Marjorie Brimley Hale with her late husband Shawn and three kids in a field
New Perspectives

Grief, Not Sadness

Some people I know have beautifully decorated, color-coordinated Christmas trees currently displayed in their houses.

I am not one of those people.

My tree is plastic, to start. Claire’s allergic to trees, so we had to get a plastic one many years ago, but also it was just way easier than going out to cut down a tree with three little kids. It doesn’t smell like a tree and it doesn’t really look like a tree, so my solution is to cover it with all the ornaments we have and try and hide the plastic-ness of it.

I have some of the ornaments my mom once put on our tree. She made them all – stuffed and sewn armadillos and dinosaurs and Care Bears and all the other things we thought were cool. In fact, one year my mom’s best friend Mary Grace sent each of the kids an ornament that my mom had once given her, which I think was the best re-gifting I’d ever heard of. Also up on the tree are all the wild ornaments my kids have made over the years, including some amazing popsicle stick/glue/sticker/googly-eye arrangements from preschool.

And also on the tree are the yearly ornaments I started making when Claire was born. Each year, I get one of those ornament frames that says “2021!” (or whatever year it is) and put a favorite family photo in it. There’s Claire clapping her hands in a red onesie as a baby in 2009, Austin trying to squirm out of Shawn’s lap as a toddler in 2012, and Chris holding Tommy’s hand in a field last year.

Each year, when I take these ornaments out of the box, I remember how much I love having all these memories around at Christmas.

And it also makes my heart ache when I look at all the photos of Shawn.

It is grief, of course. I miss Shawn not in the same way anymore, and yet I still deeply miss him. It is not an overwhelming emotion, one that sends me to my knees and makes me unable to hold back deep sobs, but rather something that I can physically feel in my chest when I pull out the ornaments each year.

This year, it was the 2014 ornament that got me. That was the year Tommy was born, and for our ornament that year I’d chosen a photo that my friend Stefanie took when we went apple picking. In it, I’m holding Tommy and trying to hug the other two kids, neither of whom is smiling. Shawn is next to me, dressed in an old jacket and my hair is so long it almost touches my butt. I’m smiling.

And physically seeing that moment once again – the one where I think at least 2 of the kids were right on the verge of a breakdown – it made me smile…and then it made me feel that feeling again. The grief one.

The thing is, I didn’t cry. Grief for me now does not always look like sadness. Sometimes it just means that I stare off in space for a while and miss that time, years ago. Sometimes it means I think about Shawn, and how happy he always was at the holidays, surrounded by everyone he loved. Sometimes it means that I physically put my hand on my heart and feel the feeling that’s there.

Grief has changed for me. But just because I’m not sobbing all the time doesn’t mean that it’s gone. I am happy and….the grief is still there at moments like this.

For me, this leads me to this question: What does it mean to be happy, and still experience grief?

For a long time, when I thought about grief I thought about being sad. And that, of course, was real. I was very, very sad for a long time. But slowly, the grief wasn’t all about sadness. It was a feeling of emptiness, sometimes, but other times it was a feeling of warmth. It was confusing in a way, because wasn’t feeling grief supposed to mean I was sad?

I’ve gotten more used to this idea that I can be happy and also feel grief. I used to say that I could be “happy and sad” at the same time, and that was true for me for a long time (and sometimes still is true for me.) But I also think I can be happy and yet also feel grief without necessarily feeling sad. Not all the time, of course, but in times like when I pull out the Christmas ornaments each year or remember how much Shawn loved to dress up like Santa – in times like those I’ve come to find comfort in the feelings that flow through my chest.

It is different than it once was. I am different than I once was.

But it is grief, yes.

It’s a kind of grief that is a million emotions, some good and some hard, representing all the bits of memory pulled together in my mind. It is not sadness – that’s not the right word. It’s more like a feeling of deep emotion that doesn’t even really have a name, and yet I know that so many people feel it.

It’s like my tree with all it’s mismatched ornaments and plastic-ness. It’s not something any designer would call attractive. And yet, it’s something that’s so lovely that it makes it a bit hard to breathe when I look at it.

Because, of course, it is so beautiful.

Happy holidays, everyone, and Merry Christmas to those who celebrate.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.


  • Andrea Roberts

    You’ve beautifully expressed my own feelings about grief and Christmas. My husband has been gone for several years. I’m happily remarried. Yet once again this year when we put up the tree, with all it’s mismatched ornaments and memories my chest felt heavy and my eyes filled with tears. Thank you for writing this beautiful piece, it helped.

  • Jean Bender

    Beautifully written, and once again, you have described your grief as if it were my own. I love your writing, how you put my feelings in to words. Thank you for touching my life and the lives of so many others. Merry Christmas to you and your beautiful family!