How to Handle Physical Intimacy While Grieving: 9 Tips


Personal tragedies, deaths, and other losses can change intimate relationships when grieving. As individuals process and experience the stages of grief, desires for physical intimacy fluctuate along with their emotional reactions to loss. Grief often profoundly impacts the need for intimacy in the bereaved. Responses to loss vary from one person to the next, and while one person seeks a deeper and more meaningful connection, others disengage from the people they know and love. 

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Physical intimacy while grieving can get complicated whether you're in a relationship or are a newly widowed person. Individuals who've lost a partner must now tackle intimacy and, potentially, dating after a spouse dies, which can be both intimidating and overwhelming. There are no rules for dealing with intimacy after suffering through loss, and bereaved individuals must learn to navigate their thoughts, feelings, and needs throughout their grief journey. 

How Does Grief Affect Physical Intimacy?

Grief can be an intensely emotional experience. You can expect the physical intimacy once shared with your loved ones to change after a loss. These interruptions to your relationships often harm the bonds to those closest to you. The grieving process can profoundly affect your ability to cope with every aspect of your life, including your thoughts about intimacy and togetherness. 

People who were once receptive to hand-holding, embraces, and other signs of intimacy may now pull back from showing affection. Other bereaved individuals might see an increase in promiscuity and similar potentially harmful behaviors. 

Craving intimacy is a natural response to grief. Although it’s normal for people to desire intimacy, some will either shut down or withdraw from it. Having a spouse or partner who’s grieving pushes you away isn’t unusual and generally isn’t a cause for concern in the early stages of grief. 

For many bereaved persons, the craving for physical intimacy returns on their own after having time to process their grief. Certain individuals may use their sorrow as a reason to seek togetherness as a distraction from their pain and suffering.

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What Can Physical Intimacy Look Like While Grieving?

Grief can be isolating and lonely and often causes relationship struggles. Because the mind and body are connected, committing to physical intimacy after a significant setback can create confusion and feelings of guilt and shame, whether or not a person’s experiencing grief themselves. 

Intimacy during the grieving process looks and feels different for everyone and needs to be treated individually in each situation. Learning to process and accept these changes can take several months as individuals work through their grief-related responses. 

For partners who’ve experienced a significant loss, a physical connection can help them move through the grieving process. Grieving individuals who’ve suffered the loss of their spouse or partner may have an altogether different experience because of the secondary losses associated with their changed circumstances. 

The total effect of their loss may not be immediately apparent, and the craving for physical intimacy can lead to feelings of betrayal and guilt in the surviving partner. The long-term effects of grief on physical intimacy in both single persons and those in relationships can be repaired with open communication and counseling wherever appropriate. 

Tips for Dealing With Physical Intimacy While Grieving

Many people will experience a loss of intimacy as they work through their grief. Feeling lonely and isolated is a natural consequence of this loss. Individuals whose spouse or partner has died may feel the effect of their aloneness as they begin to miss physical touch. 

Talking about intimacy while grieving is still a taboo subject in western society. When paired with death talk, certain losses can be doubly offensive to discuss with friends and family. The following tips will help you navigate these conversations and may provide you with some inspiration as you go through your healing journey. 

1. Open up about your experience

If you're struggling with making it through another day after suffering through pain, physical connections with close loved ones can help you feel better. The comfort of simple pleasures like hugging your children or grandchildren can bring you peace and comfort in otherwise trying times.

You'll find that the support you get from being with those you love is healing when you're otherwise struggling emotionally to cope. Take the time to talk to your loved ones about what you're feeling and experiencing.

2. Have realistic expectations

Grief doesn't have a specific timeline where everything goes back to being the way it used to be right away. Take time to focus on yourself and your needs without placing undue pressure on yourself and others. You'll likely feel immense guilt for wanting and needing physical intimacy initially.

While having these cravings for touch and other forms of intimate connections may seem confusing at first, your thoughts and needs will likely shift as your life begins to fall into place. Focus on the present and determine a realistic way of getting your needs met in ways that won't compromise your grief process. Let go of old ways of thinking that there's a specific way of acting post-loss or a timeframe you need to abide by, as there's no wrong way to grieve.

