Pantry of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley
Things That Suck

Disaster Prep and the Coronavirus

When Shawn was alive, we always had a disaster plan.

We designated a place that we would meet outside the city if we had to escape, we had canned goods and backpacks of supplies, and we owned a damn generator. I mean, we were ready. But really, I wasn’t ready at all. I was just married to Shawn, and he was a tiny bit obsessed with the idea of an impending apocalypse.

Usually, he brought it up in a semi-joking way, talking about the zombie apocalypse or something similarly silly. But sometimes – like when he got an inside look at some type of government planning in case of a disaster – he would come home and make me go through our disaster plan.

I always laughed at him, and reminded him that we were much more likely to die of something like the flu, so he’d better get his flu shot.

When Shawn died, I did not keep up the disaster prep. I let the stored food expire, I threw out a lot of the backpacks and other materials when I re-did the garage, and I sold the generator. Who needed all that?


Over the past few weeks, as the coronavirus spread and the news became increasingly alarmist, I started to think about all of the disaster preparedness our family had once had in place. Now what was left of it was a few boxes of matches, a lot of dead flashlights, and a pack of size 5 diapers. That’s it.

Clearly, we were not ready. At all.

I do not like to be alarmist. I like to use facts to inform myself, and until a week ago, it seemed like everything was going to be okay. “How are you feeling about the whole coronavirus thing?” a friend texted me about a week ago. I replied, “pretty nonplussed.”

But then…things shifted. And I freaked out.

It started with a trip to Costco that I needed to make anyway. I took Tommy, and when I got there, the person at the front wiped down my cart and encouraged me to do the same with my hands and Tommy’s hands. He was wearing long gloves. Inside, the disaster preparedness supplies had been moved to the ends of the aisles, and it made me start to think. I paused in front of the batteries. Did I have extra batteries at home? Then I looked at the pharmacy. Did I have enough Advil? What about fever reducers for the kids? I had a bit of a crisis right there in Costco, as an overwhelming feeling swept through my body.

I could only think one thing: I have to protect my family.

I’ve felt a version of this emotion before, back when I was a new mother. I’d draw my babies close when I heard a crash, for example. It was instinctual, something I did without thinking.

Right there in Costco, I felt something similar.

Here’s the thing. As a rational human being, I know that the chances of anyone in my family dying from the coronavirus are slim. I know that there are very few children even in China who are getting sick enough to be diagnosed with the virus. I know that there are very real things we can do to protect ourselves, like washing our hands, that are going to be a lot more effective than the massive pack of disinfecting wipes I bought at Costco.

Many of the people I know aren’t freaking out like me. They aren’t stockpiling powdered milk (yes, I bought some yesterday) and they aren’t making contingency plans for a possible quarantine. I heard someone comment the other day that the virus is likely to only kill those who are quite old or immunocompromised.

That is true, of course. My family doesn’t fall into those categories, but there are lots of families who do. But I’ve lost someone who wasn’t “supposed” to die. I was in that very small percentage of women who lose their husbands at age 40. So, yes, I’m likely to be okay, and my children are likely to be okay. But that’s no guarantee. (To say nothing of my father, who is in great shape but is still 72.)

But the larger issue actually isn’t the small chance that one of us gets really sick. That’s not why I bought extra bags of rice and made sure we have plenty of cough medicine. The reason that I’m freaking out is because I’ve realized something very basic and primal: I’m the only one who can protect my family anymore.

My married female friends don’t share this with me. Sure, they may be the ones who are actually going to the grocery store, and yes, they may be the ones who have counted how many diapers are left. But in the back of their minds, they know that they have someone else to rely on. If shit hits the fan, they will have a partner to help protect their family.

And I will be doing it alone.

I want to be the person who is relaxed about the coronavirus. I want to laugh at the other people at CVS who are asking about bleach and medicines. I want to be cool as a cucumber when more cases pop up, knowing that the likelihood of death is actually very low.

