Last month, my lola passed away after a year-long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. The following days were a complete blur. I stayed with my family in New Jersey, supporting my mother through the task of burying her mother, and experienced a whole range of emotions swinging from nostalgic laughter to hysterical crying.
My boyfriend Matt had never met my grandmother while she was alive, but came to the wake and stood beside me as I sobbed into his shoulder. Unfortunately, her Alzheimer’s was so advanced by the time we got together that it didn’t make sense to introduce them.
As the wake progressed, I watched Matt interact with family members he hadn’t met before with an ease that made me fall more deeply in love with him. Without realizing it at the time, it seemed another feeling took over from the sadness: horniness.
I was flooded with a desire to have sex that was so strong, I didn’t know what to do with it. I stood outside of a funeral parlor where my grandmother’s wake was happening, and all I could think about was going home the next day and sleeping with my boyfriend.
I was grieving, yes, but I was also incredibly keyed up and desperate to pounce on my man as soon as I saw him.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened, either. When my father’s mother, my Grandma Angela, passed away from cancer three years ago, I’d also felt an intense feeling of sexuality flare up inside of me. But I was single at the time, so aside from my battery-operated toys, I didn’t really have an outlet for my desire.
This time, after the somber funeral and penne vodka-fueled repass, all I could think was: “I get to have sex with my boyfriend tonight.” I was grieving, yes, but I was also incredibly keyed up and desperate to pounce on my man as soon as I saw him.
The explanation: “Sex is a salve,” says Nancy Lee, PhD, author of Don’t Sleep With Him Yet. According to research at the University of Michigan, emotional and physical pain light up the same parts of the brain. “When we experience physical pain, our body releases endorphins, a peptide-based hormone that serves as a salve for pain,” Dr. Lee explains.
"When you have a high sex drive, sex is more rewarding, so you’re more likely to link it with positive emotions."
You know what else releases endorphins? Sex. “So when you’re experiencing this acute pain, which we call acute emotional grief, your brain is automatically seeking out those endorphins,” she says. Those who tend to have a higher sex drive, and who experience more pleasure from sex, seem to be the ones to seek this out over those with lower sex drives, according to Dr. Lee. “When you have a high sex drive, sex is more rewarding, so you’re more likely to link it with positive emotions,” she says.
We, as a society, have some pretty backward feelings around taboos—especially sex and death—and how those two play off of each other. We see this tension point play out in real time all the time, like when Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway posted a series of sexual photographs in the weeks after her father’s death late least year.
“I am sexy and sexual and grief-stricken,” she captioned one post. Commenters took serious issue with Calloway linking sexuality and grief in such a way. “I’m not gonna say your dad would be disappointed, I’m sure he wouldn’t but whatever kinda message you’re trying to spread here, you executed it terribly,” wrote one commenter.
But at that moment, I felt incredibly close to Calloway, because I’d experienced exactly what she seemed to be feeling in posting that photo. I was also sexy and sexual and grief-stricken, and that interplay felt both exciting and shameful at the same time.
“When someone we love has died, we are desperate to tap into life,” says Alexandra H. Solomon, PhD, author of Taking Sexy Back. “And there’s no more powerful access point to a sense of vitality and aliveness as sex. Losing someone puts death in front of us. So some people use sex to tap into life.”
Grief horniness is completely normal, but isn’t how everyone will react. “We’re completely idiosyncratic as sexual beings,” Dr. Solomon says.
My experiences with both deaths of my grandmothers highlights this. In one situation, I was horny, but felt shame around expressing it since I didn’t have a partner I trusted at the time. But this time around, I was lucky to have a partner who accepted the emotional roller coaster I was going through, and rode it out with me (pun intended).
When I got back to the city, I went over to Matt’s apartment and cried in his arms again. We ordered food, cuddled on the couch, and eventually turned in for the evening together. For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to integrate sex into my healing process. And let me tell you—it was one of the better ways to embrace life in the face of death.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.