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3. Try online dating apps

Grieving can sometimes elevate your desire for physical intimacy that goes beyond the loving embraces from your friends and family. Craving a physical, romantic bond is another way the body responds to a loss, and it's perfectly normal to feel this way. These urges are the mind and body's way of protecting itself from the pain of suffering, especially when there's been no physical contact between you and your partner in some time or if your spouse or significant other has died. 

Sometimes you need more than emotional support, and you want physical contact and have no one to turn to. Whenever this happens, it's okay to try something different, like going online to find a connection to fulfill your needs. 

4. Look outside your relationship

When two people in a relationship are grieving, it’s often challenging to support one another when they both struggle with loss. Lost intimacy following a tragedy isn’t unusual for partners to experience, especially after losing a parent or child. 

The unrealistic expectation that your partner needs to be there for you when they’re navigating their grief places undue pressure on them, and they may pull away from intimacy even more. Consider finding other ways of getting the physical contact you need and want from outside your relationship. Getting regular massages or salon treatments can temporarily replace physical contact until you and your partner reconnect on that level. 

5. Seek therapy

Whenever you've lost the will and desire to connect with your loved ones physically, it can negatively impact your emotional health. Seeking grief therapy can help you restore the natural urge to have intimacy in your relationships, whether connecting with your partner or other forms of intimate touch such as handholding and embraces from your loved ones. 

A grief counselor guides you in sorting out your feelings and emotions to explore why you no longer want certain intimacy and connections.

Tips for Helping a Loved One Deal With Physical Intimacy While Grieving

It’s normal to want to reach out and comfort your loved one when life gets tough. Sometimes, it's difficult to gauge a bereaved person's needs, especially when it comes to physical intimacy. Supporting someone who's feeling sad, lonely, and isolated can be challenging regardless of the closeness of your relationship.

Everyone's grief is unique, and a bereaved person's need for physical intimacy can complicate their experiences as they learn to cope with their loss. Below, you'll find ways to help a loved one deal with lost intimacy in ways that may remove feelings of guilt and shame often associated with this particular need post-loss. 

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6. Look at it as an opportunity for bonding

When dealing with grief, everyone has completely different needs and wants for the types of support they get from others. Making assumptions about what your loved one needs from you can create unintentional hurt and resentment because they may feel that you’re out of touch with their feelings and desires. 

Making an effort to bond with your partner or another loved one who's mourning can show them that you love and care for them. Try spending time together, hugging them more often, and finding ways of incorporating more touch if that's what they need and want. 

7. Maintain some form of intimacy 

Grief is lonely, painful, and isolating. It's typical for grieving individuals to withdraw from the people they love and care about despite their best efforts to maintain intimacy after a loss. You can help your loved one maintain physical contact during their bereavement through subtle, intimate gestures such as giving them a hug, a kiss, or holding hands with them. 

You'll want to seek permission before showing your affection because not everyone is open to receiving physical contact while they're grieving. You'll want to explore their expectations and feelings toward physical intimacy as you regain trust and comfort in your relationship. 

8. Look for ways to support your partner

You may now need to question everything you might have thought you understood about your partner or loved one. Grief has the effect of changing how a person thinks, acts, and feels. Before, your loved one may have wanted a physically intimate bond to feel loved and protected, and now they may suddenly feel guilty and ashamed for seeking these pleasures. 

Talking about intimacy issues isn't always easy. Some people shy away from expressing their wants and needs, leaving you to guess how to best support them. Whenever you're struggling with avoiding hurting or upsetting your loved one, ask them how you can be there for them, especially if you’re dating a widower or your loved one has recently lost a spouse or partner. 

9. Ask your partner for their input 

When a loved one's grieving, it may be challenging to figure out what they want and expect from the relationship. Grief affects everything from how a person thinks and acts to their sex drive and physical desires. 

Your loved one's needs may look different from before their loss and can create confusion for you. Find the time to talk about how you each think about intimacy while grieving, and actively listen to each other to avoid misunderstandings and resentment. 

Physical Intimacy and Grief

The grief experience is unique and causes people to act and react in ways outside of their normal behavior. The desire for physical intimacy is no different in bereaved individuals, and it’s important to talk about each other’s needs, wants, and expectations as soon as the issue comes up.

Regardless of how uncomfortable it may feel to have these conversations, they form the path to healing. Remember, you’re never alone. Grief is a human experience, and it’s something so many people relate to. 

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