After a Year

Portrait of Marjorie Brimley DC widow blogger

I got involved with the Hot Young Widows Club about a month after Shawn died. It is a place where widows of all backgrounds can share their most raw emotions and daily experiences (and contrary to the name, there is no litmus test to get in!) I found it comforting that other people struggled with similar issues that I faced and I often found myself scrolling through its newsfeed at night.

But there was one thing that made me nervous about what I read there. Sometimes I would see a comment about how the second year after loss can be more difficult than the first year. Eventually, I discovered this article about the second year, written by a young widow.

It was not encouraging.

Because here’s the gist of that article and everything else I’ve read about year two: it can actually be harder than the first year.

I honestly don’t know how it’s possible for a year to be harder than 2018 was for me. I mean, I wouldn’t again have to do that first birthday or wedding anniversary alone. I wouldn’t have to navigate those first awkward conversations with acquaintances and neighbors. I wouldn’t have to deal with the people at the cemetery or the changes in our health insurance.

Moreover, I wasn’t crying on the floor of the shower anymore. I wasn’t breaking down when I was at Starbucks and I could actually have a meal with a friend and talk about something other than Shawn.

So why would the second year be harder?

I’m a month in, and I’ll tell you this. The second year is not harder for me. But it’s not really easier, either.

Yes, the logistics are smoother and the deep grief has eased a bit. People don’t bring me food anymore, but I’ve also figured out how to cook for my family. I’m working full-time and while it’s a lot, I’ve managed to keep a bit of balance in my life. I can even look at an attractive man without flinching.

So it seems like things might be easier. In fact, I woke up the other day and realized I had made it through everything terrible the first year. I had made it.

And then I realized the awful truth: this is just my life now.

The first year, I gave myself an imaginary gold star every time I managed to survive another terrible event or day or emotional state. I did the impossible by living through 2018, and many people told me how amazed they were at how I was braving through it.

But I don’t get a damn gold star for merely continuing to live my life now. What’s new about year two is this: the reality I face is not new.

It is the rest of my life.

“This is my life,” I said out loud to myself the other day as I was getting ready for work.

In moments like that is this, I think: what kind of life am I going to have if it’s not fully defined by Shawn? When he was alive, my life was defined by my relationship with him, and in many ways by his successes. Last year, my life was also defined by Shawn – by my grief, by my writings about him, and by the way that everyone talked to me about how much they loved him.

Of course, Shawn will never disappear from my life. But as I face year two, I am realizing that I will have to figure out what my life is like without Shawn. Of course there are the big questions about whether I’ll keep teaching or decide to start writing (maybe a bit of both?), whether I’ll stay in DC (for now, that’s the plan), and whether I’ll get remarried (seems unlikely, but I’m not ruling it out.) But there are also questions about how I will live my daily life. How do I start to rebuild some of my friendships into more equal partnerships, where we aren’t just always talking about my grief and my life? What will it look like to celebrate Shawn on his birthday this year? What are the new traditions I want to have with my kids around holidays like Father’s Day and Christmas?

But maybe the biggest question going forward is this: how do I define myself as a person separate from Shawn as I move forward? Who am I in this second year and in the year after that?

Maybe that’s why the second year is the worst. It’s not about survival anymore. I was pretty good at that. It’s about figuring out who I am going to be for the rest of my life.

Image Credit: Becky Hale.

20 Replies to “After a Year”

  1. I haven’t hit the one year mark yet. That will be at the end of June, so I have a way to go. Right now I’m reliving this time last year when everything started going south for us with my husband’s health. That brings up a whole new world of anxiety.

    The other day I was at the computer and I experienced a coughing attack. I remembered I’d put some cough drops in the desk drawer so I took one out and unwrapped it. I glanced at the unfolded wrapper (which I never do) and right in the middle were the words “Tough is your middle name.” What in the…? And then I recalled that the cough drop maker, Hall’s, had a campaign called “A pep talk in every drop,” where they printed encouraging sayings on their wrappers. It’s been several days and the wrapper is still on my desk. I like to think it’s a small reminder, or nudge from my husband, saying yes, you can do this.

    1. That’s beautiful. I love the idea that our loved ones who are gone can show up in unexpected ways.

  2. Hi Marjorie,
    I just found your blog a few weeks ago. First of all, I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m actually in year three — my husband died on Dec. 25, 2016 after long struggle with pulmonary fibrosis. I, too, am a high school teacher (French!) and I’ve got two kids, a soon-to-be 12 year old son and an 8.5 year old daughter. We live near Chicago, so we’re in flyover country (lol).

    At least from where I’m standing, yes — year two sucks infinitely more, but for very different reasons, as you have recounted. Just a smidge into year three, and I do feel a bit more stable. My grief caused me to lose one teaching job, but I was super fortunate to find another one immediately. I am working hard at my own self-care, so I can continue to be strong for the kids.

    Just wanted to drop by and say hi. I’ll look forward to future blog segments from you! Sending you and your family all our love and peace!

