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Rebuilding Intimacy After Profound Loss
by Paul Coleman, Psy.D.
Editor's Note: This article was written to cover all types of profound loss. However, the tenets of this article hold true for pregnancy/infant loss as well. Losing a baby is a profound loss, and given that sexual intimacy played a part in conceiving the baby, such intimacy is usually greatly affected when the baby dies. Please read on for more information.

Joe and Marie sat in my waiting room as I went out to greet them for the first time. It had been nearly a year since their 19 year old daughter was killed in a car accident. They sat on opposite sides of the room; he mindlessly browsing through a magazine, she staring at a picture on the wall and rubbing her hands together as if they had never felt so cold--mindless in a different kind of way.

"I'm Paul Coleman," I said, extending my hand to Joe, smiling gently to break the tension. His handshake was strong, almost desperate, as if he were hanging off a cliff and clutching my hand for fear of falling. Marie's grip had no strength at all. Their eyes were moist; tears that spoke volumes despite neither of them having yet spoken a word. When they entered my private office they had no choice but to sit next to each other. And I wondered, would that be the closest they had been since their daughter's passing?

When grief is born of senseless tragedy, or when the loss (however it happened) is profound, a secondary loss often occurs. The bereaved often pull away from intimacy precisely at a time when closeness and connection is called for. With couples, sometimes only one partner pulls away, but that is usually enough to bring about a kind of emptiness in the relationship. The need for physical and emotional intimacy can increase or decrease when suffering a profound loss. One way or another, intimacy is affected.

Factors Influencing Intimacy During Grief

As a therapist, I might examine a dozen or more factors that affect a grieving person's ability to re-establish intimacy with a partner after the passing of a loved one. But there are four key factors that must never be ignored:

  • The nature and meaning of the loss to be grieved.
  • The impact of the loss on one's spiritual beliefs.
  • The quality of the couple's relationship prior to the loss
  • Each person's instinctive coping style when faced with pain and loss.
The Nature of the Loss

The loss of a child is the most painful to bear and often disrupts both emotional and physical intimacy. The loss of a close friend or relative may or may not affect intimacy. Much depends on the relationship to the deceased and whether or not any unresolved issues remain. There is a slight spike in the divorce rate after the death of one's parent. Some people delay an inevitable divorce for the sake of an elderly parent. Others, unhappy in a marriage, decided after someone dies that life is too short and that divorce is an option.

Impact on Spiritual Beliefs

Rarely do one's spiritual beliefs remain the same after a painful loss. Spiritual devotions rise or fall. Not uncommonly, partners may differ in their spiritual attitudes after a tragic death. One might be angry at God; the other grieving but prayerful. Such differences can isolate the couple from one another, impeding the emotional closeness that is usually important during grief.

Quality of the Relationship

Generally, the closer a couple was before a tragic loss, the more likely they will sustain that closeness during grief. Couples dissatisfied in their relationship have the most to overcome during grief. They may be unable to support one another as effectively as they might if their relationship had been more intimate before.

Coping Styles

During major stress, trauma or grief, people move instinctively in one of three directions: towards others for support; away from others in isolation; against others with anger and conflict. All three of those reactions can happen in any person, but each of us has a "default drive"-a tendency to move naturally in one direction more often. For couples in grief, the most common tendency is for one partner to want to be alone while the other wishes to connect. This can then lead to conflict if not handled with understanding and compassion. Ideally, each will not emotionally oppose the other's preferred coping style and each will move out of their comfort zone and meet the other's needs periodically. Making the other "wrong" for wanting to be so isolated or so connected is never helpful.

Four Pathways to Greater Intimacy

Intimacy is the closeness that comes from some form of verbal or non-verbal self-disclosure, of being able to "be who you are" in a context of warmth and acceptance. Intimacy is shared, not one-sided, and elevates the status of a relationship.

There are four pathways to intimacy; I call them the "Four T's": Intimacy through Thought, Talk, Touch and Togetherness. During profound grief, one or all of those areas will be affected. Intimacy through "Thought" is most common but rarely considered. It occurs when thoughts about another draw one closer emotionally and spiritually to that person. Such thoughts happen anywhere-while driving to work, reading or spending time with the other person. When intimacy is diminished or absent, one's thoughts about another tend to be negative. They promote isolation or conflict, not togetherness. In grief, one partner may feel helpless to soothe the other's pain and may actually harbor negative thoughts as a result. "Why can't she smile for a change . . .? Why does he have to be so cold? She'll never get over it and we'll never be the same again. If he cared about how I'm feeling he would . . ." and so on. When trying to improve closeness during grief, it helps to meditate on a partner's good and loving qualities, and to consider that his or her inadequacies right now may be a reflection of depression or ignorance, not lack of caring.

Talk is perhaps the most common way to enhance intimacy. But talking about facts is not enough. How you feel about the facts-and your degree of self-disclosure-will determine the degree of intimacy that is reached. Saying, "I had a busy day at work" is a fact and may not add to intimacy. Saying, "I had a busy day at work, and it felt good being distracted awhile from my grief" is more revealing and allows for a greater connection and deeper intimacy. Making another wrong for how they feel will push them away, limit self-disclosure and cause intimacy to shrivel. Sharing memories of a loved one who has died can be bittersweet. Always be aware that one person may want and need to talk more than the other, and each one's needs must be accommodated to whatever extent possible.

Sexual intimacy is often most affected when a couple is experiencing profound grief. Not only is the sex drive low or absent, it can be difficult to do something fun or pleasurable. Over time the absence of sexual intimacy can cause intimacy to unravel in other areas (thought, talk, and togetherness) so it is important for couples to understand that at some point, sexual intimacy must be coaxed and resumed. In the meantime, non-sexual affection that is frequent and tender is a must.

Togetherness can also increase a sense of connection. Activities that are fun may seem too hard to do right away, but the couple can try to arrange activities that are pleasant. Laughter of any kind under any circumstance always helps.

A relationship may be founded on love, but intimacy is how that love is often expressed day to day. During grief, intimacy levels will understandably fluctuate. But they must not be overlooked.

About the Author:
Paul W. Coleman, Psy.D. is a psychologist and a grief and trauma expert. His latest book is The Complete Idiot's Guide to Intimacy. Learn more at http://www.paul-coleman.com.

Reprinted from Grief Digest Magazine (www.griefdigestmagazine.com/), Volume 3, Issue #3

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