Claire Brimley profile by river in Rock Creek Park
What Not to Say

An Uncomfortable Reality

A few days ago I was waiting to pick up Claire from school, baking under the newly hot weather we’re getting these days. I was standing around with all of the other parents and babysitters and somehow ended up next to an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in awhile.

“Oh, Marjorie,” she said to me, “I haven’t seen you since….everything happened. How are you doing?”

I didn’t quite know how to respond. Was I not supposed to talk about Shawn’s death since she couldn’t bring herself to mention it? I had always liked this woman, and though we weren’t close, her kids had been in class with mine. And yet she hadn’t contacted me after Shawn died. I wouldn’t expect – or even want – a phone call or a visit from an acquaintance. But she didn’t even send an email or a card.

I can’t get upset about everyone who didn’t reach out after Shawn died. But for some reason I felt like, “really? She waited until now to talk to me, and only began a discussion with me today because we happened to physically bump into each other?”

But that night, I remembered something else.

A little over a year ago, a girl in Claire’s class lost her mother. I don’t know exactly how, but I think it was also cancer. I didn’t know the family well, but Claire was friendly with the little girl and Claire and I talked a lot about how to approach her classmate. I also knew that I needed to say something to the young girl’s father. When I saw him a few weeks later, I told him how sorry I was.

But that was it. I didn’t send a card. I didn’t write an email. (And yes – I could have found that information in our school directory.) I didn’t really know what to say to him when I saw him and so I avoided him.

That’s right. I avoided a young widower because I didn’t know what to say to him.

I’ve only seen that young widower once since Shawn died. It was Austin’s birthday and I was taking him to Starbucks before school to eat a cake pop and drink hot chocolate. I went back to get a napkin and ran into the widower. He looked at me with a deep sadness in his eyes and said, “Hi. I’m so sorry.”

And then he hugged me.

We talked briefly about how hard the first year can be, and he told me to call if I needed anything. Maybe we’ll talk again, or maybe we won’t. But I didn’t need something perfect from him. I just wanted to know that he felt my pain.

It was clear in his eyes that he did.

He offered me comfort when I had offered him none. Of course, maybe if my husband had died before his wife, this story would be reversed, with him avoiding me. I don’t know. I do know that I am thankful that he didn’t seem to notice my insensitivity, or if he did, he didn’t seem to care.

So I guess it’s probably time to stop being so judgmental of all of the people who have been less than perfect with me. Because I was them just a year ago. I thought I understood how to deal with grieving community members, maybe because I had lost my mom as a young person. But somehow I had forgotten, or possibly it was just too weird when it was one of my peers who died.

Either way, I won’t make that mistake again. When I see other people who are living through terrible pain, never again will I avoid their uncomfortable reality. I will look them in the eyes and I will see their pain.

Because being uncomfortable for a few minutes is nothing. Being in pain for what feels like forever means that grieving people deserve – at least – a simple phrase:

“Hi. I’m so sorry.”



Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.


  • Joy

    I’m so glad you write about things like this. It helps me to know what to say and then validates that I’m not totally doing it all wrong by acknowledging the elephant in the room. It’s also just great to hear how you’re doing and processing all of this. Beautiful post.

    • Marjorie

      Thanks. I think I’m learning through this how much we are all unsure about how to deal with grief. I’m even unable to deal with my own grief and that of Shawn’s friends, at times. I am glad I can at least provide one perspective on this, and get the conversation started.

  • Jen Martin

    Another excellent honest post. Your writing is amazing and raw. Thanks once again for sharing. I continue to think of you, Shawn and your three kids daily.

  • Lyn Wright

    Dammit all…been up and down with angry and sad. It seems that it is true that it is “hardest on those left behind”. With that, although we all sit with broken hearts …missing Shawn…Stewart and I have been so grateful that you have this blog. The connection means a great deal to us … continue to post and let us know how you and the kids are doing. HUGS. Lyn and Stewart

  • Henry Beale

    To someone who is grieving a recent loss, your blog is a most eloquent way of saying “You are not alone.” Send him the url. Hugs are also always appropriate.