Illustration by Juliana Lagerstedt
When my partner was killed 21 years ago in a road traffic accident, I was young and in love. We shared daydreams and fantasies—none of which came to fruition. His sudden death was the worst day of my life. It left an indelible scar on my soul. The true damage of that impact is only now coming to light.
In the days, weeks, even months after his passing, I noticed my inability to express compassion. What was wrong with me? I just couldn’t connect. I avoided any situation that might warrant the need for me to sympathize or empathize, connect.
I felt mean-spirited, small, closed. My once expansive nature had been culled. My passionate, fiery self had been dampened like a towel in a bass drum. No noise emitted from my walls. I didn’t want to talk to or share my thoughts with anyone.
Despite this, I craved sex. (In hindsight, I realize it wasn’t really sex, per se… more like orgasms.) At the time, the thought of meeting my own needs was not a pleasurable “self-empowerment” move. Instead, it was more like what I’d imagine being a junkie and needing a fix might feel like: I needed orgasms to feel alive, to affirm that I was indeed still here, not just a mass void of nothingness.
The acerbic pain of loss burnt holes in my gut. I dreamt of all the love I had somehow thrown away, discarded, lost. I wanted it all back: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Every last thing I had denied him, I would gladly offer just to exist with him right now.
I was internally dead in every way except when masturbating. To hold an intimate communion with myself was almost the only way to relieve the overwhelming and painful sense of loss and abandonment my soul was experiencing. I would surely go blind. Self-flagellation, enshrined in a tidy shell of guilt and shame? Perfect. The burden of bereavement allowed this misguided belief to sit neatly on a heavy load. The proverbial backpack was bulging and I didn’t even notice…or care.
Fantasies of making love to people I knew, friends, strangers, anyone, plagued me for a while… longer than I’d like to admit. Hands, hair, smile, stare, smell, walk. Anyone or anything that triggered a familiarity to my dead partner became a secret object of desire.
Alarmingly, I had no control of when this urge was going to take over. It could strike at any time. Anything could induce it, especially stressful situations. It had occurred when I was driving—and even during parents’ evenings! I hated going to formal events alone, especially when I knew the stress of the event meant I’d likely wind up feeling sexually charged throughout! Oh dear.
The more I wanted to hide in a hole, the more life threw at me, and the more people’s attention I attracted. I abstained. Instead, I chose how to understand and better read my automatic physical and emotional responses to life, with the help of a therapist.
During therapy, I was relieved to learn that this physical/psychological reaction was, in fact, common. Thank God. Why did no one ever speak about this? Multiple people die every day, all over the world: are we all walking around horny and unhealed?
I realize that I am one of the lucky ones. While dealing with my grief, I was able to find my way through it, to make sense of a seemingly nonsensical reaction through personal work and professional guidance.
It could have been much worse. What if I had a condition, such as bipolar disorder? Or didn’t have the skills or resources to research and learn about grief and bereavement?
I’ve observed so many people left vulnerable and at risk of being exploited or exploiting themselves in a mistaken attempt to feel alive again through sexual intimacy—especially when suffering with bereavement or abandonment.
Emotional pain is so overwhelming, and often we are at the mercy of how it reacts in our bodies. It has been so important for me to not continue to push these emotions away, but instead, with compassion, to let them wash over me like strong waves, which will come and pass—no matter what.