Marjorie Brimley and children with Shawn's guitar after his death
Missing Shawn

Family photos

The night before we took family photos this year, I picked up Shawn’s guitar and put it by the front door. I didn’t want to forget it. I’d already laid out the kids’ clothes and made sure we looked somewhat pulled together. But I felt like something was missing, so I went down and sat in Shawn’s recliner and thought about how I wanted to take family photos this year.

We’re a family of four now, but we were always a party of five. Could I even take “family” photos if a critical member of our family was missing? How would I pose with the kids? How would we manage to look like a family with only one parent?

Of course, I didn’t have any answers to these questions.

We’ve always taken family photos. One of our dearest friends, Stefanie Harrington, is a professional photographer, and many of her photos have been featured on my blog. But Stefanie and her husband Mike are also dear friends of ours. We’ve raised our kids together, vacationed together, and partied together. Stefanie came with me to pick out Shawn’s casket. Mike carried that casket as a pallbearer.

And they had my kids the day that we found out Shawn had cancer. I remember going to their house to get the kids and I saw Mike. I was hysterical. He was stoic, but emotional. It was the first time I saw him cry.

I remember it so clearly because Stefanie was always the one I’d see cry. I have a vivid memory of Stefanie being at my house a few days before Shawn died. We were all talking about our fun memories together, and Stefanie started weeping. Shawn looked at her and laughed. “Stefanie!” he said and then made fun of her a bit about her overly emotional state. It was a moment when he was still so classically Shawn – making light of his situation, and trying to make others feel not so worried about him.

Stefanie loved Shawn in a way few people did. She was one of his dearest friends.

Maybe this is why it took us so long to schedule the photo shoot. At the beginning of the summer, I told Stefanie that I wanted to do family photos. “But I can’t do them like we always did,” I said.

At the time that we were talking, we were also shopping. In the store, we passed by a colorful raft. “Well, we could do a summer shoot,” she said. “Think of how cute it would be to have you and the kids on that raft.”

I liked the idea. We’d always done apple orchards and sweaters and pumpkins. It was time for something new.

It took four months for me to actually schedule it. During these four months, I saw Stefanie at least once a week. We never talked about taking photos. Instead, I’d send her a one-line email (“we should schedule photos…..”) and she’d respond and then I’d delete the email.

How could I schedule photos that didn’t include Shawn?

But I finally did it, and that’s how I found myself getting ready for our photo shoot just a few days before the end of summer.

Stefanie came over really early to help me get the kids ready. She did Austin’s crazy hair and helped find Tommy’s shoes.

I picked up the guitar. “I want to use this in the photos,” I said.

She nodded her head. I turned around to deal with the kids and when I turned back, I saw her openly weeping.

“I know,” I said. “I should have told you about this before you showed up.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful.” She wiped away her tears, and we all got ready. “Do you want to take one car or two?” she asked.

“Let’s go together,” I said. I knew I needed the company. Maybe she did too.

It was beautiful that morning and quickly the chaos of corralling my kids and trying to get them to smile became our focus. Like every year, I figured we might not get any good photos (I was wrong, as I am every year!)

At one point, we sat down on the edge of the water to take photos with the guitar. It didn’t quite go as planned. The kids fought over who would get to hold the guitar and Austin was mad at Claire for insisting she was the better guitar player. “Oh well,” I figured, “at least we tried.”

Quickly thereafter, Austin decided to get his hair wet, and he continued to whine that he wanted to jump in the water. Eventually, Stefanie encouraged him to do that, and soon thereafter, we were all soaking wet. One of my favorite photos of that day is one of me hugging Austin – both of us drenched with water – as he screams with delight.

As we splashed each other and dunked our heads under the waterfall, I thought about how joyful each of my children looked. I thought about how much I wished Shawn was there to see them.

“That was so fun!” Claire said as we left.

When Stefanie sent me the photos, I was excited to discover a number of great ones. The one on the cover of this blog post is one of my favorites. When Stefanie took it, the kids had been fighting and I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. But the photo is beautiful. In fact, when I look at the photo, I feel like Shawn is there in the sun peeking over our shoulders.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.


  • Elissa

    Gorgeous picture–Stefanie is so talented and you all are terrific subjects! Once again so impressed by your perseverance.

  • Erin

    I love this picture of you all and I also noticed the sun shining behind all four of you – Shawn watching over his incredible family. I also agree that Stefanie is just the best – a very talented photographer and an exceptional friend. XO

    • Marjorie

      You are right – it feels like Shawn is watching over us. And I know Stefanie has taken such beautiful pictures of your family as well!

  • Bill Brimley

    It does look like Shawn is there! He loved you and his children so much!
    All our Love Grandpa Bill.❤️

    • Marjorie

      I know, the photos is so amazing because I was thinking about him so much at that moment, and Stefanie was really able to capture that. We do feel his love! Love to you, Grandpa Bill!

  • Sheryll Brimley

    what a great photo with the four of you …..& Shawn watching over his family. He is so proud of all of you.

    • Marjorie

      Oh thank you! I did feel his presence in this moment, even with the chaos. I think the kids know too that their dad really loved them and would be so proud of them. Love to you!