What About the Privilege?

Notes and typewriter like those of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley

The thing about being a writer is that – shockingly! – not everyone is going to like everything that you write. Sometimes people write me privately and sometimes they comment on my blog. Almost always, I let negative comments on my blog stay, because it’s important that I hear other people’s opinions, especially other widows. (I do delete vitriolic comments, because no one needs that.)

Anyway, I wrote this post a few days ago about tough love, thinking that I was being thought-provoking about how to treat people who are in the early days of grieving. I talked about all of the support I had received, which I’ve documented on this blog.

Here was one comment I received:

While tough love and early grief are no doubt incompatible, very few are afforded the luxury of the compassion you received and continue to receive. That level of compassion is truly a privilege.

Most often times, young widows must endure tough love and continue with their parenting, working, etc., the children and the paycheck and the day to day tasks must be prioritized.

I’m thrilled for the few that receive such support as you did, but like you, I couldn’t walk away from commenting on this one. Please recognize the amount of privilege involved.

I wrote this commenter back, acknowledging that she was right. I wasn’t thinking about my privilege when I wrote that post, which probably came off as a bit tone deaf. This commenter was right: I did receive a lot of support and I continue to receive a lot of support. I’m super lucky that I have a community that rallied around my family and had the resources to be able to do so much for my family, especially in the early days. I know that very few workplaces that operate like mine, where fellow teachers worked together to cover my classes for months after Shawn’s death. And my dad – well, he’s one-in-a-million.

Her comment it made me think, and it made me admit something to myself that sometimes I forget: I am a privileged widow. I have most things that someone in my situation could really need. I know it could be so much worse, as I’ve written.

And yet so often, it still feels impossible. And totally fucking unfair. And horribly draining even with the help I’ve gotten and still get. It’s messed up that my situation is “the best” that a widow can get. Because it is still often terrible.

I’m not even talking about the grief. I’m talking about the basics of making it through the day. I feel like I sometimes just can’t do it even though I have all this privilege. I don’t know if it’s because it’s really, really hard to be a single mom (even with support) or if it’s because it’s really, really hard to do everything in this life without Shawn by my side. I don’t know why I feel like life is impossible, but it does feel that way sometimes.

Still, I think it’s important to acknowledge that things could be far, far worse. So I’ll say it again, loud and clear: I am a privileged widow. I did not lose my house, my job, or my health insurance. My children have been loved by my community and by so many family members. I am lucky – so incredibly lucky – to have so much support around my family.

You know what people say to me all the time? “I can’t even imagine what life is like for you.” I always feel like this is a ridiculous statement, because really, it’s usually not that people can’t imagine what it would be like to be widowed. It’s that they don’t want to imagine it.

So I’m not going to say I can’t imagine it being worse. I can imagine it. And I know there are a lot of widows who are living that reality every day.

Just in case one of those widows is you, I want you to know this: I see you. It’s horrific to lose your spouse and more horrific when you don’t have the financial or logistical or emotional support you need. Life should not be like this.

The other day my widow friend Abena was over doing laundry at my house after her washing machine broke. We sat on the couch, folding laundry, and talked about all the things that we wish were different. “It’s the worst,” I said, feeling defeated about life. She let me go on and on about the things that were frustrating me, adding in a few of her own, and then she said, “but I’m lucky to know you, even if we had to meet in the worst way possible.”

I agreed, wholeheartedly. I am so lucky to have my widow friends I know in person and those I know online. And yes, this blog is no substitute for a friend who will sit on the couch with you, folding laundry and crying or laughing with you. But, online widow friends, let me say this: I’m glad you’re here, even if I wish we didn’t share this shit circumstance that brought us together. And I hope this is a place where you can find some support. I can’t pay your mortgage or make you dinner, but hey, I hope we can find some love in the community here.

And if someday you read a post and think, “Marjorie hasn’t gotten it right,” you can always put it in the comments.

20 Replies to “What About the Privilege?”

  1. Melissa D Zars says: Reply

    Thanks so much for your blog! Our situations are somewhat similar and I appreciate so much your ability and willingness to share your thoughts. I’m also a privileged widow. I feel that my support network is absolutely necessary and am grateful for it but there are still so many ways this sucks. Please keep writing.

    1. I’ll keep writing, that I promise! And yes, I think it’s important to acknowledge how lucky I am EVEN IF I’m also super unlucky. Both things can be true, as you note.

  2. Susan Anderson says: Reply

    I too am privileged, but I often think of those that will go broke just from the cost of cancer treatments (or other illness treatments ), making their home handicap accessible or the cost of a funeral. I get to throw my husband a “Celebration of Life “ party that most could not afford. I have many relatives that live paycheck to paycheck. I don’t know what they would do in my situation. Losing a spouse is emotionally and financially devastating for most.

