I was in the kitchen clearing off the plates from our small dinner gathering when a friend pulled me aside and asked in a serious tone how my wife Gail and I were doing. I shared that we were reeling but fighting the good fight, struggling to stay sane and navigate the waves of grief that constantly threatened to overwhelm us. It had only been a few months since both of our beautiful teenage children, Ruby and Hart, were murdered by a drunk driver. He cut me off and asked, more pointedly, “Yeah, but how are you and Gail doing?” Off my confused reaction, he went on to explain that most couples divorce after the death of a child, and, well, after losing both ours…
I’m not sure why he felt compelled to share this with me. Was he trying to warn me, or maybe he thought that while plunged into the deepest grief imaginable I might need something else to worry about? Like, dealing with two dead kids wasn’t enough on my plate, I should also anticipate my wife leaving me. But strikingly, he wasn’t the only one to offer up this dire statistic. Multiple people shared it as though it were an important piece of grief wisdom. Your kids just died, and oh yeah, your marriage is going to fall apart, too. And even when they didn’t come right out and say it, I could tell it was what they were thinking when they asked about how Gail and I were doing, as a couple?
It turns out this whole “all marriages fall apart after the death of a child”assumption is a myth. An Urban Grief Legend. The Compassionate Friends have conducted nationwide surveys on parents who have lost children and it turns out the divorce rate is actually lower than the national average. What’s more, only a quarter of those couples who do break up cite the death of their child as the main factor in the divorce. I don’t mean to minimize the struggles of couples who face child loss, and certainly some couples do split up, but clearly there are cultural misperceptions that could use some straightening out.
I think one reason why people are so eager to share this mythical divorce statistic is because it is too upsetting for them to conceive of how a marriage could possibly survive such a catastrophe. It’s easier to imagine that a marriage is simply obliterated than it is to imagine the day-to-day heartbreak, along the lines of the reaction “If my kids were killed I would just die.” Well, no, you wouldn’t. Nobody just spontaneously dies from grief. We go on living and loving, and even though both are incredibly hard, it’s worth talking about how couples often actually manage to persevere. It might be less dramatic than spontaneously combusting, but it’s a more human narrative.
And an even more taboo subject that rarely gets talked about is couples navigating sex after child-loss. Nobody wants to share the specifics of that journey, yet it is a powerful window into what true love looks like in grief.
During the first few weeks after the funeral, sex was simply not an option. It was the last thing on our minds, and our bodies were not physically up for it, as we were still pretty banged up from the crash. We had been in the car with Ruby and Hart when we were hit by a drunk driver going 90 miles an hour. Additionally, Jewish traditions forbids you from having sex for the first week after the death of a loved one. So exactly one week after the funeral, the sweet and earnest junior rabbi in our synagogue told us that we could now uncover our mirrors, go back to work, and go back to having sex. She was so nervous that she told us the sex part twice! At that point, however, our days were filled with going to therapy, going to grief groups, reading grief books, journaling about our grief, and weeping. It was not a sexy scene in our house. And frankly, the shock and horror of having both your teenage children murdered shrivels your dick up like a motherfucker.
But that begs the question, when do you go back to having sex? I read a lot of grief books, but none of them went into any detail when it came to the question of sex. If we’re going to talk about living with grief, living alongside grief, then we need to explore the realities of sex after a profound loss.
About 25 days after the funeral, Gail was getting undressed for bed and I noticed all the bruises from the crash – the black and purple welts across her chest, and the cuts from her seat belt – were all gone. Healed. And then I noticed that I was noticing her naked body and responding -– and I panicked! It seemed so wildly inappropriate. She’s in mourning. I’m in mourning. I squelched any erotic thoughts and I quickly looked away.
About five nights later, Gail came to me in tears, and said, “We need to talk. I notice that whenever I take my clothes off now, you look away, like my body disgusts you or something. And I just need to know, right now, will we ever have sex again?!” And I sputtered back, “Oh my god, yes, of course! I didn’t want to be checking out your ass while you were in terrible pain. I’m not that much of a monster.” So we decided that we’d wait a few more days and then…maybe try. But we didn’t know how it was going to go.
Then, one night, it was suddenly on. And we realized it wasn’t going to be some slow, gentle reunion. A primal life force energy took over and it felt elemental. We fucked each other like we had to. We fucked like we were fighting death itself. It was a crazy animalistic necessity. And in the moment, I remembered some grief books counseling grievers to resist compulsive sex with strangers, and I suddenly understood what they were talking about. In a way, that’s what it felt like. We were out of control. It also felt really, really good because for a moment, it obliterated all other thoughts. And that was hard to reconcile. Did we have the right to feel physical gratification while our beautiful children were robbed of ever feeling anything ever again?
Gail and I decided that sex was a healthy form of self-care that we needed to give ourselves permission to enjoy if we were going to move through grief together. But it takes work. It’s not easy getting into an erotic state of mind, and it’s definitely not easy to stay in that sexy mood. Those intrusive thoughts can sweep right in and destroy any erotic impulse. Sex now is not as care-free and cavalier as it used to be. It will never again be completely blissful anymore, with grief always watching from the sidelines.
But it’s worth the effort. Sex is an important part of our marriage and of our survival as a couple in grief. And look, it’s not all therapy. Sometimes it just feels really fucking good.
Colin Campbell is the author of Finding the Words: Working Through Profound Loss with Hope and Purpose. More at www.colincampbellauthor.com.