DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley with her three children tackling her in the water
What Not to Say

Can’t You Just…?

A few months ago, I was talking to an acquaintance and had a moment of candor. “I’m really lonely,” I said. “I miss Shawn. And I’m also tired of being alone all the time. They’re two parts of my sadness that are linked, but also separate in a way.”

She looked at me thoughtfully. “I understand you really miss Shawn. But if you want to get rid of the loneliness, can’t you just set up an online dating profile?”

I awkwardly tried to tell her that it wasn’t so easy. Putting myself out there is a really daunting prospect.

She meant well. She was trying to be helpful. I wasn’t upset by her response. It was merely part of a pattern I’ve seen from some people I encounter.

“Can’t you just….?”

This phrase usually comes from a well-meaning acquaintance who is trying to help. He or she sees me in pain and wants a solution to the problems seemingly causing that pain. This person – one who likely hasn’t been through tragic loss – thinks about what he or she might do in such a situation. There must be a solution, right?

Let’s say I want to go out to dinner. Yes, my dad lives with me during the school year, and can usually provide childcare. But in the summer, I’m totally solo.

Can’t you just get a sitter?”

Or maybe allergy season is getting the whole family down, and I think it may be partially due to the air in my house.

Can’t you just install a new air filter?”

Or maybe I’m feeling stressed about how much TV my kids watch, because when Shawn was alive they watched very little, and now I use screen time to help me remain sane.

Can’t you just set a timer to monitor them?”

Or maybe Austin wants me to chaperone his class trip, but I’ve already taken off two days to care for Claire when she was sick.

Can’t you just take off one more day?”

My good friends and family know better. They’ve seen that it’s not so easy for me to keep moving through seemingly “easy” parts of my life. They watched me struggle with almost everything, including how to simply move through the grocery store without having a nervous breakdown.

But if you haven’t had as much contact with me, or another young widow, you may not know how difficult some of these seemingly “easy” things are to do. Sometimes, it’s a logistics problem (no, I can’t easily find a sitter every single time I want to leave my children) but sometimes it’s much deeper than that (my kids find it much harder to be with a sitter than they used to before Shawn died. They often only want to be with me.)

The thing is, I want to make my problems go away. I want life to be easier. But sometimes when I hear the phrase “can’t you just….?” I want to scream back, “no! It’s just not that easy!”

Because that’s exactly what this phrase implies. When someone says, “can’t you just….?” what I actually hear is, “it’s easy! If you just tried harder your life would be better.”

So I’m here to tell you this: I’m trying as hard as I can. And no, I “can’t just” do lots of things.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.


  • Krista

    AMEN to that!! It’s been 8 months for me and it’s 24 hours a day still. There is joy and I smile (how can you not with a three year old in the house) but it’s 24 hours a day. You GET it!! I love reading your blog. Thanks.

  • Martin

    I hope you find a little time in the in-between to recharge so you can continue the battle and when things seem the worst find some comfort in the things you have accomplished.
    This may belong with things that suck?

    • Marjorie

      I mean, it’s one of those things where sometimes I can feel some comfort, and other times it’s still SO HARD. Maybe that’s why “can’t you just” is such a tough phrase. Because sometimes I can! But the phrase implies an over-simplicity, as I’m sure you got from the post. Thanks for commenting!

  • Henry

    “I’m also tired of being alone all the time.” So on target! Me to. And everything else in your post flows from that loneliness and the inability to fill that crater.
    The photo is particularly ironic, because anyone just looking at that would completely fail to see the problem and naturally say “can’t you just…’ But no, even though it doesn’t show, we can’t.
    My own pet peeve is an acquaintance who keeps urging me to “be more positive,” adding that “it’s a choice.” Ouch!

    • Marjorie

      Yep – I’m thinking about writing more about this culture of positivity and how it can be toxic to grievers. It’s too much to ask someone who is mourning to just “perk up!”

