I’m Not Sure How You Survive That

Tommy and Marjorie Brimley

It’s been a long time since I wore 3-inch heels.  They sit in my closet, beautifully shiny and begging me to go out.  The thing is, I’m perpetually sad, and going out won’t change that.  But I’m tired of being at home all the time.  In any case, the heels finally won out a few days ago and I got myself downtown.

I was going to a political event – something Shawn and I would have done frequently if he were still alive.  Most of the people there didn’t know me, and I found it interesting that I was able to carry myself so that it appeared I had it all together.  I moved through the space as though I had a happy life and a happy marriage.  I mean, I still wear my wedding ring and I had put on those heels, so I was playing a certain role.  I got a drink and talked to many of the people in the room about the midterm elections and our work lives.

After a while, one of the women there started telling a few of us about someone she knew who had recently died in an accident along with his son.  The man had left behind a wife and two children.  The story was a tragic one, and everyone was saying as much.  Then, another woman piped in, “I can’t imagine,” she said.

“I know,” this woman replied, “The poor mom.  I’m not sure how you survive that.”

I could feel the tension in the air.  But they couldn’t.  Because to them, I’m just a random woman interested in politics who otherwise has her life together.

The two women continued to lament this other family’s fate, nothing how difficult it must be to go on living after such an event and how it would be nearly impossible to move on after such a tragedy.

Unfortunately for them, there’s only so much of this kind of talk I can take at this point.  “I think you survive it,” I started, “because you have to.  You just do what you have to.”

Just before I said this, a friend of mine had walked over, and heard me say this.  In a move to further protect me from sitting through this painful conversation, she said, “Marjorie just lost her husband.”

The other women were horrified that they had been so insensitive.  But it wasn’t their fault, and I told them so.  How could they have known?

I thought a lot about their reactions afterwards.  They weren’t wondering how you can physically survive such a loss.  They weren’t asking how you deal with becoming an instant single parent to grieving children.  They weren’t thinking about how you deal with the finances and the legal paperwork.

They were talking about the heartbreak.

And yet, my answer is the same whether I’m responding to a question about daily logistics or emotional pain so deep that you can physically feel it.  You survive it because you must, because there is no other option.

I’ve learned to live every day with a weight in my chest – one that can get lighter when I’m having a great time with my kids or when something goes especially right (which is rare.)  But the pain is always there.  I’ve never really had this happen to me before.  Even when my mom died when I was 19, I had moments where I could set the pain aside, at least for a bit.

Now, it is always with me.  I feel like I have low-grade anxiety all of the time.  It’s anxiety that becomes full-blown sadness if I let myself actually recognize it.  Because it’s with me all the time, my grief colors every single situation that surrounds me.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a local taco shop.  It was one Shawn and I both liked, so of course I feel his memory here.  That’s true of most places in our neighborhood.  But do you know what triggered me as I walked in here?  An old man walking a dog.  That’s it.  Just an old man – probably 80 or so – walking a big dog slowly down the street.  Of course my immediate thought was, “what special thing did he do to deserve old age?”

That’s unfair, of course.  Shawn didn’t “deserve” to die just like that guy didn’t “deserve” to get really old.  It just happened.  As my dad would say, “life is unfair.”

I must live with the grief of losing Shawn and I must carry the pain in my heart every day.  It is unfair that I am in a small minority of women who are widows before age 40.  It seems impossible that instead of just coming to the taco shop and surfing the internet for new throw pillows, I am writing these words.

But it is my reality and I am surviving it.  Because I have to – not just for me, but also for my children.  And for Shawn.

I am surviving because that’s what humans were built to do.  We were made to live through pain, even terrible pain, and emerge from the other side.  I am surviving because I have to, but also because I can.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.

19 Replies to “I’m Not Sure How You Survive That”

  1. You put this so well. I hope you won’t think this is too cheesy, but it’s a privilege to witness you surviving with such honesty, grace, and passion.

    1. Not too cheesy at all. Thanks for the support.

  2. I will echo, again, what Elissa said. How you’re surviving the heartbreak is what I think we are all marveling at. Of course, you don’t have any other choice, but I, too, appreciate your honesty and openness even about the worst things. And I hope that writing helps lessen the heartbreak from time to time, even just for a second.