    1. Thanks so much for such a sweet note, Cathy. I”m so sorry for your loss. I find it so hard to practice “self-care” because sometimes I’m not even sure what that means! But I do think focusing on what makes US happy is critical for everyone’s happiness. Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. I almost ate this entire entry up like it was the most valuable chunk of chocolate in the entire world. You get it. You’re doing it … like me. Ohmygod. The end of my first year is looming in March, 2019. You wrote: “And then I realized the awful truth: this is just my life now.” — I JUST SAID THIS TO MYSELF THIS PAST WEEKEND. I was outside on my back porch, looking at the space in which he used to sit by my side and thought, “You are just gone.” Now, who am I? I’m here. Now what? I read the same stuff you read about the second year being worse than the first because now you are actually “awake” for all of it. SMH. WTF? Here we are. THANK YOU for posting. I feel like you just took my hand as we walk down this path of figuring out who we are now … because we are certainly different … but in what ways? Nice to meet you. Tonight, I’ll stalk your prior posts. But for right now … it’s just nice not to be alone.

    1. Oh, thank you so much for writing this – and this line is the best line I maybe have ever had in a comment: “I almost ate this entire entry up like it was the most valuable chunk of chocolate in the entire world.” Love that.

      Of course we are different, but as you point out, “in what ways?” There are some, surely, but sharing widowhood is one thing that is so unique it’s hard, sometimes, to connect with those who haven’t experienced it. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Hi Marjorie, I’m almost at the end of my second year. I had read that the second year was harder, and like you, thought that a) impossible and b) untrue, at least in the first few months. But you’re exactly right – it dawns on you that the way every single aspect of your life has now changed is permanent. I have found it harder, for that reason. It’s like year 1 is shock and survival, and year 2 is more navigating moments of circling the drain of despair. But it has been balanced with seeing moments of healing in our 3 teenagers – 2 of them finally agreed to counselling, and all are able to meet me halfway in my efforts to keep their Dad mentioned in conversations, sometimes even with a smile in laughing about what his reaction would have been to something. I am finding I am only remembering the nicer parts of our marriage now (and less re-living the tough final few months of Bryce’s cancer), and feel an easier peace of his presence and his help in making parenting decisions. I can recognise myself in your photo, when I compare if to the beautiful unstressed and happy photo of you and Shawn – there is pain but also resoluteness all over your face. There is nothing stronger than a woman who has been broken, and put herself back together again, not unlike the Kintsugi pottery (where they use gold to join the pieces back together) – strong and beautiful. I heard a great quote recently – time doesn’t heal wounds, but it teaches you how to deal with it. True for me at least. Saturdays particularly suck – exhausted from my week of teaching, but suddenly with a couple of hours in my hands, all the feelings I haven’t had time to process find a way to the surface. I have been very slowly but steadily reinventing myself – joined a gym, learnt to say no, thrown out everything from my house that doesn’t reflect me or who we are (and were) as a family. And I know that Bryce is cheering me every step of the way. Blessings on this next year for you and all 2nd-yearers. xx

    1. This is so beautiful. And yes – the 2nd year. It’s so daunting, even if I’m happy that the first year is past.

      I’ve wanted to write about Kintsugi pottery for a long time – my husband and I met in Japan and it seems like a great metaphor. I’m working on it. And your Saturday comment….I get that. Sending hugs.

  5. Yes, it’s the reality that hits you in the second year once the practical things settle down. I do think a lot depends on your support system. If you have a reliable one, one in which people continue to call you and check on you, you feel valued for you. But I thoroughly agree that friendships need to go beyond grief support. Many times I find myself not even wanting to talk about loss and all and just want to enjoy a night out. Even so, we do have to find ourselves, at least who we are after going through this. After 4 years, I am getting very restless. I’ve sort of had to stay put because I wanted to get in my 25 years of teaching for my pension, but it’s now been 28 and I’m getting very anxious and need to start seriously planning. As much as I love teaching I’m tired of the same routines and am feeling a need to break out. But to do what and where? Funny thing….today we had a snow day from school and I was rereading an old book and came across this quote:

    “I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had the courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.”

    How true. Charlotte Bronte knew it in back in the 1840s and it holds true throughout the ages and especially for us. Take your time; you will find your way.

    1. That is beautiful. I love this part “courage to go forth into its expanse” – it’s beautiful. And such a great statement for year 2.

  6. I’m marking the sixteenth month since my husband died. In my case, I’m resigning from my job, am selling the house we bought right after we married (and renovated together), and moving far from here in order to be closer to the rest of my family. All these impending changes have put me in a kind of limbo – I don’t feel this is the start of the rest of my life, because so clearly, the rest of my life will be very different. So will my son’s. That has made it extra difficult. It was wrenching to decide to leave this life behind, and I only hope I’ve made the right choices for us. Right now, I just want someone to make a decent offer on this house. I would sleep so much better.

    1. Oh, I am really crossing my fingers for you! I know that getting the logistics done to try and make things better for your family is…so tough. Hang in there. Limbo is hard at any stage of life, but especially for us, I think.

