It was around the 18th anniversary of my husband Greg’s death from cancer when he was 44 and I was 41 that my friends started wondering 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 had been horny for a long time when I was a teenager – but there was so much room for misinterpretation. The subject of dating – especially sex – after the death of a spouse is still taboo.
I can assure you, however, that it is very much the order of the day in the messages between me and my new widowed friends. In the club you never wanted to join, we call it “widow’s fire.”
Over the five years of Greg’s illness and the torture of his death for over two months, my entire identity has been ripped out.
I had not only 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 my desire.
I not only lost 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 sexual urge, which came on almost immediately, seemed inappropriate and strange. But the uncomfortable truth is that there is no better antidote to death.
This post-traumatic longing is not a facet of loss reserved for widows alone; in fact, the urge for sex and intimacy is a healthy and normal, albeit embarrassing, response to the most difficult times in our lives and well documented throughout history.
During World War I, soldiers turned to sex workers in the face of the horror of death in the trenches. The baby boom of the late 1940s came after years of war and celebrated the joys of stability. The population increased ten months after September 11 and the start of the confinements linked to the Covid pandemic.
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 that are often lacking in those who are grieving.
The act of sex itself triggers a primal sense of being alive, an appealing allure to people who have seen life’s fragility up close.
Despite this, we find the idea troubling. The fact that widows have a bad image does not help. Historically, the tropes are the bitter singleton, the sad emotional wreck, or the menacing rival looking to rob your husband.
When I was young, I remember that widows who started dating again were said to have a “companion” or a “gentleman friend”. The terms were condescending, neutral and intended to obscure any suggestion that these women might want sex.
The envy seemed inappropriate and strange, but the truth is, there is no better antidote to death.
Even today, a distinctly closed attitude prevails. I remember a friend describing her mother-in-law – widowed at 41 (like me) – as “man crazy” because she had had two other monogamous relationships before she died at 80.
Then there is the ever-present thought (if unspoken): “But didn’t you love your husband?” The fact is that it is not an agreement between one or the other. You can have a lasting love for what happened while still having desire.
Desire is physical, just like grief. The day after Greg’s funeral, I lost my voice completely for five days and spent months battling flu-like symptoms that often left me unable to do anything but lie in bed watching the wall.
My own endless sexual desire since Greg’s death has proven problematic – so what should I do? I certainly don’t want a relationship, but I do want to have sex.
In your early twenties, there were “friends with benefits,” people you felt safe with and never had to explain anything to. Now, at 43, that pool has dried up because everyone I know is married and it seems impossible to meet men anywhere other than online, something I’ve never dived into.
A Chapter 2 survey in 2022 found that 63% of people experience increased sexual desire after the death of a spouse or partner.
Greg and I met before the internet dating boom, and I was always grateful that I never needed to be involved in it. It seemed difficult at the time, so how could I begin to explain the complexities of my situation in a profile now?
There’s 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 non-committal sex and fun after the death of their spouse.
Wake, 51, who lost her husband three years ago, understands the difficulty of navigating the world of dating apps after his death – so she decided to create her own.
Its first app, Chapter 2, is specifically for widows and widowers who are looking for connections and relationships with other people who understand. The app has been hugely successful and now has over 3,500 members.
However, Wake saw another gap in the market through the messages it received from users and decided to create a sister app. This time, the focus would be on post-mourning sex without (in a low voice) the specter of commitment — as she sees it, “physical comfort” in a space of flirtation and non-judgment.
“I created both dating apps out of necessity and out of frustration with mainstream apps,” says Wake. “Tinder and Bumble weren’t working for me because it’s always hard to know when to reveal your widowed status.
“And many widows have no interest in forming another relationship or may have dependent children and don’t have the time but still need contact and intimacy.”
“After bereavement, people are vulnerable, so we wanted to create a space where widows and widowers could safely meet their sexual needs with others in the same situation as them.”
In the first few days of the app, over 900 messages were sent between members, confirming what Wake and many other widows know: the widow fire phenomenon is real.
“I had sex again for the first time a year after my husband died,” says Wake. “It was nerve-wracking to think of starting over, as I had shared my heart and my bed for almost 20 years with the love of my life. But I knew life had to move on and, at 49, I was too young to plan the rest of my life on my own.
Since then, Wake has been involved in two short-term relationships and a “friends with benefits” storyline, but she knew she wasn’t ready for a serious relationship. Instead, she signed up for WidowsFire herself.
“I carefully research potential dates about once or twice a week,” she says. “I had lots of fun conversations and a lovely lunch date, but unfortunately the spark just wasn’t there. However, I am definitely open to approaches.
A survey by Chapter 2 in 2022 found that 63% of people experience increased sexual desire after the death of a spouse or partner, while three in five widows report having had sex with previous partners.
It’s a truth that plays out in the television series 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 can develop a new adventurous attitude towards sex, with more than half of respondents considering experimenting with different genders, ages and preferences. However, when it comes to having sex again, they usually wait more than a year after the death of their spouse.
In the silence of young widowhood, I hear my sexual desires ringing like a bell, but conversely I find the reality of sex with someone else a terrifying prospect. When it happens, maybe I’ll feel like it was the first time – a big build-up, and then I’ll wonder what it’s all about.
I applaud all widows who meet their needs. I believe the courage to find a physical connection will be a big part of their healing process and a step towards taking control of their lives.
To everyone else, I ask you to remember that whatever any widow decides to do when it comes to sex will be complicated and emotionally charged.
We do our best in a foreign country. Just like you, we are striving to be well.
- For more information go to widowsfire.co.uk and Chapter2dating.app