Claire Brimley and cousin at concert with DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley Hale
New Perspectives

Feeling Bad That It Doesn’t Feel Bad

Three years is a strange marker in the widow world.

The first year of widowhood is just about survival. It’s about figuring out how to get up every day, how to grieve and still pay the bills, how to put one foot in front of the other when you’re so tired you can’t even really think. It’s about making it through to the end of the day. Or at least it was for me.

The second year feels easier for some people, and harder for others. It’s when the day-to-day life gets more manageable, and yet the intensity of the loss is still there. My second year, I had a terrible backslide into grief. My second year, I also tried many new things, and pushed myself. I healed in so many ways.

The third year was easier. Even in the start of that year, I felt lighter. I wasn’t really actively grieving, at least not all the time, and I was more excited by life than scared of it. But it was still so unknown. Even once I started dating Chris, it took a while before I let myself feel the full breadth of that happiness.

So when I got to the three year marker, I felt sad – but I also felt happy. It was a strange thing to feel.

As the year has continued, I’ve felt so much joy. Vaccines, family gatherings and a wedding! I’m not saying it was always an easy year (hybrid learning was the hardest teaching I’ve ever done) but there was so much joy. In most of the moments when I’d think of Shawn, I didn’t feel overwhelmed by sadness.

But that’s a strange feeling in itself.

A few weeks ago, I was downstairs in my basement, thinking about what else we might hang up on the wall next to Shawn’s guitars. They’ve hung there for a long time, and I like how they look. But I don’t usually spend time actually studying them. They’re just art at this point. But that day, I looked for a long while at Shawn’s acoustic guitar. He’d always loved playing it with the kids, and he’d stuck a “kick out the GOP 2018” sticker on it after the 2016 election. In the early days and months, when I’d see the guitar with the sticker, it made me so sad. Even after a year had passed, I still felt overwhelming emotion when I looked at it.

But at some point, the intense emotion around the guitar faded.

And once that happened, it felt really weird sometimes when I’d look at it. I started feeling bad that I didn’t feel bad about the guitar.

It wasn’t just the guitar, of course. It was a million other objects and memories and moments. When Austin lost his first tooth I cried for an hour that Shawn wasn’t there to see it. When Tommy lost his first tooth? I was excited for Tommy, but that’s all. I didn’t always stop to think about these moments, and what they meant, but if I did, I sometimes just felt bad that it didn’t feel bad.

Because shouldn’t it?

No! You scream. You shouldn’t always feel bad emotions – sadness, fear, guilt – when you think about your late spouse. You should feel happiness, too! I love to rant about that on my blog, I love to say how it’s important that widows are allowed to feel happy, I love to tell everyone that you can be “happy and sad” and all sorts of things like that. But it’s strange when you don’t feel sad about everything that once made you miss someone. It can make you feel odd. And it’s something that happens more and more as you get beyond the three year marker – or at least it did for me.

Music was something that Shawn loved, and I tried to keep it in the house after he died, but I didn’t do a great job of it. Claire took some lessons and joined the choir and did the musical at school, so I figured that was enough. Austin and Tommy mostly listened to music on the radio.

When Chris moved in, he helped me a lot with this. Claire wanted to play the piano, so he got her a keyboard and we got her lessons. He started playing new music for the kids, and they got excited about a number of different bands. And last spring, when it seemed the pandemic was ending, he got tickets for us to see Surfaces, a fun pop band he’d introduced to the rest of us.

As the date drew nearer, we debated whether to go. We looked up the venue and it turned out that everyone had to show their vaccine cards, so we could only take Claire. She also wanted to bring her cousin, since he was vaccinated too. It would be fun! One of her first concerts.

That night, we drove downtown with the windows down. On the side of the road, a go-go band was playing, and both Claire and her cousin told us all about go-go music as they danced. They were learning about it in music class. (DCPS, I love you for this aspect of your curriculum.) Claire yelled out the window, cheering with the crowd that had gathered.

We made our way to the venue and got inside, finding seats on the aisle and getting ready. The warm up bands were fun, and the kids listened and clapped along. They were joyful, and the people around us (mostly other teenagers) watched them with awe. We sat behind them and I held Chris’s hand. I felt joyful, too.

“Maybe it’s weird to say,” Chris said, turning to me, “but at times like these, I think of Shawn. Claire is at one of her first concerts, and he isn’t here to see it. I feel sad for him, that he didn’t get to do this. It’s such an incredible thing to be able to witness.”

“I know,” I said. “But he would be so happy to see her so happy.” Chris squeezed my hand.

When Surfaces came on, the kids jumped up and down, singing along to all the songs they knew. Chris and I stood behind them and Claire kept looking back at us and smiling from ear-to-ear. She was glowing. “This is the best night of my life!” she screamed.

It was a version of Claire that I’d seen a million times – the joyful girl that has been the same since she was two years old – but also a new version of her that I’d never seen.

Another song came on, one that we all knew, and she screamed and jumped in the aisle. She didn’t care about what she looked like or who was watching her. She just felt the music, and the excitement. It was pure euphoria.

Both of us were looking at her. I think I probably watched her more than I watched the actual band. And all I felt was happiness. For once, I didn’t feel bad, and I didn’t feel bad for not feeling bad. I didn’t have the space for it. I just felt good.

And so did Claire.

It was just as Shawn would have wanted it.


  • Julie S Giordano

    One of the beautiful things about your writing is how you make us able to visualize all the different POVs…Yours, Chris’, Shawn’s and Claire’s. I think something that terrifies us all is leaving this world (especially so young as Shawn) and just fading into the background of our loved one’s lives. I think it is beautiful that Chris thought about Shawn at that moment and felt the tremendous loss that Shawn must have felt as he was leaving. It shows his incredible empathy. I’m sure it’s been a difficult process over the year to move through these moments you describe and not aways feel loss, guilt and sadness. But, by feeling joy you are really honoring the Shawn who left saying “you have to remarry”, “you’re so hot” and of course, looked at you “that way” when Tommy was born. You knew Shawn the best, and you know exactly what he would have wanted for all of you. It’s painful and beautiful all at the same time.
    Sometimes I want to comment just to let you know that I think you are doing great. You have navigated one of the most difficult things someone could face with grace and brought everyone along for the journey. I sadly miss Shawn too, you did that for all of us, but we are happy too, because you have second love and Chris, well, he’s Chris, another person we are all falling in love with. Happy Holidays to all of you!!

    • M Brimley

      This may be my favorite comment ever: “I sadly miss Shawn too, you did that for all of us, but we are happy too, because you have second love and Chris, well, he’s Chris, another person we are all falling in love with.” Thank you!! This is really meaningful to me. And yes, Chris has such incredible empathy.