Ten hours after my dad’s funeral, I messaged my ex-boyfriend the same text I’d sent him dozens of times before: Do you want to come over? When he arrived, the night started with the familiar routine we’d shared when we dated two years earlier. We ate a bowl of fudge-streaked ice cream, got into bed, and turned something esoteric, dark, and a little bit funny on Netflix. I might have mistaken it for any of the other nights we spent together—except for the fact that six days earlier, my father died by suicide.
I wasn’t surprised that I had sex with my ex that night, but I hadn’t planned for it either. My head felt light from days of crying and funeral planning, and my body vibrated along its edges from the shock of my dad’s death. But my ex-boyfriend’s skin next to mine grounded me. We didn’t have to speak. I didn’t need words for what my body knew.
Sex had always been that way for me—something that was acted upon rather than spoken about. At 23 years old, I was like the majority of young adults who initiate sex nonverbally. It’s common, but also risky to do—relying too heavily on nonverbal communication can lead to misinterpretations of consent and less sexual satisfaction. We need real conversation in order to have better sex and relationships, but so few of us talk about it that just 62 percent of people know what their partners like in bed, and only 26 percent know what their partners don’t.
Why aren’t we talking? Blame embarrassment, blame shame, and blame tired sexual scripts about the heteronormative “roles” men and women are supposed to play in bed. Then there’s the undying myth that great sex happens spontaneously and without much prior discussion. Most of us know that’s not true, and that satisfying intimacy takes at least some verbal back-and-forth, but still, we stay tight-lipped. As psychologist Noam Shpancer explained in Psychology Today, “Talking about sex can be likened to talking about death—we all have sex and we all die, yet both issues are difficult to consider head-on.”
Before my dad died, I only thought about sex and death abstractly, and I’d never considered the intersection between the two. Research hasn’t gone much further, either—what little data exists focuses on sex after the death of a partner or sexual intimacy between couples who have lost a child. And while a number of articles and blog posts correctly point out that grief can influence your sex drive—for better or for worse—most stop short of discussing what to do about it. Even less has been written about the tangible ways sex can be used as a positive coping mechanism for some grievers—Joan Price’s Sex After Grief is one of the only books I’ve found that addresses the topic directly.
Thus, most of what I’ve learned about sex and grief has come from other people. Rebecca Feinglos, who founded the blog Grieve Leave, lost her mother when she was a young teenager, and her father in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Immediately after her father died, Feinglos’ now ex-husband supported her in the acute moments when she struggled to get out of bed. But in the following months, she grew more aware of her specific needs—and the ways they weren’t being met.
“After a loss, some people might isolate themselves and cut themselves off. Other people might seek out connection, seek out physical intimacy, and seek out time with other people. I am the latter,” she told me. There isn’t hard data about how common this is, but as many experts have pointed out, craving intimacy during grief can be an unexpected but frequent response. As clinical sexologist and sex coach Patti Britton told MEL in 2018, “The grief trajectory is about a loss of closeness—a loss of intimacy. That’s why our libido kicks in: To fill that void.”
Biological anthropologist Helen Fischer also told VICE that good sex can be a handy distraction from the pain, as it stimulates the body’s dopamine system. “Any stimulation of the genitals drives the dopamine system in the brain, which gives feelings of optimism, energy, focus, and motivation,” she explained. Washington Post writer Anjali Pinto even described the string of sexual encounters she had after her husband died as creating an “overwhelming sense of happiness, even amid my loneliness.”
All that’s fine and well if you have a willing partner, but unfortunately for Feinglos, her ex fell short. As she progressed through her grief, she realized she wasn’t getting the physical intimacy or emotional closeness from him that she needed, and the lack of quality intimacy became a stark sign it was time to move on.
In the first few weeks after my father died, I felt that same type of crisis with my own needs. At first, I also received immediate support. Friends sent books and candles. My aunts and uncles texted often. But as the months carried on, so did the people around me. “People don’t intentionally forget that we’re grieving, but they kind of forget that we’re grieving,” Milwaukee-based therapist Juliet Haas told me. “So we’re left to advocate for ourselves; to communicate that [support] is still something we need.”
But I didn’t know how to advocate for myself. In the first year after my father’s death, I went through the motions of moving forward—starting a new job, moving to a different state, and spewing platitudes like I’m doing better every day when family checked on me. I wasn’t. I continued seeing my ex-boyfriend, and the comfort of our sexual relationship was one of the only things that felt familiar and consistent. Otherwise, I functioned on autopilot. I agreed to take a work trip right after my father’s birthday passed, and I couldn’t stop thinking about his favorite donuts that I’d never be able to send him. I submerged myself in my job advocating for people on death row, obsessing over the details of other people’s traumas instead of my own. I scrambled for memories that had grown murky, both of my father and of what I’d had for breakfast that morning.