    1. That is so true. I didn’t realize at the time that the fact that I could afford Shawn’s BURIAL was a privilege. I didn’t even think about it until I started meeting widows who couldn’t.

  3. You are a class act. Yes, unlucky and lucky, simultaneously.

  4. I just lost my wife to cancer. It was lung cancer, she never smoked .we met at the gym , where I also worked . I came alone to the USA ,naturally I dont have family. She bacame my family and all her relatives ,so I thought . I cared for her for 3 years , I didnt gave up and didnt leave her .I risked my own health to help heal her . Spent most of my savings and left my job for to care for her .despite all the large family she had , I got support only when its almost fhe end for her . Now I am broken and defeated , its been 9 days and it hurts so much more . I am on the brink of being homeless and no place to go .my apartment is to pricey , LA lost his mind with rent pricing . I did all what a good husband should do , research ,care and love and some more …why are poeple awful ? This hole is deep and dark . I offered my life instead hers ,so she can be with her family… no answer to my prayers .
    PS: i think i am off topic , my mind is dazed and confused

    1. I’m so sorry – this is so terrible. You are in the early days. Hang in there – I promise it will get better. Go easy on yourself right now, as much as you can.

    2. Leo, is there someone, a pastor or trusted health professional, you can talk to? Perhaps they could steer you to a grief therapy group where you live. You shouldn’t be going through this alone. Was your wife under hospice care? My husband was with hospice for only five days before he died but they told me I could talk with any of their grief counselors at any time, indefinitely, even years from now, if need be. I am so sorry for your pain. You were a devoted husband and did all you could. Please don’t forget that.

  5. I am not entirely comfortable with the word “privilege,” because it can have connotations of entitlement and exclusivity that are more at home in the context of primogeniture or a caste system than in early grief. Of course you are privileged economically and materially, but in your “tough love” post I think you were talking about something else. Everyone who is newly grieving needs and deserves the sort of emotional slack and support you described yourself as receiving. It should be the norm, not an exception. That you received it makes you fortunate, super-lucky, or blessed rather than privileged. The point I heard you making is that others should help the griever with gentle love rather than tough love. As in: “You are not spoiling her by doing the work she ‘should’ be doing right now. You are loving her.” I don’t think that came off as the least bit tone deaf.
    While you may feel privileged in knowing Abena, I don’t think the concept quite fits there either (unless applied equally to both of you), because you are both providing and receiving support. And as for your one-in-a-million dad, from the way you have described him (and being about his age) I rather suspect that he is the one who feels privileged to be able to step into the breach and help the way he has.

    1. I agree absolutely with Henry.
      I didnt think your post was in any way tone deaf to the extra difficulties some widows may have… it was to me talking about love and gentleness and that i believe goes beyond any have or not haves… everyone needs compassion and understanding and sensitivity to the rawness of early grief… whatever their circumstances.

      The idea of feeling “priviledged” strikes a big nerve with me. I am in a similar situation.. widowed young but surrounded by amazing family, friends, understanding employer, still have a home, adore my kids etc etc…. but you put it so well in this post… that it still just really sucks and feels unbearable sonetimes.

      And i do count my blessings and try to make the most of my precious life not dwell too much on the loss. So many ups and downs but mostly we are doing ok. But feeling like i should be more grateful for all my blessings, feeling guilty for the priviledges i have that others dont… well that just adds another layer of stress and a feeling that i am not deserving and not doing well enough by anyone and is a slippery slope to feeling generally crap about myself sometimes!! That plus a kind of gratitude fatigue where it can be so tiring feeling grateful to people for support they have given us. I know it is given with love i really do… but well its hard to explain without sounding ungrateful… its just really exhausting sometimes, all of it!

      What started as a message of support turned into a bit of a moan there, sorry! I love your posts, you are so real but encouraging and i can relate so much… keep it up xxx

      1. You know what? These are great points. I didn’t even consider the gratitude fatigue, but that is VERY REAL. I ranted against it in some of my very early posts, but it DOES just add another layer of unneeded stress. I’m going to write something about that – I appreciate the point!

    2. These are all really great points! In reflection, I hope that both of my posts can be true – we need to provide support to early grievers AND even when widows are “lucky” or “privileged” or whatever word we choose, it’s still really, really hard to be without your person.

      1. I wholeheartedly agree with these responses- while you are fortunate to have things like financial security and extra help, you seemed to be speaking about something else in your previous post- about the emotional support, compassion and understanding people need in times of trauma. The fact that many people don’t get that is an extra tragedy, one that is separate from lack of finances or other issues that arise with the death of a spouse. You provide a great space here for people to feel understood, and I have to remind you that your posts inspired me to fix my dishwasher on my own, which is running in the background as I type this!

