grief
Illustration by Ruth Basagoitia

The Other Side of Grief is a series about the life-changing power of loss. These powerful first-person stories explore the many reasons and ways we experience grief and navigate a new normal.

In my 20s, my approach to sex was open, wild, and free. In contrast, things with my husband were more traditional from the start.

He courted me for three dates before our first kiss, though I’d been trying unsuccessfully to get him to come up to my apartment at the end of each.

At the start, he was measured in his pace while getting to know me. Soon after, he opened himself fully. One evening after making love in his small studio apartment, happy tears streamed down my face. We’d only been together two months, but I had fallen for him.

“I’m afraid of losing you, hurting you, or loving you too much,” I told him.

He exhibited care, affection, and respect for my body in line with his compassion for my spirit. My attraction to him was overpowering and electric. He seemed too good, too kind, too beautiful to be true. His commitment to being reliable and communicative freed me of my insecurities and doubts.

Together, we built the relationship we’d both dreamed of but couldn’t find with anyone else. Our love deepened with ease.

We both prioritized life’s pleasures — laughter, music, art, food, sex, travel — and shared a joyful optimism. For 4 1/2 years, we were inseparable. We were one.

A few weeks before his 31st birthday, while spending New Year’s Eve at home, he died suddenly of an undiagnosed aortic dissection. He hadn’t been sick and had no way of knowing that tragedy was looming in his weakening heart.

My life changed forever when I found him unresponsive, when I discovered my unconditional love for him couldn’t save him from dying.

I was sure I had found my forever with him. And then, at 27, I was suddenly a widow.

Overnight, I lost the fullness we experienced by combining our lives. I was single, alone, and part of my identity — being his wife — had vanished. Our apartment felt empty. I couldn’t imagine my future, now that I faced it without him.

My grief and heartbreak were physically painful and disorienting. It took months to return to sleeping through the night, even longer to make it through a day without hovering on the verge of tears. I hurt from loneliness — longing for someone I couldn’t have — and aching to be held and comforted by another body. I slept diagonally in our bed, my body reaching for his to remove the chill from my cold feet.

Each morning felt like a marathon. How could I go on without him, yet again?

Longing to be touched, held, kissed, comforted

The people in my life are exceptional, and they made me feel loved from every direction. I was able to have fun, laugh, and feel gratitude for life as the days passed without him. But no friend’s care could quell my loneliness.

I wanted someone to hold me — a comfort I’ve asked for since I was a small child and one that my husband pledged daily. I wondered who and when I’d stop feeling so alone, what kind of person would satisfy such a specific and insatiable need.

My desire to be touched, kissed, caressed was like a wildfire that burned brighter and hotter inside me with each passing day.

When I was bold enough to confide in friends about my desperation for touch, some compared my pain to a period of their life when they were single. But the emptiness I felt for knowing a perfect love and losing it was much heavier.

Becoming a widow isn’t the same as a breakup or divorce. My husband and I were separated forever, without choice, and his death had absolutely no silver lining.

I didn’t want to date. I wanted my husband. And if I couldn’t have him, I wanted sex and physical affection without having to pretend I was OK.

I turned to dating apps for the first time to find suitable partners to fulfill my needs. For six months, I invited a string of strangers to my house. I avoided dinner and drinks, instead proposing a different type of encounter. I told them my rules, preferences, and stipulations. I was honest with them about my situation and not being ready for a new relationship. It was up to them to decide if they were comfortable with the limitations.

I felt I had nothing to lose. I was already living my worst nightmare, so why not be bold in my attempt to find pleasure and seek joy?

The sex I had in those first months was nothing like the intimacy I shared with my husband, but I harnessed the confidence I gained in my marriage to fuel my encounters.

Unlike reckless hookups during college, I was entering casual sex sober and with a better understanding of what I needed to be satisfied. More mature and armed with an unwavering love for my body, sex gave me escape.

Having sex made me feel alive and freed me from the painful, cyclical thought of how my life would be if he hadn’t died. It empowered me and gave me a sense of control.

My mind felt relief with each flood of oxytocin I experienced. Being touched reenergized me to face the difficulty of my everyday life.

Sex as a tool for self-love and healing

I knew people would have a hard time understanding my approach. Our culture doesn’t provide many examples of women using sex as a tool for self-love, healing, or power. Fulfilling sex outside of a relationship is difficult for most people to fathom.

I had no one to turn to for advice on how to rectify the untethering of my sexuality from the anchor that was my marriage, but I became determined to forge my own path.

I missed caring for my husband — giving massages, encouraging him to pursue his dreams, listening to and laughing at his stories. I missed using my time, energy, and talents to turn him on, make him feel valued, and enrich his life. I felt generous by giving new men the kind of treatment I showered my husband with, even if it was only for an hour.

It was also easier to acclimate to life alone when I had an occasional visitor to remind me of my beauty or validate my sexuality.

I found a new normal.

After a few months of casual sex with limited communication, I changed course, gravitating to partners within polyamorous or nonmonogamous relationships.

With men who also have girlfriends or wives, I found magnificent sex without codependency. Their company fulfills my physical needs while I continue to make sense of my life and future without my husband. The setup is ideal, considering my circumstances, because I can build trust and an open dialogue around sex and desires with these partners, which is difficult with one-night stands.

Now, a year and a half since my husband’s death, I’m also dating, not just inviting people up to my apartment. But the disappointments far outnumber the glimmers of hope.

I remain hopeful that I’ll find someone to share my life with fully. I’m open to finding love in any corner, from any person. When the time comes to replace this unconventional life with one more similar to what I shared with my husband, I’ll do so without hesitation.

In the meantime, seeking and prioritizing pleasure in widowhood, as I did in my marriage, will continue to help me survive.

Want to read more stories from people navigating a new normal as they encounter unexpected, life-changing, and sometimes taboo moments of grief? Check out the full series here.


Anjali Pinto is a writer and photographer in Chicago. Her photography and essays have been published in The New York Times, Chicago Magazine, The Washington Post, Harper's Bazaar, Bitch Magazine, and Rolling Stone. During the first year following the sudden passing of Pinto’s husband, Jacob Johnson, she shared a photo and long-form caption to every day as a way of healing. In being vulnerable, her pain and joy enriched many people’s perceptions of grief.