coping with the loss of closeness when your spouse/partner dies

We came across this post on the Open to Hope Foundation Network’s site for the death of a spouse. This personal account by thegriefblog.com contributing author Beverly McManus has good suggestions about being kind to yourself at a time when you’re feeling deprived.

“I Need a Hug” – Coping with Loss of Intimacy After the Death of Your Spouse

Yes, I missed Steve’s voice, his laugh, his footsteps on the stairs, and even his snoring. But after he died, I was unprepared for the depth of how much I missed his physical intimacy — the simple human touches we shared almost unconsciously through 20 years of marriage:

…casually brushing against each other as we passed each other in our home.

…the little pats that said, “I hear you.”

…friendly nudges and teasing light pinches.

…ongoing hugs.

…running my fingers through his hair, and vice versa.

…dancing around the kitchen as we cooked together.

…the short good morning kisses, and the longer kisses we shared when we greeted each other after an absence.

…and, oh, yes, the more private intimacy between husband and wife.

These were all now a thing of the past. With one daughter away at college and the other totally involved in her final years of high school, it seemed like sometimes many weeks would pass between me touching someone or having them touch me.

In my pain and initial numbness, I didn’t even know how much I missed this very human need until I was at my hairdresser’s. As Ilya gently shampooed my hair, and tenderly rinsed out the suds, tears came to my eyes as I realized it was the first time anyone had really touched me since Steve died. I realized how shattered I’d been feeling, and how good and human it felt to be touched in a personal way.

New in bereavement, I was of course no where close to developing a new relationship in which the physical touch I’d once shared with Steve would be shared with another. At that point, six years ago, I couldn’t even imagine ever being with anyone else, let along wanting the physical closeness and intimacy that is part of a healthy relationship.

But my experience at the hairdresser’s told me that I not only wanted, but actually needed, to build in some opportunities for sharing human touch. I began to consider some options, and discussed this topic with friends, one of whom jokingly suggested getting a paid escort! Of course, for me that was out of the question, but it did make me realize that there is an entire profession devoted to therapeutic human touch: professional massage therapists.

One of my friends actually treated me to my first session with a lovely massage therapist who seemed to have magic hands, and along with them, a tender, compassionate heart. After the first session, I realized that this was incredibly beneficial and should not be viewed as a luxury, but rather, as a really good way to take care of myself, just as I viewed my regular visits to the hairdresser or dentist.

As she massaged my tense and overworked body, Laura really seemed to help me free up some of the energy I’d been holding, that had been causing knee pain and neck aches. She also very gently encouraged me to open up some of the feelings I’d been holding so tightly, and each week I felt myself getting stronger and more hopeful. I continued my weekly appointments for more than three years, and treated our time together as a sacred “Sorry, this is an important appointment I can’t reschedule” occasion, because otherwise work pressures would have made me miss many of the sessions.

As she worked with my muscles and physical body, Laura also tended to my broken heart and soul, listening with care as over the weeks I explored who I was in my new life without Steve. She helped me process the empty nest I was facing with the high school graduation and departure for college of my youngest daughter. She held me as I grieved the illness and death of my dear aunt, and then shortly thereafter, the loss of my sweet mother. The massages and intense physical touch each week gave me energy and made me feel like a human being again.

What I’ve discovered:
I realized that I didn’t need to limit myself to weekly massages in order to meet my needs for human touch. I consciously began to become a “hugger,” you know, those friends who hug you every time you see them. I found that as I gave a hug, more often than not, I’d receive one too. Ahhhhhh… Heaven. To be held and hugged!

I’m now famous for my hugs - and as often as I can, I encourage others to reach out and hug someone nearby. I was thrilled to see an international hugging movement, in which volunteers stood on street corners holding signs offering “Free Hugs”. What a marvelous gift to give others, one that doesn’t require gift wrap, or to be dusted or stored!

And after my three-plus years under Laura’s tender ministrations ended, I discovered that I could visit local organic grocery stores for impromptu chair massages, where for a very reasonable fee, a massage therapist would iron out the kinks in my back and neck for 20 or so minutes, leaving me feeling refreshed, and yes, touched.

At this point, six years since Steve’s death, I’m gradually yet surely transitioning from the label as “widow” into one as “strong woman who is looking forward to being in a relationship again, at some point in the future.” Yes, for the first time in 26 years, I’m beginning to feel “single” again.