    1. It does help so much to write – both because it helps me in the moment when I’m writing and because I get so much support from all of you when I put out these posts.

  3. Terry Clark` says: Reply

    The pain I feel for you is what I describe as a low-grade sadness. I was not a big crier but since Shawn’s death I get teary about a lot of things so I don’t know how you are not crying ALL THE TIME!

    1. I think it’s possible to get to the point where you don’t cry all the time because the world keeps turning and life keeps going, even if we think it’s over. Love you Terry.

  4. Beautifully said as always.

  5. What amazes me is that you’re not just surviving—you’re living. You’re speaking truth and living out loud throughout this horrible time. I admire that so much. It makes us better.

    And for what it’s worth, you handled that whole interaction at the event with perfect grace. I wonder how many more interactions like that you manage every day. Sending you love.

    1. Thanks so much for this. And yes – I have so many interactions every day that are tough. Sometimes, knowing that I can write about them makes it easier to get through them.

  6. I love you. And I hear echoes of my dear mom in you… “this? This horrible thing? Oh this you survive because there isn’t a choice. You just do.” I’m proud of you. And somewhere both our moms are proud of you too. Xoxo

    1. Oh, I love love love this comment. Thank you Michelle – I know both our moms ARE proud of both of us.

  7. Julie Larsen Madison says: Reply

    Marjorie,
    I think of you all the time. As a daughter raised by a mother who lost her husband before she was forty, I’ve seen first hand how tough it is for life to go on after loss, but I’ve also seen how beautiful it can be when it does. You are teaching your children a lesson no parent ever wants to teach, but they will be stronger and braver in this unfair life having watched their amazing mother march on despite profound grief. During those unrelenting sad moments, I hope you find comfort in knowing you are thought of often and loved by so many near and far.

    1. Julie, thank you so much for this. I remember, even as a child, being awed by the grace and kindness your mother showed each day.

  8. Jess Power says: Reply

    “Low grade anxiety”…so much truth here. My mom lost my dad about 6 years ago, very suddenly. She has not been the same since, of course. When I have tried to describe to her what I see in her (to try to assist her in managing with mindfulness training and awareness techniques; things that I have been using for years to manage my own anxiety) she is so angry. Embarrassed. “I am not anxious! I think I am managing just fine”. Like anxiety is some kind of failure.
    But how could you not be anxious? Just like ‘getting through it because you have to’ is one truth of loss, so is this low grade anxiety. Both are human conditions. These are the things you carry. My approach has been one of learning to live with acceptance of these new things; adjusting and understanding.
    Bravo to you for being so real, so true to your own pain. You are amazingly real and I honour that!

    1. Thank you so much for reading and for this wonderful comment. I truly appreciate the kindness and the vulnerability behind it.

  9. I just found your blog (late night reading whilst trying to put a 1yo down) and my heart breaks for you but also admires your courage <3 i was like your daughter, 8 years old when my dad passed suddenly of cancer (40yo and 8 weeks from diagnosis) and i still remember how couragous and strong my mom was and how she could 'put on a show' when needed, yet breaking down inside and crying herself to sleep. Like you she was (still is) a warrior by day, we even returned to school the monday after (passed on friday) because she needed the normality and routine to get through the day.
    So, thank you for being an open book and digging up the nitty gritty, countless times people didnt know what to say or do, so they just didnt, so im so glad you are willing and able to voice them.
    Im sure this is poorly written… Its 2.30am :/ but a huge hug from someone whos been in your daughters shoes (19 years ago), I couldnt be prouder to have a mum like i do, and im sure she feels the same 🙂

    1. I am always so thankful to get comments like these, from total strangers, who remind me that my kids will be okay. I will re-read this all the time. Thank you so much for taking the time to write to me.

  10. Marjorie- I fell into the wormhole of your blog after reading a post of yours on Scary mommy. Your story is heartbreaking but your love story is beautiful and your kids are lucky to have such an amazing mom. From one Mom of littles to another – keep on keeping on, you are enough. Shawn seemed like an incredible father, husband, friend, and person. What an incredible privilege it must have been to love him, if even for such an unfairly short amount of time. Sending love from NJ

    1. Thank you so much for reading! Really – it means a lot to me to know that other people are following our story and holding our family close – even if we are actually strangers.

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