DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley with husband Shawn and baby Claire
Things That Suck

Not a Shitty Husband

I was with a friend a few weeks ago who was recovering from surgery.  He was hurting, and I suggested he take a painkiller.

“I did that for about three weeks after the surgery,” he said, “but I’ve stopped doing that.”

“Why?” I asked.  “Take the drugs!  There’s no reason to hurt like you are.”

“Yes there is,” he said.  “Because I hurt when I’m starting to over-do it.  The pain warns me to stop.”

“Right,” I said, feeling silly, “that, of course, is why pain exists.”

We laughed a bit.  But I thought about this idea later.  We have physical pain to warn us about something – a headache that signals dehydration and tells us to drink some water or a pain while running that lets the body know that it’s time to slow down.  We can push through pain, of course, but oftentimes with physical pain, it just comes back.

But what about emotional pain?  What in the world does that signal?

People love to tell me that the degree of grief that a person feels is directly related to how much love was lost.  Like it’s some sort of messed-up math equation.  I loved Shawn so much, so I’m hurting terribly.  But, what level was that love?  Did I love him more than someone who was married 5 years but less than someone who was married 20?  More than someone who lost a parent, but less than someone who lost a child?  How can you even quantify a person’s love, and thus a person’s grief?

And why would you want to?

It’s not some sort of strange contest, where the person with the most pain wins.  And if it was, I’d love to lose that contest.  I want to remember the love that I had with Shawn, but I’m sick of the idea that I have to suffer equal amounts to prove that I really loved him.

And yet, the emotional pain remains.  As much as I want to say that there is no correlation between how much I loved Shawn and how much I am grieving now, my experience proves otherwise.

I was sad about losing my mom.  It was terrible.  I grieved harder than I’d ever grieved in my life.

But losing my partner was much, much worse.  I’m not saying this would be the same scale for everyone – maybe for some people it’s harder to lose a parent.  I will just speak for myself. 

Losing my mom was like breaking my arm.

Losing Shawn was like having a heart attack. 

(As a note, I’ve never broken my arm or had a heart attack, so these physical comparisons might not be accurate in their pain scales.  But just let me have a bit of freedom as a writer on this one, okay?  I’m guessing almost dying is worse than snapping a limb.)

I’m not sure how to lessen this emotional pain.  When Shawn was dying, I remember crying with desperation to my sister-in-law, saying something like, “I wish Shawn had been a shitty husband, because then this wouldn’t hurt so badly.”

I don’t actually wish he had been a shitty husband.  But I said that a lot in the days immediately before and after his death.  The pain was so bad I just wanted it to be lessened somehow.  Even then I understood that my grief was related to how much I loved him. 

Now, the pain is always with me.  But like my friend who had surgery, it doesn’t hurt with the same intensity all the time.  Instead, out of the blue, I’ll have a moment or an hour or a day or a week when the pain spikes.

Maybe the emotional pain is warning me, just as physical pain would.  “Take it easy,” my mind might be trying to tell me.

And if that’s true, maybe the healing is similar to physical healing.  Maybe when that emotional pain spikes – the kind that makes me grip my chest – maybe that’s the time to let the grief wash over me.

Maybe that’s the time to remember why that pain is so bad.  It is bad because I loved so deeply.  Because my dear, sweet Shawn:  well, he was definitely not a shitty husband.


  • Melissa

    “People love to tell me that the degree of grief that a person feels is directly related to how much love was lost. Like it’s some sort of messed-up math equation.” Yes. This.

    My husband died about a week before our 42nd anniversary, which was on the 4th of July. My daughter didn’t want me to be alone that day so she invited me to go with her to see my granddaughter at her summer job at a chocolate shop in our historic downtown. The woman who owned the shop had lost her husband a couple of years ago. She came out and gave me a big hug. While she was hugging me, she asked me if I was okay. I was pretty numb from months of ER and hospital visits, and then ultimately hospice care, so I said “Yes, I’m okay.”

    She pulled back, looked at me with some surprise, and said “Are you sure?” At that point I felt like I had given the wrong answer to the “love quotient” question. If I didn’t break down sobbing in front of her, I had failed some kind of litmus test for how much I loved my husband. Maybe she didn’t intend it that way, but it was my first encounter with people’s expectations of how a widow should act, and it left me feeling like I was a failure at grief somehow.

    • Marjorie

      I get that. People are often asked to perform grief – and it’s just awful. But you are not a failure at grief! We are merely trying to survive.

      • Melissa

        Thank you for that, Marjorie. I find that I allow myself to be more emotional with people who actually knew him, as opposed to people like the woman in the shop who didn’t. That’s when I get choked up and the tears flow.

  • Henry

    In reference to Melissa’s last comment, your blog is so vivid that it makes me feel as if I had actually known Shawn – and it does choke some of us up.

  • David

    We recently passed the 1 year anniversary of my husband’s death, and his mother and I have both been feeling worse, but aren’t exactly sure why. We didn’t start to feel progressively worse until a week or two after the anniversary. Your final paragraphs, about emotional pain mirroring physical pain, really hit home. I think they’ll help me work this out.

    • Marjorie

      I’m glad the words help. But yes – I too found that the beginning of the second year was really terrible in it’s own way. Take care – there is some easing of the pain as the year progresses, I think.

  • Tara

    Thanks so much for your blog. I stumbled upon it today after reading your article about dating. My husband died on November 2nd in an accident, the day before my 39th birthday. We have 5 children, with our youngest being 9. Everything I’ve read so far has been spot on! Thanks so much for putting my feelings into words.

    • Marjorie

      Everything is hard in those first 6 months – I remember feeling proud of myself when I managed to look pulled together for work or remembered to buy the groceries my family needed (rather than relying on everyone around me to do things like this for me.) That stuff does get easier, even if the grief remains. I’ll be holding you in my heart now too.

  • Jen

    I cry everyday and my body now feels so heavy and achy. It’s difficult to do daily tasks, yet I continue to pull through. I’m only 2 1/2 into being in this life without my love Phil, and I’m drained from grief. I’m so scared of the thought of it getting worse before better. I feel like I’m dragging myself around. I met a widow yesterday who told me it doesn’t really hit hard until about the six month mark. I truly hope that is not the case. I can’t figure how I will keep a job and be a good parent with the intensity increasing instead of getting better. I’m dreading our anniversary (next week) and our first holiday without him.

    • Marjorie

      I hate when people try and tell you that their own personal experience is how you will experience it yourself!! That’s insane. Some people take years and years to feel any degree of relief and others feel it within weeks – it’s just so individual. My rock bottom was 4 months, but I don’t think that was due to anything other than the time of year and the stresses that I was under. It does get easier to get through the daily horror – I PROMISE. Hang in there.