But I am not. In just a week, I’ve gone from somewhat relaxed to really worried, and my basement shelves prove it. I have a box that I labeled “disaster” and filled with all sorts of supplies. I have more canned food than I’ve ever had even though my kids hate beans and canned vegetables. I keep reading about the coronavirus and listening to podcasts on how to prevent infection. The only reason I’m not stockpiling masks is because I know medical professionals like my sister – who is an ER nurse – need them more.  But I have to physically stop myself from trying to get my hands on some.

I know it’s not healthy. I know I’m way more worried than any of my friends. I know I might end up with a bunch of food I have to donate to the food pantry in a year.

But I can’t help it. Like I said, it’s primal. Shawn is gone, and that means this:

I have to protect my family.


  • Kristina Schwarz

    I appreciated your perspective. I am inclined to not freak out (yet), but I sure am following the news, and little things we do to be “prepared” (we live in a very rural area, so tend to have a stocked pantry anyway) I have justified making sure they are all up to date…
    But, in line with that perspective part, I think you should remember this: I may have a spouse to share the burden with- and I do not take that for granted- (last winter he tangled with his chainsaw cutting firewood (how we heat our house) and we had months of disaster in an instant- a very vivid reminder) but we had our network of friends & family… you obviously have that too… so neither of us is “alone” in our struggles. No, things are not the way we imagined they would be, but we do have help. I worry about the single mother, without sick leave, or health insurance… or even the resources to have a “disaster” box in her basement. We (as a country) need to help those people, and in the end, I think that will help us too…

    • Marjorie

      Absolutely. I mean, as with every post I write, it’s hard to balance telling my perspective and also noting that I am a “lucky” widow. I do try and do that in some of my posts (see this one, if you’re interested: but sometimes, I am just scared and frustrated when I write a post, and I know many other widows in my position feel similarly (even if we do have friends and family around, it can still be isolating.) So, yes, of course you are correct that there are people in worse situations and it is important to really remember them – especially if the government is not able (or willing) to help them. I encourage all of my readers to look out for their neighbors who are likely to struggle, and I think that’s important for us to remember as a nation. (Dear readers – donate that extra food to the food pantry if the disaster never hits!)

      I hope that it’s clear that I do see my good fortune (at least in some areas of my life), though I may not have noted it in this post, which I wrote in 10 minutes in my basement. In that moment, I was not thinking of anyone else. I was just thinking of me and my kids and feeling one emotion: fear. And fear can make us turn inward. I thought about editing my post after reading your comment, but I do think it’s also important for me to say how I feel in certain moments. And then you all can leave comments here to continue the conversation!

      • Kristina Schwarz

        Thank you for your response, but please know that I think you are absolutely entitled to not feel the least bit “lucky”; and to remind us that ALL of us have our moments (I sure know I do) when ThankYouVeryMuch we do NOT want to be told to keep life in perspective… It just sucks. I would not read each and every one of your posts if I didn’t think you GET IT, and as you sort out the little (and not so little) things, you DO keep perspective… And I would NEVER edit a post based on one comment from one reader. You make clear that your opinions/experiences are yours…many people share them, or a version of them, but you are not imposing your approach on anyone!

        • Marjorie

          Thank you! I am glad that the posts are helpful at least sometimes! And unless I find a typo, I’ve made a commitment to myself not to edit my posts after publishing them. Honesty is 100% the most important thing for me!

  • Melissa

    My husband was the disaster prepper for us, too. I’ve kept up some of what he did but have let other things slide. (I gave our generator to my son-in-law because he and my daughter and their family live out in the country. And I wouldn’t know how to operate it anyway.) Recently I was sick for the first time since becoming a widow. Even though I have family close by it was still somewhat of an eye-opener for me. No one to take care of me but myself. I now have a list of things like OTC medications and stuff like pet food that I don’t want to run out of if I can’t get out to shop.

