Shawn Brimley with Claire at Christmas
What Not to Say

It’s Not “Better”

The other day, I was coming out of my house to run an errand and I ran into a neighbor.  I don’t know her well, but she and her husband are always friendly.  The day we moved into our house, they brought over a bottle of wine.  When a hurricane struck DC soon thereafter, her husband came out and helped Shawn as he dug a trench so that our basement wouldn’t flood.  We always waved at them when we’d see them on the street, and they thought our young kids were adorable.

When Shawn died, they left a very sweet note on the front porch.  Apparently, they had noticed us coming and going from the house, and that Shawn appeared to be very ill, but of course they didn’t know that things were as bad as they were.

“Thanks for your sweet note,” I said to my neighbor.

“Of course,” she said.  “We are so sorry.”

I thanked her, and then she asked what had happened.  I told her that Shawn had been sick with a mysterious illness in the fall, but that he hadn’t been diagnosed with colon cancer until December 1st.  (In fact, the photo with this post was taken the day before he first went to the hospital with intense stomach pain.  He just managed to power through it until then.)

He died less than 6 weeks later.

She was very surprised, and it showed on her face.  But then she said to me, “well, I guess it’s better that it was fast.”

I froze.  Somehow, I managed to choke out, “yes, for the kids, I suppose…” and quickly said goodbye.  I got in my car and drove as fast as I could away from my neighbor.

She meant well.  I know she did.  But it upset me so much that I was choking back sobs.

It definitely wasn’t “better that it was fast.”  I’m not saying that I wanted Shawn to be suffering longer on this earth, but he had so many good days after his diagnosis.  Yes, he was very sick, especially the week before he died, but he was totally coherent until his last hours.  The day before he died, Monday January 8th, we spent the early morning making videos for the kids and just talking about our lives.  We met with the two other executives at his think-tank who told us they were setting up an education fund for our kids.  Our dearest friends came over at lunch, and we all joked with each other.  Our oldest friends came over for dinner, and though he was going downhill, we still reminisced about living in Japan and other fun times.

And he told me that he loved me.  Of course, he’d said it many times before, but that morning, before everyone showed up, he looked at me with a deep intensity and told me that he loved me.  That he’d always loved me.  Always.

There were other things we said to each other.  Other things that don’t need to go on this blog.  But that conversation – well, I have that seared into my memory.  Forever.

By the next day, he was more out of this world than he was in it.  The doctors had told us the Saturday before that he had “weeks, not months.”  It turned out he only had 4 days.  We used those days to talk about everything – a lifetime of conversations in just a few days.  And yet there were still so many things we didn’t get to say to each other, so many questions I wish I had asked him that just didn’t occur to me in the few days we had together at the end.

His parents and both of his sisters managed to make it down from Canada to say goodbye, but they didn’t get any extra time with him.  The many people I had scheduled to come and visit later in the week instead only came to his funeral.

And the kids didn’t really get to say goodbye.  They did, of course, hug him and tell him about their day on Monday, but I didn’t know it would be the last time they’d see their dad.

Was it better that he got to spend the last year of his life celebrating his 40th birthday and going to concerts and helping start a company and playing with his kids?  Absolutely.  But do I wish I had more time with him?  Do I wish I could get another day – just one more – when we could be with our kids and each other and say all the things I wish I had been able to say?

What I wouldn’t give for one more day.

I know my neighbor meant well, but no, it wasn’t “better.”


Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.


  • Sheryll Brimley

    Oh Marjorie, someone said the same words to me!! My response was…”I suppose, although I wish we had seen him when he was feeling good & instead of being so sick & fighting so hard, to get better after his surgery” That someone obviously felt bad & then told me about her husband’s nephew who had battled colon cancer, had surgery & then went through 32 terrible chemo sessions ….only to pass away less than a year later anyway. Also leaving a beautiful wife who had cared for him at home & young children who believed the “bad medicine” was making their dad better. I drove home thinking that yes, I am so grateful that Shawn did not have to suffer that terrible pain any longer that he did…..but in my heart, I still would have given anything to have only one good day with my son, before he left us.
    Really, there is no better way to lose someone to cancer.

  • Pat Hall

    Hi Marjorie. I worked with your mother in law many years at Credit Valley Hospital. I have a son exactly the same age as Shawn. Every time I read your blog my tears fall and my heart breaks for you. it’s so hard to know what to say as we all want to offer words of comfort and show support. I know from many years in the nursing profession that there are no words. Please remember we can relate on some level and just want you to know we care. Your children are so lucky to have had such an amazing dad but you are their rock . God bless you with continued strength, understanding and love. I’m sure Sheryll and Bill know how blessed they are to have their grandchildren in such capable hands. Hugs from a mother and grandmother.

  • Eva G Bergner

    No, it’s not better. There is no “better” when the husband of a lovely wife, father of three beautiful children, son of wonderful parents and brother to loving sisters dies unpredictably, quickly, following a cancer diagnosis at way too young an age. I feel that to rage against it all would be perfectly appropriate. You, however, are choosing a path of balanced equanimity. I am not sure exactly how you are achieving this heroic feat (your superpower you never knew you had?). I so admire you, and my heart breaks for you and your family. Sending prayers, as I know so many others have and continue to do. ( I also was fortunate enough to work with your mother-in-law at Credit Valley Hospital).