        1. I was – or at least I meant to be! But it does bring up the larger point. I actually was talking to a friend yesterday, noting that I am lucky that I didn’t lose my house and he said, “lucky? I don’t think that’s how I’d describe your situation!” and I said, “well, maybe that’s the wrong word. But lots of widows do lose their houses.” All of these discussions are making me think so much more about both the importance of supporting a new widow and of how we can really support the widows who need it most. And I’m so glad my blog helps you feel understood! That means the world to me!

  6. After re-reading the comments and your column “Tough Love”, I realize I missed the point of your message about helping early grievers and got put off when I read you had a few months off from work. For me, I felt burned because 3 days of bereavement leave was not enough after the end of a loving marriage. Three days was not enough time to re-group to raise a son in elementary school, support a daughter starting college, and re-start “normal” life. I often think it prolonged my grief. But maybe it’s also because the emotional support networks for men are not always as effective when tragedy strikes. I am often jealous of the support networks that rally and seemingly come so easily for women, but are missing for men. A message of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” used to have great appeal before I lost my wife, mainly as a source of male pride of strength and independence. But after my great loss, that message clearly has no place during early grief.
    But nearly four years and one heart-breaking failed relationship after my wife’s death, I find comfort and commiseration from reading your column 90% of the time. Your column is cathartic. “Tough Love” comes to us in many ways. Even as your column was irritating to me that day, it was still cathartic. I still struggle with the heavy weight of grieving the life I should have had, and now the double-whammy of grieving rejection in a relationship, even as I am happy to explore new possibilities. The pervasive echoes of sadness just never seem to go away and I’m afraid of how it’s shaping me in ways I don’t like! But tough love sometimes comes from unexpected places. In my case, a friend told me she was tired of seeing me like this and I need to “get my head out of my ass”. Ironically, that was what I needed to hear. Thank God for friends who speak bluntly. That was a year ago and I still struggle. Greif evolves, but to your point, I realize my friend’s message would have been most unwelcome during early grief.
    I am so very thankful that you continue to write this column!

    1. Three days? That is HORRIBLE. I know this is standard in American, but it is just so terrible. I am so sorry. And after talking to a number of widowed men (and living with my widowed father!) I do know that the support networks are often not as tight for men. My friend Justin Yopp wrote a book about widowed fathers (and runs a website with some great resources: https://widowedparent.org/parents/p_resources) and the basic takeaway was that being widowed is so so so tough AND we do not support men (particularly fathers) enough. Thanks for bringing all of this up, and thanks for reading. As you may know, I too had to deal with the sting of a relationship ending after Shawn’s death and I wrote about it here: http://dcwidow.com/happiness-is-for-other-people/

  7. I am privileged (as a widow) in certain ways, and not privileged in many others. I am grateful for my privileges, and in no way feel guilty for having them. Can’t we be grateful for our “privileges” and compassionate for those without privileges, simultaneously? I don’t see why guilt needs to play a part at all.

    Are others making you feel guilty for any privileges you have, or is it self-imposed?

    1. I know for me, I feel guilt too – both explicitly from others (there are people who were mad I didn’t thank them enough in the early days) and from my own internal guilt that no one really made me feel. I think that’s something a lot of widows face, usually from both directions. But yes, I hope to try and both appreciate what I have while also not minimizing the struggles – big and small – of all widows. There shouldn’t be a race to see who “has it the worst” but also it helps me to recognize that there are people who struggle even more. I really appreciate everyone for having this discussion!

  8. I think most of the time you DO get it right, with brutal honesty. But I greatly appreciate that you were willing to “listen” to a comment, and react to it, without being defensive… My grief journey is quite different than yours… my sister died very suddenly and unexpectedly almost 3 years ago. She was my 91 year old mom’s primary caregiver. Since then I spend about half of each month at my mom’s (6 hours away from my home and husband). My life was turned upside down. I’m finally to the point where I have found the silver lining… much more time with my elderly mom- who is a wonderful mother and friend. I expect your dad feels the same way. More time with you and his grandchildren is wonderful; the circumstances that led to it are awful. We all do the best we can. Your blog is wonderful. Your children are beautiful. Hang in there.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing. I think it’s hard to not feel defensive when anyone is critical, but especially when it’s about grief – because it IS all so hard. But I also think there’s a way we can look at what we’re lucky to have (more time with family!) and also say that it’s hard. Both can be true, as you note. Thanks so much for reading!

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