By the one-year anniversary of my father’s death in 2019, the raw emotion—of pain, but also of connectedness—that defined the first months of my grief had hardened into a dull and terrifying apathy. I felt worse than when he first died because I felt nothing. I could no longer imagine a life that wasn’t shrouded in bleakness.
It took me over a year to slowly come out of the apathy that suppressed my feelings and the needs that came with them. And as I did, something peculiar began to happen. Once I started making space for my grief—as opposed to trying to suppress it—I began to discover the types of support I needed (conversations about my dad, cooking his favorite recipes), as well as the types I didn’t (self-help books and articles, ignoring his birthday.) I began scheduling important grief dates off of work months in advance. I talked about my dad more often, not just in the context of his death. I asked my family to call me on his birthday, and told my friends when I needed a night out dancing wearing multi-colored wigs.
Not every person in my life could be there in the way I wanted them to be, and there were many moments when I knew I needed something but couldn’t articulate what it was. But as I gradually started to verbalize what I needed to survive my father’s loss, I found myself communicating other needs I’d never had the words for before—especially when it came to sex. Instead of being a participant waiting for my partner to set the tone of our intimate exchanges—sexual, as well as emotional—I wanted to direct, too. I tried to establish the style and parameters of how we connected, rather than always following along with his cues. Having learned how to express my needs through grief, I was now learning to express them in bed.
The more I asked for what I needed, the more I realized my ex wasn’t able to give it to me. When our relationship ended, I re-entered the dating world without a conscious awareness that my communication style had changed. But I soon found myself not only talking to dates about my dad and where I was in my grief, but also, for the first time in an intimate setting, actually talking. It’s not that I suddenly had an exact formula of what I wanted and didn’t, but that I could use real, clear words to begin a conversation.
Even when the words were somewhere along the lines of “I’m not sure,” finally speaking about my own pleasure made my intimate relationships far more honest than they had been in the past. I became more candid with myself about when a connection was working and when it wasn’t—not necessarily based on how good the sex was, but on how good the communication was, both in and outside the bedroom.
Haas likens this effect to muscle memory. “You built up that competence muscle to be able to ask for what you needed in dating, sex, and intimacy,” she told me. “Having done it [for your grief] in an already established relationship… that helped build up that muscle.”
Chelsea London Lloyd, a Los Angeles comedian and host of the Dying of Laughter podcast, had a similar experience. She lost her father to ALS when she was 19, and learned to advocate for the type of grief support she needed, too.* “I’ve gotten a lot more clear about asking for what I need, whether that’s a friend to sit with at dinner, a friend to have a drink with, or a friend to just listen, even if they’ve never lost someone and have no idea what I’m talking about,” she told me. Because she’s had to learn how to clearly articulate needs like these, she’s become more adept at asking for what she wants from sex and romance, too.
Feinglos has as well. “My relationship with intimacy really changed after my dad’s death,” she explained. “Hitting this rock-bottom place made me recalibrate how I speak up for what I want, how I know what I want—physically and emotionally. Because I know that no one else is going to take care of me, except for me.”
As I’ve figured out the type of emotional support I need and where to find it, the impact of losing my dad has become more integrated into a life that also has room for joy, work, hope—and surprisingly—good sex. His death continues to be the hardest thing I’ve gone through. But sex is still more difficult for me to talk about than my grief. Loss has become a part of my identity I didn’t choose, but how I connect with intimacy is an even more foundational part of my human self, one I’m still getting to know.
I tell my current partner all about my father. I ask him to go shopping at overpriced designer stores, my dad’s favorite activity, and to listen to me describe my anger without trying to cheer me up. And even when the words feel awkward, I also ask him to try a new sex toy with me or tell him when I need an extra, comforting touch.
Once, my partner asked me how I felt about using the word “daddy” in bed.
“It’s not for me, I don’t like that,” I told him. “Plus, dead dad.”
He said he didn’t like it, either, and thought that if we ever tried he’d just end up thinking of my dad. It’s not exactly one of the ways I expected my father to live on—but now, I can talk about it all.
Correction, Jan. 25, 2023: This article originally misstated that Chelsea London Lloyd lost her father to Parkinson’s. She lost her father to ALS.