  • Sylvia

    Hi Marjorie,
    I am a friend and colleague who worked with your mother-in law at Credit Valley Hospital. I can empathize with you regarding the remarks from the neighbor. I lost my mom about 10 years ago to colon cancer ; my mom was diagnosed in September 2009 and passed January 2010. Some people used to say to me” well it was her time to go” and I was left feeling bewildered as how these words could be comforting at my time of grief. I concluded that these people haven’t gone through experience losing a love one and maybe once they go through hopefully they will be more cognizant of their comments.
    I truly admire your courage, strength and grace . You have 3 beautiful children who carries all of Shawn ‘s and your love daily. Sending positive and prayers to you and your children.

    Kindest regards,


  • Kelly

    Some people are almost pathological in their attempts to find a silver lining. It is an exceptionally unfair burden we place on the bereaved when we cannot simply stand with them in solidarity and simply say, “this is so incredibly painful”.

    • Marjorie

      Yes, so true. I know everyone is doing their best, but I do wish I could say, “no, it’s just terrible.”

  • Sheryll Brimley

    Marjorie my dear, you can say “it’s just terrible” …because it is so darn terrible!!!

    • Marjorie

      I know – that’s my new goal. I actually said that the other day and the person was like, “yep, it is.” That felt better.

  • Erin

    Hi Marjorie, old Queens friend here. It’s awful. I love that you’re writing. I suspect nothing makes it better but sometimes action of any kind feels like you’re in control of the time passing a little bit. I continue to think of you, and I wished for those weeks we knew about this that we could have done something, anything.

  • Joy

    Thank you for sharing this. One thing I’m grateful for is that you help guide people who want to help–even if that’s knowing what not to say.

    Btw, I gasped out loud when I read this because someone said the same thing to me when I told them what happened to Shawn. I wasn’t as gracious and went off on them. If I can ever do that for you, I’m happy to oblige.

  • Caroline Bowman

    what IS it with people who say that and versions of that? I can only think they have no experience of having their world ended and are sincerely trying to fumble for the right thing to say but MAN…

    And then the horror stories of ”you think THAT’S bad, well let me tell you…”. I mean, truly. Shut up. Just say ”I am desperately sorry and wish things were different. It’s a tragic and untimely death and I would like to offer to bring you dinner on Thursday / fetch your children from school on Tuesday / help with your garden work every Saturday”. But no…. nooo….

    My mum died. It was very sudden and unexpected. She was 79. I know this is not an untimely or horrifying demise. It wasn’t and I am very glad for that. I miss her so much I find it hard to behave normally sometimes. No. I don’t think it’s ”great” that she died suddenly. No, I’m not ”pleased”. My best friend is gone and my chest is full of rocks and what wouldn’t I give for one more chat? Just one, just for 5 minutes?

    So in your position, you have full permission to scream at them till they go away and leave you alone!

    • Marjorie

      Grief is so hard for so many people to react to. I remember when my mother died, when I was 19, I felt like no one knew how to deal with it – including all of the adults around me. I guess my blog is an effort to tell people how it is for those of us on the other side. Thanks for sharing.

  • Lynda

    No, there is no silver lining. It took me some time to understand what people were saying after my father’s death, which was sudden and quite unexpected, though he was 90. So many people said he was ‘lucky’ to go so fast…because they had witnessed months of their family members suffering pain, losing their understanding, forgetting them.
    People genuinely don’t know what to say and wish to comfort, but it can’t be done.

    • Marjorie

      I know. I’m actually writing another post about the crazy things people have said to me with some notes about how to do it better. And an acknowledgement that until I went through this, I wasn’t very good at responding to grief in others.

  • Melissa M.

    Hi Marjorie. I found your blog a few months ago. My fiancé passed away September 2020. He was 43 years old and passed in his sleep. We worked at the same place which is where we met. I had gotten many condolences of course but his boss said to me that it was “better” he passed in his sleep. I know what she meant. She meant that it was “better” he passed peacefully. For all we know that’s what we think- that it was “peaceful”, but it’s unclear if he passed from a heart attack since the coroner called it “Hypertensive Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease”. When she said it at the time it didn’t make me feel better. He should have passed when he was an old man well into his 80s or 90s…so that we could grow old together and have kids of our own. That would have been “better”. I feel robbed of a future I didn’t get to have. I want to thank you for writing this blog. I’m still trying to figure out my life again without my significant other. It’s hard and I still thinking about what’s the point of life anymore when it can be so easily ripped from you just like that?

    • M Brimley

      First, I’m so sorry for the loss of your fiance. It’s awful, no matter how someone dies. Yes, when I wrote this post I was SO ANGRY – and yet, I know the person who said it didn’t mean any harm.

      And let me also say this – the first 6 months were really hard on me. It’s okay if you feel despondent right now, but hold on to this: it will get better. Here’s a post I wrote about the first 6 months: