Grief is an experience that everyone navigates at different points in their lives. For the past three years, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted peoples’ lives in myriad ways and left many experiencing significant grief.
Loss can also deeply affect one’s sexuality, a concept referred to as sexual bereavement. Any form of loss, not just the loss of a sexual partner, can alter one’s sexual desire. As noted in Alice Radosh and Linda Simkin’s 2016 article published in Reproductive Health Matters, both sexuality and grief are stigmatized, which creates a double-barreled taboo. This double stigma can result in someone not feeling comfortable or confident addressing the topic.
When working with clients who have experienced loss, counselors must consider the interplay between grief and sexuality. There are few spaces where clients can address their grief and even fewer safe spaces where they can discuss their sexuality, so it is important that counselors consider how they can approach this subject with clients. This article discusses why this topic is important and when and how counselors can address the intersection of grief and sexuality with clients.
Why is this topic important?
Radosh and Simkin noted that some bereaved clients want to discuss how their sexuality has changed as a result of grief, yet they are often hesitant to do so. Clients may perceive that sexuality and grief cannot coexist. If this is the case, then they may feel shame if they have sexual feelings while grieving. Clients may also believe it is inappropriate to admit that they miss intimacy or that their sexual desire has changed. Other clients may perceive sexuality as distant and remote — something that may never again feel accessible.
The complexities of this topic, combined with counselors’ and clients’ personal discomfort, may cause counselors to avoid addressing it. This discomfort can arise because counselors are uncertain about how to broach the topic, counselors are uncomfortable with the topic of sexuality in general or the client is hesitant to bring the topic up. Although we do not know a lot about how various aspects of sexuality are affected after a loss, it is clear this is an issue that people experience as part of their normal development and growth, so counselors must be prepared to address this topic.
When to address this topic?
Although there is no right time to address this topic, counselors can introduce conversations related to the topic early in the counseling process. They could include questions about how grief has impacted the client’s sexuality on the intake form and then use the information the client provided to gently broach the topic during the first session. Counselors may also need to go slow and consider if it makes sense to bring up the topic during one of the initial sessions. For example, it may not be a good idea to discuss it in the first session if the client has a lot of shame around the topic of sexuality. In this situation, clinicians need to establish therapeutic trust and rapport before mentioning the topic. This approach will help clients feel safe enough to share their experiences.
Counselors can also ask clients to describe the various realms in their lives that have been affected by loss and grief, and they can mention sexuality as one possible area. And throughout the counseling process, clinicians can validate and normalize their clients’ experiences regarding grief and sexuality.
Because clients will move at their own pace and some may want to revisit the topic throughout counseling, regular check-ins with clients can be helpful. Counselors can encourage clients to engage in these difficult conversations by asking them to create “permission slips” to attend to forgotten or challenging dimensions of grief. Clinicians can give clients a scrap piece of paper and ask them to write out an area in their lives that is affected by grief that they find difficult to discuss. Another option is for counselors to write down overlooked topics related to grief and sexuality — such as dating, desire and arousal, physical changes, ways to talk about grief with a partner — on a sheet of paper and then ask clients to choose a topic from the list they want to discuss.
How can counselors help clients?
There is limited research on how to support clients’ sexuality in the context of grief. Formal interventions, however, may not be as important as the compassionate environment and empathic presence a counselor provides. Empathic presence can help clients introduce difficult conversations at their own pace and on their own terms.
Psychoeducation can also play an important role in counseling this population. For example, counselors can share that for some clients, sexual desire and arousal increase after a loss while others have the opposite experience. Providing education around the different reactions people have to grief can validate clients’ experiences and help them connect with the ways they may be experiencing grief. Counselors can also teach clients that grief is not just relegated to the cognitive or emotional domain; our bodies carry and process grief as well, and in this way, our bodies grieve. Providing this education to clients may allow them to feel relief that their somatic reactions surrounding sexuality after a loss are valid.
Another area of psychoeducation that could be valuable to clients is the identification of their grieving styles. The Grief Pattern Inventory is a tool that can help clients gain insight into how they are approaching the grief process. (For more, see Kenneth Doka and Terry Martin’s Men Don’t Cry, Women Do: Transcending Gender Stereotypes of Grief.) Understanding how a person is grieving can help the client and counselor gain valuable insight into the client’s grief process. Intuitive grief is an emotional style of grief in which emotional expression is valued, whereas instrumental grief is a cognitive style of grief in which problem-solving is valued. According to Doka and Martin, a client who identifies as having an intuitive style of grief will prefer a space to emotionally express the wide range of feelings that emerge when considering the intersection of sexuality and grief. In contrast, a client who identifies with an instrumental style of grief may prefer using specific techniques to reengage with their sexuality because they may view the changes in their sexuality after a loss as a problem to be solved. Counselors can introduce this concept to clients and invite them to consider how their grieving style may be affecting how they approach their sexuality after loss.
Finally, creative interventions can be a powerful way to help clients navigate these issues. Counselors can invite clients to write themselves a permission slip to engage with their sexuality in whatever way feels appropriate to them. For example, they might write, “I give myself permission to lean into the feelings that arise when I consider how my sexuality has changed in the following ways.” Clinicians can also encourage clients to create a grief playlist in which they share songs that help describe or capture the feelings surrounding the areas of their life that are affected by grief (including sexuality). Clients could share their grief playlists with their partners and identify how their grief experience is similar or different. Overall, outward expression of loss can help validate the complexity of feelings that arise when navigating this double-barreled taboo.
Addressing personal biases
When working with this population, it is important to be mindful of biases that both the client and counselor may have about grief and sexuality. Some common biases include the assumption that sexual desire disappears after a loss, sexuality is not appropriate to discuss after a loss or having sexual desire after a loss is wrong. To address these biases, counselors can use reflective questions and journaling prompts that ask individuals to reflect on what they have been taught culturally about grief etiquette, sexuality and scripts surrounding what is normal after grief. Again, some might feel judgmental of a griever whose sexual desire and/or arousal has increased after a death. However, addressing our own biases will help create a hospitable environment where a client is met with nonjudgment.
Counselors play an important role in empowering clients who are grieving. Even though we live in a grief-avoidant culture where we shy away from pain, counselors can create a refuge of hospitality where we can openly acknowledge what is uncomfortable. It is in our power and our scope of practice to gently remind clients that it is OK to talk about the intersection of grief and sexuality and to meet our clients with compassionate curiosity and encourage them to grant themselves permission and space to grieve and embrace their sexuality after loss in whatever way makes sense to them.
Kailey Bradley is a licensed professional counselor with supervision designation in Ohio, a national certified counselor and a certified thanatologist. She specializes in the intersections of grief and sexuality as well as issues surrounding chronic and terminal illness. She has a background in hospice work and feels that advocating for grievers is her life’s passion. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Victoria Kress is a distinguished professor at Youngstown State University. She is a licensed professional clinical counselor and supervisor in Ohio, a national certified counselor and a certified clinical mental health counselor. She has published extensively on many topics related to counselor practice. Contact her at victoriaEkress@gmail.com.
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