The truth about widows and no-strings sex: When STACEY HEALE was widowed at 41 she was surprised to find herself longing for intimacy soon after her husband’s death. And as she discovered, she is far from alone…
- UK writer Stacey Heale discusses her lost connection to sexuality and desire
- READ MORE: When my husband died, ‘widow’s fire’ drove me to have casual sex with 15 men in a year
It was around the 18-month anniversary of my husband Greg dying of cancer when he was 44 and I was 41 that my friends began to wonder if I was considering dating.
‘Because even if you don’t want a relationship, aren’t you starting to miss sex?’ they asked.
I would have loved to tell them that I’d been horny as a teenager for a long time – but there was so much room to be misinterpreted. The topic of dating – specifically having sex – after the death of a spouse is still taboo.
I can assure you, however, that it is very much the main order of the day in the messages between me and my new widowed friends. In the club you never wanted to be in, we know this as ‘widow’s fire’.
In the five years of Greg’s illness and the torture of his death over two months, my whole identity was ripped away.
I hadn’t just lost my partner of 15 years and the father of our two young daughters, I lost so many different fragments of myself, one of them being the connection to my own sexuality and desire.
I didn’t just lose my husband and the father of my children, but I lost so many different fragments of myself, one of them being the connection to my own sexuality and desire
The urge for sex, which turned up almost immediately, felt inappropriate and strange. But the uncomfortable truth is there is no better antidote to death.
This post-traumatic desire is not a facet of loss reserved only for widows; in fact, craving sex and intimacy is a healthy and normal, albeit awkward, response to the hardest times in our lives and well documented throughout history.
During the First World War, soldiers turned to sex workers while facing the horror of death in the trenches. The baby boom of the late 1940s came after years of war and celebrated the delight of stability. Population spiked ten months after 9/11 and the beginning of the Covid pandemic lockdowns.
Biologically, sex produces feel-good endorphins, which decrease stress and pain. It can help you feel more grounded and connected to yourself while increasing a sense of power and control, feelings often lacking in those who are grieving.
The act of sex itself triggers a primal feeling of being alive, an attractive draw for people who have seen the fragility of life up close.
Despite this, we find the idea troubling. It doesn’t help that widows have a bad image. Historically, the tropes are the bitter singleton, the sad emotional wreck or the threatening rival out to steal your husband.
When I was young, I remember widows who began dating again being said to have a ‘companion’ or a ‘gentleman friend’. The terms were patronising, neutral and aimed at clouding any suggestion that these women might want sex.
Even now a distinctly buttoned-up attitude prevails. I recall a friend describing her mother-in-law – widowed at 41 (like me) – being ‘man crazy’ because she had two further monogamous relationships before she died in her 80s.
Then there’s the ever present (if not voiced) thought: ‘But didn’t you love your husband?’ The point is that it isn’t an either/ or deal. You can have enduring love for what has gone while also experiencing lust.
Desire is physical – as is grief. The day after Greg’s funeral, I lost my voice entirely for five days and spent months battling flu-like symptoms that often left me capable of doing nothing more than lying in bed staring at the wall.
My own never-ending desire for sex since Greg’s death has proved problematic – so what do I do? I definitely don’t want a relationship, but I do want to have sex.
In my early 20s, there were ‘friends with benefits’, people you felt safe with and never needed to explain anything to. Now, at 43, that pool has dried up as everyone I know is married and it feels impossible to meet men anywhere other than online, something I have never dipped my toe into.
A survey carried out by Chapter 2 in 2022 found that 63 per cent of people experience an increased sexual desire following the death of a spouse or partner
Greg and I got together before the boom in internet dating, and I had always been thankful I never needed to be involved with it. It looked hard then so how would I begin to explain the complexities of my situation in a profile now?
There is a potential answer for people like me in the form of entrepreneur Nicky Wake, who recently launched WidowsFire, an app specifically for those looking for sex and noncommittal flirty fun after the death of a spouse.
Wake, 51, who lost her husband three years ago, understands the difficulty of navigating the world of dating apps in the aftermath of death – so she decided to create her own.
Her first app, Chapter 2, specifically caters for widows and widowers looking for connection and relationships with others who understand. The app has been a huge success and now has more than 3,500 members.
However, Wake saw another gap in the market through the messages she received from users and decided to set up a sister app. This time the emphasis would be on sex after bereavement without (whisper it) the spectre of commitment – as she sees it, ‘physical comfort’ in a flirty, nonjudgmental space.
‘I built both dating apps out of necessity and frustration with mainstream ones,’ Wake explains. ‘Tinder and Bumble weren’t working for me as it’s always difficult to know when to reveal your widow status.
‘And many widows have no interest in entering into another relationship or may have children to care for and don’t have time but still crave touch and intimacy.
‘After bereavement, people are vulnerable so we wanted to create a space where widows and widowers could safely have their sexual needs met with others in the same situation as them.’
In the app’s first few days, over 900 messages were sent between members, confirming what Wake and many other widows know: the phenomenon of widow’s fire is real.
‘I first had sex again a year after my husband died,’ Wake says. ‘It was nerve-racking thinking about starting again as I’d shared my heart and bed for nearly 20 years with the love of my life. But I knew that life needed to move forward and, at 49, I was too young to contemplate the rest of my days alone.’
Since then, Wake has been involved in two short-term relationships and a ‘friends with benefits’ scenario, but knew she wasn’t ready for a serious relationship. Instead, she has signed up to WidowsFire herself.
‘I have a proper look for potential dates around once or twice a week,’ she says. ‘I’ve had lots of fun flirty conversations and one lovely lunch date, but sadly the spark just wasn’t there. I’m definitely open to approaches, though.’
A survey carried out by Chapter 2 in 2022 found that 63 per cent of people experience an increased sexual desire following the death of a spouse or partner, while three out of five widows said they’d had sex with previous partners.
It’s a truth played out in the TV show And Just Like That…, when Carrie Bradshaw rekindles her romance with Aidan after the sudden death of her husband Mr Big.
The same survey also showed that widows may develop a new adventurous attitude towards sex, with over half of the respondents considering experimentation with different genders, ages and kinks. However, when it comes to actually having sex again, they usually wait over a year after the death of their spouses.
In the silence of young widowhood, I can hear my sexual desires ringing like a bell, but conversely find the reality of sex with someone else a terrifying prospect. When it eventually happens, maybe it will feel like the first time – a big build-up then I’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.
I applaud all the widows out there engaging with their needs. I believe the courage to find physical connection will be a big part of their healing process and a step towards gaining back control of their lives.
To everyone else, I ask you to remember that what any widow decides to do about sex, it will be complicated and laden with emotions.
We are trying our best in a foreign land. Just like you, we’re striving to be OK.
- For more information, go to widowsfire.co.uk and chapter2dating.app
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