    And I fear for people who are undergoing cancer treatment. One of my biggest worries when my husband was having radiation every day was what if I got sick or passed something on to him? Thankfully, that didn’t happen. I think you’re very smart to be prepared. If the worst thing that can happen is having to give the food to a food bank, that’s a pretty good outcome, isn’t it? 🙂

    • Marjorie

      Oh, I TOTALLY have thought a lot about people who are undergoing cancer treatment. I remember the FEAR of germs and just regular colds – this virus would have stopped me cold in my tracks if Shawn were still alive and undergoing treatment. This is a good reminder of that.

  • Henry Beale

    Yes, your blog is about how you, as a widow, “feel at certain moments.” Sharing those feelings is what gives your writing its power. Don’t feel you should pull your punches be editing such moments.

    • Marjorie

      Thanks! Yes, I think it’s important to be true to my feelings. When I can, I also think it’s important to note how to help others, obviously. But I know, at least from many of the private emails/messages I get from young widows that what I say really resonates with them. I don’t want to change that.

  • Amy

    I’m not sure I’m in agreement with the first poster. You’re entitled to have your “widow feelings” as you shoulder your parental responsibilities alone. You are not hoarding just filling up with enough supplies for a few weeks for the small risk that your city is shut down or you are isolated taking care of one child after the other. That’s the responsible to do.

    Things in the West will not be as bad as China, I hope. I have Chinese friends who read the boards coming out of Wuhan and Hubei. There is incredible corruption at every level of government there with strata (HOA) managers hoarding incoming food and marking it up by 800%, selling to friends and family, taking bribes, and neighbours reporting on neighbours for $50 a pop!! It’s incredibly dysfunctional.

    Don’t forget to think about an isolation room if one child gets sick. It’s best if that room has a self-contained bathroom to minimize spread—that’s according to my doctor sister who must prepare her stubborn husband for potential isolation. She’s going to have to chain him to the radiator to keep him from visiting the neighbours!! He gets bored easily.

    • Marjorie

      Wow. That’s wild. I know there’s so much fear around this virus and it was tough to write this post where I toed the line and talked about my fears without trying to inflame the fears of others! But yes, part of being a single mom with young kids – even one with resources – is the fear that I’m going to have to take care of them alone. What happens if I get sick?

  • Alecia

    This phrase means everything to me. “That is true, of course. My family doesn’t fall into those categories, but there are lots of families who do. But I’ve lost someone who wasn’t “supposed” to die. I was in that very small percentage of women who lose their husbands at age 40. So, yes, I’m likely to be okay, and my children are likely to be okay. But that’s no guarantee.” My husband was killed in the line of duty at 28 years old, while I was pregnant with our first child. I now suffer from sever anxiety, panic attacks, and fear about soooooo many things I would have never thought twice about before. Very few people understand what you wrote here. I’m constantly told what the small chance of XYZ happening is and that means NOTHING to me, because I already lived being that minuscule percentage. So thank you, for getting it, and writing it. It means a lot to know someone else feels it to. (Although I wouldn’t wish it on anyone)

    • Marjorie

      I’m so terribly sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. And also, I totally understand. It’s one of those things I think many widows share – we get that tragedy CAN happen to us, or to those we love. Hang in there.

  • Bastiaan

    You have been pouring out your heart and sharing your most intimate feelings and experiences, so why worry now? You have all the right In the world to worry about your kids and yourself. You are the last person that needs to worry about not caring. You write this beautiful stories to help so many of us who are so desperately trying to find meaning in our lives, and you have succeeded. You are the person that will allow us to be “happy widows”. So, go to Costco, buy all the toilet paper, baby wipes and disinfectants that you need to keep you house and sole clean. An inventory of good espresso will go a long way!

    • Marjorie

      Thank you! I am glad what I’m writing is resonating with other people, especially those who’ve lost someone.

      And I’m feeling sort-of prepared. Maryland just declared a state of emergency, so it’s only a matter of time before DC does the same. I told my kids if they are home from school, I’m going to teach them. And I’ll definitely have more stories for the blog, so that’s something!

  • Nina

    My husband was a bit of a prepper as well. His last acts of kindness was making sure that his family was well stocked before the Shutdown. Of course, he didn’t know it. I am grateful in spite oy grief that he was that kind of person.