“We’ve been lied to,” Bart said. I rolled over on my side and saw that my husband of almost 40 years was grinning. “It’s not supposed to be this good when you’re this old.”
He was right. Our whole generation had been lied to. Holding hands, tender hugs, and a peck on the cheek were supposed to be the acceptable acts for older couples still in love. Anything more intimate than that was either unacknowledged or grist for cartoons and stand-up comedians — funny at best, but more likely kind of disgusting.
Bart and I never bought into that stereotype. We were septuagenarians now, and the sex was still fun. It bound us together.
When Bart was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in his mid-70s, we were both stunned. He had always been strong, athletic, energetic, and healthy; but now the cells in the marrow of his bones were being destroyed by cancer. Within a few months, our hikes up the Catskill high peaks were replaced with quiet walks along the stream near our house. A few more months, and those walks were replaced by visits to doctors. Eighteen months after diagnosis, Bart died.
Friends and family from around the country and Europe came to mourn together. The loss was enormous, and it was not mine alone. Night after night the house was crowded with people who hugged me and cried with me, who packed my freezer with casseroles and offered to sleep over, should I want the company. Sympathy cards jammed the narrow box at my rural post office, and more than a hundred stories filled Bart’s memorial website – stories from colleagues at the college where Bart taught, from squash partners and friends at the local table tennis club, from total strangers he tended to as a volunteer EMT, from a heartbroken granddaughter. Loved ones called daily to check in, and my adult children urged me to come for an extended visit.
Bart’s death brought into sharp relief all of the ways our lives had been inextricably intertwined. Gone was the person who shared my pleasure in (and anxieties about) our children and grandchildren. Gone was the partner who slept next to me on the ground as, year after year, we ventured father into the Canadian wilderness on our canoeing trips, who read Hesse aloud to me, who smiled over at me during a concert when the cellist played the opening notes of our favorite Brahms quintet. Gone was the man who I marched alongside to end the Vietnam war, the sous-chef who raved about my cooking, the person with whom I loved discussing books and movies and the news.
But not until the immobilizing despair of those early months of grieving abated was I blindsided by realization that the sexual intimacy Bart and I shared was also gone for good. I was unprepared for the shock and depth of this loss. This felt far more essential than things like concerts and canoeing, which were things we did together.
This was about who we were together.
I called this feeling “sexual bereavement,” and immediately understood that this loss would not be easy to share with family and friends. Despite the recent spate of best-selling books, popular blogs, and talk shows “discovering” that older people enjoy sex, I soon realized that the taboos around sexuality are still strong and entrenched. We’re already not supposed to talk about death in polite company. Pair that with sex, and you’ve got a double taboo.
When I tried to bring it up with friends, I felt I was trespassing on other people’s privacy. Awkward statements about the absence of intimacy in their own marriage for the last ten years and various versions of “Who cares about sex anymore, anyway?” were quickly followed by “Want another cup of coffee?” One good friend, a therapist, told me I was “brave” to bring this up.
By far the most commonly offered antidote to my feelings of sexual bereavement, though, was suggestions from well-intentioned friends that I set up a profile on a senior dating website. But I didn’t want a new partner. I wanted the decades of shared humor and pillow talk that were critical to sexual enjoyment, the appreciation of bodies that had aged together, the understanding that develops over a long period in an enduring sexual relationship. I wanted Bart.
I started to search for confirmation that my feelings were not inappropriate. What I found instead was a culture of silence. I read Joan Didion’s and Joyce Carol Oates’s classic memoirs about mourning a beloved husband. They are lauded as unflinching, but in their combined nearly 700 pages, there is no mention of the type of sexual bereavement I was experiencing.
I turned to self-help books for widows, and found that there, too, discussions about sex were pretty much nonexistent. These books urged me not to confuse missing touch (acceptable) with missing sex (misguided). Missing touch didn’t have anything to do with sex, I was told, and could be replaced with massages, cuddling grandchildren, and even going to hair salons to get shampoos. Clearly, they didn’t know what Bart was like in bed. This loss wasn’t something a hairdresser could handle.
Calling upon my training as a research psychologist, I launched headfirst into a research project on this doubly taboo subject. A colleague and I created and mailed a survey to 150 older women, asking how often they had sex, whether they enjoyed it, and if they thought they would miss it if they were pre-deceased. The survey touched a nerve. We got an unheard-of response rate of 68 percent and set to work analyzing data, reviewing academic literature. Just as I suspected, the work provided a surprisingly good counterbalance to collapsing into a pool of tears. What’s more, it taught me that I was no outlier: The majority of the women surveyed said they would definitely miss sex if their partner died, and most said that, even if it felt awkward, they would want to be able to talk to friends about this loss.
That study was published in a peer-reviewed journal, and life continues for me. My dog and I go out in my new one-person canoe. My friends come over for dinner and rave about my cooking. The loss of Bart has a permanent place in my life, but it is surrounded by a full and happy existence.
And the sexual bereavement? The great thing about good friends is that they are convinced you’re a “catch” and that any man would be lucky to have you. When I laugh and ask, “Know any nice left-wing, single men over 68?” their faces go blank. I reassure them that I’m not lonely, but I don’t rule out the possibility of meeting someone. I even have the start of the personal ad I might place one day: “The love of my life and my canoeing/hiking partner died four years ago. Looking to replace the latter.”
This piece was excerpted from the book Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome, a collection of essays by Modern Loss co-founders Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner, as well as more than 40 contributors, about loss in all its messy forms — the good, the bad, the hopeful and the darkly hilarious.