My first sexual experience is linked with a tragedy. What now?
Celia Bliss replies:A few years ago in college I had drunk sex with a guy I didn’t really know, he was a friend somewhat from high school but not really. He had pretty intense mental health issues, did not seek help and, shortly after having sex with me, committed suicide. I did not know how to feel and still grieve every year when I can bring myself to feel something. It’s weird because it’s like apathy but the sexual feelings were so strong. I was a virgin before the sex, we did it when I was drunk because that was the only way I could feel comfortable having sex because of family values that were not the most open and accepting of sexual activity. Basically my family didn’t want me around boys at the time. Now family values have relaxed because of this death. How do I continue to honor this complicated relationship with my friend while also being accepting of the fact that my first sex experience continues to color my sexual experiences-not that I’ve had any (even kissing) after that guy who I broke all my first times with. More generally how do I continue with self love in terms of relationships when this one was so fraught?
This is a situation with many layers, so I’m not surprised you feel such a mixture of emotions, especially feelings of detachment.
First, I want to encourage you to give yourself space to recognize how challenging this situation is and how there is no template for what you’re feeling. This will hopefully allow you to accept the fluctuations in how you feel, from grief to apathy, with compassion for yourself and the memory of the guy who so tragically took his life. I hope this response can help you find some tangible ways to help process these different feelings and feel more in control of them.
In Western cultures, grief and grieving is still surrounded by so much taboo. This is partly because we are expected to fit all elements of our lives into time-sensitive boxes: x amount of time to spend on work, y amount of time for basically everything else. Grief does not fit a timeline or trajectory. It changes shape and induces a whole spectrum of emotional responses, all of which are natural. Apathy with death is also particularly misunderstood and can be experienced even by those who were very close to the person who died. Apathy can arise when we are still in shock. When someone dies, their life will often feel unfinished or abruptly ended to those who have to grieve their death. When someone takes their own life, those who knew them will often experience feelings like apathy, anger and confusion. That someone chose to end their story, rather than death taking it from them, this can be even more difficult to process for those they left behind.
Often, narratives for those grieving only include people very close to the person who died. You might feel self-conscious or like an intruder at a public ritual of grief, like a funeral, if you didn’t know the person very well. Even though you were not in a relationship with this guy and had ‘casual sex’, you still had an important, positive impact on each other through the evening you shared. The intensity of a sexual connection or encounter, whether drunken or not, does not necessarily have to hinge on how well you know someone. The experience of having memorable, satisfying and pleasurable sex with someone can bring a shared understanding, which can often run very deep. It sounds like you knew enough about this guy to feel empathy towards him and his situation, particularly around his mental health issues, but not so much that you feel entitled to fully grieve his suicide.
If you haven’t already, I would encourage you to think about whether some small, private rituals could help you release your emotions and process both the strength of the sexual feelings and the unexpected tragedy of his suicide.
Perhaps writing on paper everything you remember about the sexual experience, things you were attracted to about him, memories you have of him from high school. You could light candles or go to a place which is special to you to do this, if you want to create more of a ceremony. It may sound a bit trite, but doing something active in response to how powerless the sudden experience of grief can make you feel could help you assimilate the different contradictions within what you’re feeling. It may also help you give yourself permission to be included in the story of this young man’s life. Your time together deserves to be recognized and remembered.
At the same time, it must be incredibly hard to have shared this closeness with him, however brief, whilst also being aware of the fact that he did not seek help for his mental health issues.
The fact you had sex is a meaningful thing which you both shared. There is nothing you, or probably anyone else, could have done to prevent him from taking his own life. If you can, protect the experience you shared as something which you both wanted and enjoyed. You gave each other something valuable, even though he is no longer here as you are.
In terms of your relationship with yourself and your future relationships, this experience has given you the opportunity to embrace conversations about mental health, yours and future partners, with the bravery and knowledge you now hold. No one really knows what they’re doing or how to feel in the face of the most difficult, and sometimes the most mundane, things. We are all products of our experience, so we can only respond with compassion and understanding to ourselves and to others when navigating life. The fact that you were able to seek advice and express the many elements of this situation with such self-awareness shows that you have an awesome capacity for healing and for living life fully. I hope you find solace in knowing that you are not alone in the confusion of the many feelings that come with grief. I also want you to be present with yourself and with your desires: to feel free to have casual sex if and when that’s something that you want, to empower yourself to share your grief if you want to, and to offer your time and understanding to someone who you next encounter who is struggling, if you have the capacity to do so.