  • JustDad

    Yikes, who are these people with the “can’t you just”s? I’ve encountered that phrase just once in three years, thankfully. I do occasionally mention being lonely, and a friend recently suggested online dating as a first-step can’t-you-just. But, man, it seems like a huge leap, mostly because being judged by strangers isn’t high on my list at the moment. When you’ve had the pleasure of old school, electrifying, love at first sight, swiping left or right (I don’t know which direction is good/bad) seems a very distant second. Can’t I just get over that? 😉

    • Marjorie

      I’ve actually thought about this a bit, as I have a good widower friend who I compare notes with….and I think this is one of those places where men and women can get different messages. I mean, I only have my own experience to base this off of, but the idea of “helpful advice” seems to come more frequently to me than to my widower friend. Maybe it’s a gender thing, or maybe it’s just a personality thing. But yes, it’s super annoying! 🙂

      • Marianne

        I find the inane common sense statements, that are usually delivered in a very portentious voice, the most annoying. Remember, you have your son. Keep positive for him. Like, do they think I hadn’t thought of my son? Is it a brilliant insight to remind me about him? This is closely related to the “can’t you just” suggestions. If it was so easy, I would have done it already. No, I can’t “just”. Grief is exhausting mentally and physically.
        I also despise being told to keep positive. What if i can’t be positive? Don’t I have enough to cope with in grieving my husband (January 2019) without supposedly also be potentially failing at the “being positive” task on top of that? Maybe I’ll start telling people that my counsellor has strictly cautioned me against being positive as it’s not healthy and/or is potentially dangerous. That might shut it down. (and might be kind of amusing to see the reaction!)

        • Marjorie

          Ugh. Yes, these comments are so annoying. I love the idea of telling people that your counselor has cautioned against positivity – that’s brilliant!

  • ABP

    I don’t think I will ever get over it, nor do I think I want to. She returned to grace from whence she came last November. She was the one for me from the first night I met her in 1981. How could it be fair to someone else to always be held in comparison; however much one would try not to do so?

    • Marjorie

      Yes, I think this is every widow and widower’s dilemma. And thus, I think each of us chooses our own paths with whether or not we want to pursue love after loss.

  • ABP

    Heartily agree! Perhaps time will blunt the pain and open new vistas of possibility. I wish you every happiness. Thank you for this forum.

  • Susan van der Riet

    Thanks so much, I have been a widow for 9 months and I have two young adults Sons, but Mom you can just do….. then they get the evil eye and they back down. I had a friend say well you can always get remarried.

  • Courtney

    Thanks for sharing this, Marge. I can see how frustrating and annoying it would be to hear the can’t you justs! Seems in the same vein as the ‘well at least….’ Ugh. Love you, friend.

  • Pedro Mata

    Thanks for sharing. I’m in the same unfamiliar boat. Last year, me and boys watched Hotel Transylvania 3 and in the movie the dad falls for someone (zinged, they called it). We’ve found that I can’t shelter them from movies and shows that speak about loss of a loved one, especially when it comes to the loss of a mother. So after the movie my oldest, Jacob (13), tells me I don’t know if I’d be ok with you zinging again. It broke my heart. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready or want to be ready but if and when I am, how do I explain that to my boys? Don’t know if anyone has dealt with that yet and could provide suggestions. Thank you.

    • Marjorie

      I think there are a probably a lot of better suggestions than my own, but I’ll say this: I don’t think our kids need to know everything we are debating, especially about dating. Yes, eventually, if things get serious with someone, then it will be a discussion, and we’ll handle it in the way that parents have handled hard stuff forever – imperfectly, but hopefully with a lot of love. I try and cross these emotional bridges when they come up, which thankfully hasn’t happened yet.

  • Victoria Knibbs

    Did you write more on ‘the toxic culture of positivity towards grievers’??? Please tell me you have!! I have a friend who is a ‘fixer’. I love her dearly but since my partner passed away I tend to avoid talking to her because she wants to fix everything. I have to remind myself she is coming from a place of love when I can feel the anger rising! When you lose someone it’s like carrying a weight with you everywhere you go, even in your restful moments. To put that weight down too quickly would be like telling yourself and the world you dont feel this pain that is ripping you apart and that the person that you love so deeply existence was of little or no consequence.
    So the ‘can you justs’ of this world do not realise how many bite marks I have in my tongue from holding it or I have to put my phone in a draw to stop me replying sharply to a well meaning text!!!
    Please write the article Marjorie! Please!

    • Marjorie

      Oh, yes, this is totally problematic and endemic in our culture. I’ve actually written a lot about this, but my favorite is the one you read. But maybe it’s time for an article somewhere!