  7. Thank you Marjorie! I’m so sorry for your family and for you on the loss of your dear husband. I too share a lot in common with you. I work in special education at the elementary school level and went back to work full-time last year. My mom passed away from cancer when I was in college. Thankfully I went to school close to come so we spent a lot of time together.
    My late husband, Greg and I have 2 wonderful children, a son that just turned 12 and a 10 year old daughter.
    I guess what really stood out to me while finding your blog was that my husband passed away the same day as Shawn on January 9, 2018. We had 9 months, Greg was diagnosed with liver cancer which we later discovered metastasized from the esophagus. The prognosis from the beginning was not good but I’m thankful we had some more time. I continue to navigate motherhood, working full-time and the ups and downs of everyday life. We continue to keep busy with school, sports and extended family/friends which is a nice distraction. In this 2nd year I hope things slow down a bit and I have less busy work to take care of. We’ve remained in our home in the town where my husband grew up and I take comfort in that. Still sometimes need to remind myself that this has happened although less so over last year. I just wanted to reach out and say thank you for putting your heart out there and starting this blog. Also needed to introduce myself. I’ll continue to read your blog. Take Care!

    1. Oh wow. The same terrible day. I actually realized when I was putting out this blog post (which I published on the 11th) that I’d missed the 9th again this month. I’ve done it a few times, and it always feels strange not to mark it.

      Thanks for reading. Sending love – this second year is one we can make it through, although some days it does feel impossible.

  8. May 27, 2017 – when my husband died suddenly. Went to the emergency at night and after one day he was gone. The first year was doted to my 2.5 and 4 year old boys well-being. I was overwhelmed with the help we’ve gotten and I’m very grateful for that. By the way, my husband was a teacher too. I, on the other hand, didn’t have a good paying job pre-children and once I had my first, I stayed home. I don’t have a family support (except a brother and his family but lives 3,500 kms away). I’m living in a foreign land, 13, 364 km away from my original home and just realized not long enough for me to learn all the ropes in this country. I feel I’m a stranger again to the community where I lived for 10 yrs now. For the first six months of year #2, I struggled to make decisions on my own but I always go back to my family values and that’s what makes me grounded and keep going in a positive note. Old friends gone, new great friends came but as I interact with them more often, life is not just perfect the way we imagined. So, I turned into a proffessional help though I know their support will always be there when I need it. It’s just me. Given the nature of the death of my husband, I am worried all the time especially our finances. Anything can happen at anytime. So I went back to school and got my provincial license even though I wasn’t fully ready and then continued to embark to a new world called online study. And then I’m finding my old single self again. I’ts liberating and crushing at the same time knowing that the beautiful and carefully created future together will now be gone as well. Before this New Year came, I was ready to lift up myself in a greater length but that brother who I considered to be the future “father” of my boys when my old one is better from his anxiety ( and we will moved closer to him), that brother who is loving and very patient is just diagnosed of a stage 4 lung cancer yesterday. THIS. I am being triggered to the deepest of my core. My husband died young and his age is the age of my brother now. I guess at a certain age, every one will have challenges at some point. I’m back to zero again… Keep well and sending my love to you all.

    1. Oh, everything about this post is heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing so much, especially about how you’ve coped. I think it’s just impossible when ANOTHER hard thing happens – I felt like, hey, my husband died so can’t I get a pass from everything else that’s hard for, like, EVER? But no, that doesn’t happen, and life can continue to throw garbage your way. I’m so sorry about the loss of your husband and the illness of your brother. It’s awful. And there’s no solution. But I did love what you wrote here: “It’s liberating and crushing at the same time knowing that the beautiful and carefully created future together will now be gone as well.” I’m going to hold those words close. Hugs to you and your family.

  9. Tonight, I googled “widows in DC” and I found your blog. Sending blessings to you and your kids.
    My husband died in Dec 2012. 1 year 8 months after our wedding, 8 months after the birth of our daughter and 1 month after we found out I was expecting our 2nd child, a boy. I can’t remember alot that happened that first year. However, I remember a lot of the tears in year 2 and the tears still come from time to time. My “This is my life” moment happened in year 2. It was when I started thinking “how do I move on from this?”, “how do I make sure my kids are okay”, “how do I make sure I am okay so I can make sure my kids are okay”…and alot of tears.

    1. Yes, I think my favorite thing you wrote was this: “how do I make sure I am okay so I can make sure my kids are okay?” I think about that EVERY DAY. I know I have to be whole if I want them to be whole, ya know? But it’s tough. Thanks for sharing here, and for reading.

  10. I just started following your blog, you were mentioned in the Option B group on Facebook and your story really struck me. I just hit the one year mark as well and I often find myself thinking “I’m close to happy, but not as happy as I would have been if my husband had been part of this” and coming to the realization like you and so many of the commentators here that this isn’t temporary and nothing will feel quite the same again. Thank you for your blog and your honesty- we can all figure this out (struggle through it) together 🙂

    1. And thank you so much for reading. I’m lucky to have a great community, but nothing and no one will ever take the place of my husband. So I know I need to learn how to live in a new reality. But that’s so tough some days. I think being honest with ourselves is the only way we can muddle through.

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