What the future holds is uncertain, yet I am enthusiastically embracing the possibility that once again, I will at some point share my life — and my physical touch — with someone I love, and who loves me.
How have you coped with the loss of physical touch and intimacy after the death of your spouse? What challenges have you faced? What solutions can you share with others? We’d love to hear about your experiences.

Beverly Chantalle McManus lives in Northern California with her two daughters, who have each now graduated from college. She is a bereavement facilitator and core team member of the Stepping Stones on your Grief Journey Workshops, and a frequent speaker and writer on the topic of loss and grief. In addition to grief support, she is also a marketing executive for professional services firms.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Laurie-what a great post! My husband was a hugger-and that is something I really miss. Nothing can replace his special hugs, but I have found that children are great huggers and cuddlers. My grandkids have been a great source of comfort. I also was rescued by a cat, who is extremely affectionate. After my husband died, I also started getting regular massages-I found a fabulous massage therapist, and I release a lot of physical and emotional tension that I hold inside. If you are still feeling hug deprived, I found that when I go to church, there are lots of people to hug. The great thing about hugging is that when you get one, you also give one back!

Laurie and Ruth said...

Thanks for those excellent suggestions, Deb!

schartman5466@msn.com said...

This post was beautifully written. I to cried when I had my first hair cut and shampoo after my husband, Steve, died. I had no idea how my soul, spirit, and body craved personal touch. It had been 2 and a half years for me. My body is starving for affection; my soul is starving for companionship, my mind is starving for stimulating conversation, and my spirit is starving for rest rather than fear.

Laurie and Ruth said...

Thank you for your touching and eloquent comment.

Anonymous said...

You know, thank you.

I knew how good it felt when people I never expected to hug me, just came up to me, expressed their condolences and hugged.

I too became a 'hugger' after this experience.

Laurie and Ruth said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

Our best wishes.

Clarissa said...

I lost my partner 3 weeks ago and found this blog, I realized at the wake that I couldn't stop touching people, especially men - hugging them, touching their arms - I thought they would think I was being inappropriately flirty, but I just realized that I just miss that feeling of affection and touch. I am making an appointment with a massage therapist today. Thank you for this and for all the wonderful posts. It's been really helpful.

Laurie and Ruth said...

Dear Clarissa,

Thanks for much for your kind words.

We're glad you've gained insight into your reactions and are taking positive steps to cope.

Please let us know if we can offer further support.

Gail D. said...

I lost my partner 3 weeks ago, and it left a gaping hole in my heart and soul. I am happy to know that I am not alone in missing all of the joys of the human touch. That it is human nature to hunger for it, it is a basic need. I get monthly massages, and yes this one especially was so needed and well deserved, but I am still desirous of a mans touch, although they will not replace the touch of my love, they will quench my thirst, and remind me of how wonderful touch is in healing. I have lunch monthly with old friends from high school, male and female. I without reservation, talked to one of the guys about how I miss intimacy, he is married, and I respect that, he told me that even though he is married that his relationship lacks intimacy, and we hugged each other, it was a wonderful moment! We needed nothing more, it was kind and reciprocal. I will continue to grow strong day by day, I will listen to my inner voice, and find my joy...

Laurie and Ruth said...

Dear Gail,

Thank you for sharing your experiences. It's great to hear that you have monthly contact with friends and a professional massage therapist.

Please keep in mind, though, that you are especially vulnerable right now. While your married friend may have been sincere when he hugged you, the fact that he mentioned that his marriage "lacks intimacy" suggests that he may also be feeling needy right now and hoping that your relationship will develop into something more.

We caution anyone who has been recently widowed not to make any important decisions for at least the first year. While reaching out for physical comfort may help in the short term, it can really complicate and prolong your bereavement down the road.

Please let us know how it goes.

Anonymous said...

My life partner of 40 plus years passed away on March2, 2018 I miss his touch so much, our goofy language game just between us, he was here when I needed a hug. I hug my son and granddaughter whenever I see them. There are random hugs from acquaintances, And the time at WalMart when I was getting my brows waxed. The lady who was working on me was a recent widow as well. When the job was done and we went to the desk to pay she gave me a much needed and tearful hug. I will consider massage. Thank you for your insight