who you are on your own in the world, what interests you’d like to pursue now.

Of course you still have sexual feelings — glory in that wonderful gift, and let your fantasies roam. When you and your friend come together in that intimate way, if you decide to, you’ll be good and ready for his tender touch.

You say your family hasn’t expressed approval of your new relationship. Realize that they are still grieving your husband, too. Respect their feelings, and if/when you decide to go ahead with this new relationship, perhaps it would be best not to tell them until and unless they ask, at least for a while.

As for sex outside of marriage, that’s completely your decision. I don’t know your beliefs or your religion, or whether these values might be changing at this time of your life. You might find it useful to consult a counselor to get your own values and needs in perspective.

Your friend told you that he might be impotent. Please suggest that he see a urologist and find out the cause, and whether any treatment is appropriate. If he is unable to have erections, you can still have loving, intimate sex in other ways. I have more information about that in my book “Sex After Grief“, in the chapter titled “When You or Your Partner Can’t.”

I’m sure that Susan would like to hear from others who have gone through this, and from others who have an opinion on when to have intimacy after the death of a spouse. I invite you to comment.

— Joan