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Understanding the Grief Process with Chronic Illness and Sexuality

Updated: Jul 21

Most of the time when chronically ill clients come into my office there is a grief process that occurs first before becoming sexual again. After being diagnosed with a debilitating illness, sex may be the last thing on their mind. It is common to have low sexual desire when an individual is in the crisis phase of an illness, but really this can happen in all phases when battling a disease. The person may be in the stabilization phase where they find themselves adapting to how their body responds to an illness and this often takes a priority before sex. In the resolution phase, their coping may improve, but they may fear being sexual due to the risk of not having the energy and being in more pain. I think it is important to understand the grief process when battling a chronic illness and how people can overcome the barriers in reclaiming a sex life that works.


When someone receives a diagnosis of a chronic illness, they often experience denial. Loved ones often experience denial as well. When I say loved ones, I am referring to a partner, family members, and friends. The person and loved ones are in a state of shock and disbelief and these feelings become overwhelming. The anxiety is heightened and there are many questions. The sole purpose of denial is to keep people from being overwhelmed with their feelings. In other words, it is an easy way out for them. The comfort zone of being in denial may work briefly, but not addressing the denial can be dangerous. The individual may be placing themselves at risk because depending on the illness, treatment may be required immediately.


There are several messages I hear from loved ones and most of these messages are based on feeling helpless. Loved ones report they are at a loss because they feel they can’t do anything to help their loved one who is battling a horrific disease. This is where psychotherapy can be helpful for the ill person and their loved loves. When they learn to address and tolerate their feelings of helplessness, this may allow them to think more clearly and it will help in taking a proactive stance. Keep in mind this does not happen to everyone. Some people go into survival mode on what needs to be done right away and they are angry. Anger is the second stage of the grief process and it can serve many purposes.


Anger can drive the ill person and loved ones in becoming proactive in the treatment process or it can throw them back into a stage of denial. It is important to know that anger begins to grow because of illness. Loved ones may become the target of the anger. Jealousy may also rise in this stage because the ill person wishes they were healthy like everyone else. The grief process is not linear and people will find themselves oscillating between stages. During the anger and bargaining stages, “why me and why us” gets tossed around repeatedly causing more stress, sadness, and anger. During this stage, psychotherapy is critical because the individual and their loved ones have a safe space to feel their anger and process their emotions. Getting the anger out in a safe space where empathy is facilitated can help the individual and loved ones cope, and it can also drive them closer to acceptance.


The third stage, bargaining, occurs more in the early phases of a chronic illness where the person tries to keep their illness at bay and bargains with their higher power that they will be good, pray, and hope there will be a cure. In other words, the person may pray they will do anything to have their body back. Depression is the next stage and it is the most common mental health problem that comes with being chronically ill. Whatever the depression is focused on, it is real and usually predominantly about the loss of a healthy body. Acceptance is the last stage of the grief process where the ill person fully accepts their illness by learning and taking steps to living well. It is possible an individual may not experience this stage due to the severity of the illness, but also because they may not have the support that is needed.


When accepting the illness as part of their life and learning to live well with it, the desire for sex may return. Sexual activity can be a wonderful outlet when coping with chronic illness. It can bring relaxation and healing. The person may have to moderate their sexual activity (shorter encounters, fewer encounters, and more rest breaks) even if it feels good. The goal is to always look at what is possible instead of what was once achievable. #desire #couples #couplesgoals #couplespsychotherapy #sexuality #grief #griefprocess #sextherapy




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Dr. Lee

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