Sex, Death, and Disenfranchised Grief
I promised my mom, way back in February, that I would write this blog post. We often had long talks about the subject, since disenfranchised grief was something she was experiencing first hand, but I put off writing it until I could adequately say what I was thinking and what she told me she was feeling.
Mom passed away on May 20th, so I won’t get to read her this blog post over the phone, which was her usual way of hearing my thoughts, since navigating a computer was something she just wasn’t interested in learning. I hope though, that her thoughts and feelings will come through and her desire to help ease someone else’s sorrow will be fulfilled.
Sex and Self
My dad passed away November 29th of last year. My mom knew that he would likely precede her in death, he was a decade older than she was so the probability was always high, and she often said that she didn’t want dad to have to go through losing another spouse. When dad finally slipped into that final rest she was strong for her family, loving to her children and grandchildren, but absolutely heartbroken.
I knew she loved dad, their love for each other was something I never had to question. They were demonstrative and vocal in their love and appreciation for one another. But I don’t think I fully realized, until dad was gone, just how intricately entwined their lives really were.
My mom simply didn’t know how to live without my dad.
I stayed with her for a few weeks after dad’s death, just to keep her company and help her get used to being in the house alone. My brother and his family live right next door, so there was never any worry of her being totally alone, but we all knew what a difficult transition death is, and we all wanted to help her with it.
She spoke often in those first few days of how much she had loved dad, about how fulfilling their marriage had always been. She shared stories of their courtship, their challenges, their commitment to one another. When I finally came home to my own husband and children mom called almost daily, just to visit, to share her thoughts or ask me about mine. Sometimes I could hear the tears in her voice and she would tell me how much she missed dad. The more she called, the more I tried to listen to not only the words she was saying, but the underlying message of her words, and the more time I spent on the internet searching for information about bereavement, grief, and how to comfort her. One day as she was talking to me she said “Dad and I were so well matched Vernie, I miss him being right here beside me. I miss being able to reach over at night and feel him there.”
A light bulb clicked in my brain and again I was researching and reading after our conversation. And the next day when she called I was finally ready to address what she was really feeling.
“Mom,” I said “You’re not just missing dad being there, you’re missing the physical relationship you had with him. You’re missing sex.”
“Yes!” She said, with a heavy sigh, “That’s exactly how I’m feeling.” It was such a relief to her to have me put into words what she was experiencing, but didn’t feel she could say, and it opened a floodgate of communication between us. She shared how beautiful their sexual relationship had always been, what an important part of their life it was, and how up until just the last year, when dad’s health really began a steep decline, they had continued to have a very active and fulfilling sex life.
I told her “The thing about losing dad is that you haven’t just lost your spouse Mom, you’ve lost a part of yourself too. The sexual side of your life is missing, and that’s a part of yourself that has been enormously important to you, and rightly so. You’re grieving dad, but you’re also grieving a loss of self as well.” Knowing that I recognized what a sorrow it was for her seemed to help her. It made it easier for her to talk to me about it.
Everyone in our culture seems to understand the need for sympathy for the widowed. No one doubts the grief of losing the person who is supposed to be the most important person in your life. But for those widowed in their retirement years, it is expected. Everyone knows they’re getting older, everyone sees that they are slowing down, everyone accepts that one of them will probably die first and leave the other alone, because that’s the natural way of things.
We send our condolences, we take in meals, we offer sympathy, and then…life goes on.
If the bereaved are young we fully expect that they’ll eventually move on, find someone after a socially acceptable amount of time has passed and build a life again. We don’t expect that they will never have another sexual relationship in their life, we naturally assume that they are young and vital and that they will in time.
But what of the elderly?
For some inexplicable reason our culture expects that the elderly experience a different kind of grief. As if age makes the death of a spouse, and that loss of a sexual relationship, expected and therefore somehow “less”. Those widowed are supposed to accept it with grace and wait patiently for their turn to die. Alone.
We expect them to miss their spouse, but we don’t expect them to miss sex. Even worse than that erroneous expectation is the laughable quality of sexuality in the elderly population. As if getting older somehow changes who we are in the heart and mind just because the body changes.
About five years ago I was visiting with my mom about the process of aging and she shared exactly what it feels like to get older.
“It’s not like you wake up one morning and feel older,” she said, “I don’t feel any different now than I did when I was 20. I’ve got aches and pains, but who I AM is the same. Then I wander into the bathroom, look in the mirror, and think ‘What the Hell happened to me?!’ That’s what it’s like to get old.”
If that’s what it’s like to get old, why do we expect the elderly to suddenly stop caring about their sexuality? Why is the idea of our parents or grandparents not only engaging in sex, but actually enjoying it, something we find funny or embarrassing?
Psychologists call this kind of grief “disenfranchised” because it isn’t fully acknowledged by the rest of society. Those who experience this kind of grief are left feeling very alone, and often judged for not meeting a socially accepted standard of behavior. We are uncomfortable if people grieve too long, grieve too deeply, or grieve when we think they shouldn’t.
Where the elderly are concerned, our culture has an expectation that a grandmotherly or grandfatherly individual will no longer miss, long for, or think about sex if they are widowed. At best it is laughable and at worst it is either taboo or immoral. I assured my mom that neither was the case. We talked at length about how important her sexual memories of dad were to her, how precious they were and that it was perfectly normal and right for her to revisit those memories. They belonged to her, they were a sanctified and sacred part of their marriage covenant, and there was nothing wrong in bringing those memories close to her mind and heart.
Knowing that she wasn’t alone, that there were other widows experiencing loss the way that she was made a big difference in her dealing with her grief. She talked about it openly at her grief counseling sessions. She shared an article I’d sent her on the topic with her grief therapist. She reached out to the other women in her group bereavement sessions to let them know that they were not alone either.
A Touch of Kindness
Over and over again my mom spoke of how much she missed the physical touch of my dad. The need to feel the touch of another human being, just a hug or the touch of a hand on hers to ease her loneliness and sorrow, meant the world to my mom. She made a point to tell multiple family members to “remember the widows”. To reach out to them with not only words of support, but with an embrace.
“You have no idea how much it means to have someone hold you for a few minutes Vernie Lynn,” she told me. “Until you’re alone, you just have no idea how much it means. There’s no other grief like this. Find the widows and reach out to them. Hug them so they know they aren’t alone.”
For the past 5 months, since I’ve been studying massage therapy, I’ve been on my own journey of learning to give and receive physical touch more easily. Her words helped me to see the limits we place on ourselves in society. The distance we keep from one another and the loneliness it breeds.
I promised her that I would remember the widows.
A week before mom passed away she called me early in the morning. It was 5:30 am my time, she just couldn’t wait to tell me, there was so much excitement in her voice. She said “Vernie! I danced with my sweetheart last night and I could actually feel him holding me close. I could feel him!”
It was a tender mercy for her very, very lonely heart. Slowly but surely she was beginning to mend, she was looking for ways to reach out, to find others like herself who needed a touch of kindness.
The day before she had the stroke that eventually took her life, she called me. Again, early in the morning, this time with tears in her voice. I asked “How are you doing today Mom? Was it a hard night?”
She wept a little and said “Yeah, it was a hard night. I got up this morning, ready to go out and it hit me all over again that he’s gone. He’s gone Vernie Lynn, and I miss him so much I can’t stand it.” I mourned with her, let her pour out her sorrow. It always seemed to help, to ease it by simply speaking of it. Sometimes all it takes to ease pain is being free to name it.
Grief comes in waves. Part of not making any kind of grief disenfranchised is recognizing that it doesn’t follow a timetable. Just because she was making the choice to be out and about again didn’t lessen her loss. It was still raw, clawing at her from the inside out, always waiting and threatening her newfound acceptance.
That was the last time I spoke to my mom. I am grateful that the last conversation I had with her was filled with love. Most of them were, she was always full of love, but I’m glad that she could talk to me, share with me, and find peace in the words.
Holding a Space for Grief
I miss her. More than I know how to feel right now. There’s an unreal quality to losing my mom. Some mornings I wake up thinking that the phone will ring any minute and I’ll hear her voice on the other end. It always surprises me to remember that I won’t hear that voice again.
My grief at losing my mother is socially acceptable. But I don’t feel very comfortable showing it. I’ve noticed that losing both parents within six months of each other affords me an extra dose of compassion if it comes up in a conversation and I’m grateful for it, but I don’t know what to do with it. Compassion from multiple sources has been a blessing for me, I’ve held them near my heart, those thoughts and words from others, and felt the healing power of them, but I have struggled to share my grief. It makes me grateful for all of the conversations I had with my mom about mourning. I hear my own words echo back to me about taking time to remember and to celebrate the life she lived and the memories I have of her. I’m trying to follow my own counsel.
And I’m trying to keep the promise I made to her, to remember the widows.
I was walking out of church two weeks ago, down a crowded hallway where I was trying to navigate between running children and parents who were trying to reach their own destinations, when I brushed past one of the widows in my congregation. I smiled at her and walked two steps past when I heard my mother’s voice, that precious, beautiful, longed for voice, whisper in my ear “Hug the widows Vernie Lynn, so they know they aren’t alone.”
I stopped in my tracks, turned around and caught up with that sweet, white-haired woman. I wrapped my arms around her and told her “I thought you might need a hug today. I want you to know how grateful I am that you’re here. I love you.”
Her face softened in a tender smile and she hugged me back tightly for a moment. “Thank you,” she whispered.
I walked away and felt the power of that embrace like balm to my own grieving heart. For just a moment, those arms had been my mother’s arms, my mother’s cheek against mine, and I found that in offering compassion and kindness I had received it in return.
Perhaps that is the true power of compassion, to be healed ourselves as we seek to heal.