Family of DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley Hale at her wedding

Other People’s Joy


It’s the word I see everywhere this time of year, a sentiment (“joy!”) that I loved so much before widowhood and yet it was the one word that drove me completely crazy after Shawn died. Why was everyone insisting that I feel joy, just because the calendar was turned to the December page?

It was maddening. And yet, I also wanted to feel that joy. I wanted it…and I couldn’t find it. What did that mean?

The first year of widowhood, I went through at least a hundred holiday cards, looking for one that didn’t say, “The Merriest Time of Year!” or some similar sentiment. As I wrote in the post, “Joy!,” I had a hard time finding a card I liked:

Was it going to be impossible to find a holiday card that didn’t have the words happy, merry, bright or joyful plastered on the front? Or at least one without an exclamation point? The first hundred cards I looked at were exactly like this. I complained about it to my dad, who was sitting in the next room.

“Why don’t you just make your own?” he suggested.

“What would it say?” I asked.

“How about ‘it’s the holidays,’” he said. “That way it’s not like it’s always happy.”

I laughed – what would people think of getting a card that stated the obvious? But the larger question remained. Was it okay to give out a holiday card that wasn’t happy?

Because I don’t really feel happy. I feel moments of joy – times when my kids sing Christmas music in the car, for example – but happiness is much more elusive.

Joy came into my life slowly. Yes, I had moments that first year. But it wasn’t until the summer of 2019 when I started to feel real, sustained happiness throughout many of my days. Maybe it was going on a big trip with my kids, or figuring out I could be okay without a partner, or maybe it was just that I woke up one day and allowed myself to feel happy. I don’t know. I simply know that when the next year came to make holiday cards, it felt easier to do.

The interesting thing was, once I could feel joy in my own life, I could finally feel delight when someone else was happy. That first year, I loved getting holiday cards because it made me feel loved, but all the smiling families made me feel…..well, not joyful. It just made me feel jealous. But the second year, I actually felt excited getting those same cards.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few weeks. What does it mean that I can now feel other people’s joy?

As we sat down to Thanksgiving dinner this year, I got a slip of paper from my nephew. We had each been given a name of someone else at the table, and I got Chris’s mom, Joanie. I was supposed to say why I was thankful for her, which somehow seemed hard. I mean, there’s so much I could say, so many ways I was thankful to have her in my life and in the kids’ lives. I took a minute to think about what I wanted to say, and I realized that so many of the moments I’ve loved about her was when she was excited for me.

I get that it’s odd. I mean, shouldn’t I be thankful that she makes a great apple pie and loves on my kids and is super welcoming to me? Yes! But instead, I said something like this:

We’ve been really lucky this year that so many people have loved us as we’ve fallen in love and gotten married. It’s amazing, actually, how much support we’ve gotten. It’s often easy to be excited for your own joy – that’s a normal thing. But something that is harder, I think, is to be excited about someone else’s joy. That’s a special thing. And there’s no one who’s been more excited for my joy this year than Nana.

After I said it, everyone cheered and Joanie smiled and clasped my hand and then we moved on to the next person. But I kept thinking about what I’d said – not because it was profound, but because I realized that it takes a certain kind of mindset to truly feel other people’s joy.

It’s something I can do now. It’s a skill that disappeared for a while when Shawn died, but reappeared at some point. Maybe it was the day when I realized I was smiling just because one of my kids was overjoyed with something in the world, or maybe it was because I saw a glint in a student’s eyes. I don’t know what day it was, not really. I just know that I’m glad I can feel the joy of others, once again.

Maybe this is why when it came to making holiday cards, I kept searching for cards with “joy” on the front. But try as I might, I couldn’t find one that really fit. “All the joy!” seemed cheesy, “Joy to the world!” was too religious, and “Jingle joy!” just seemed stupid. I knew some people on my holiday card list were grieving, and I didn’t want to do the forced-happiness-and-joy thing.

So, yet again, we made our own card. On the front, we put a photo from our wedding. It wasn’t one of the posed ones. It was one from just a minute after the ceremony, when the kids came up to us and we all met in a big hug – just the five of us, embracing each other. Below it, we wrote a single line. It was inspired by something I’d seen online, something I thought fit my sentiments this time of year and something I thought fit our family:

May joy always find you.

Image Credit: Sharyn Peavey.


  • Leigh Ann Peltier

    Love your picture. It exudes joy. I’m new enough into my widowhood journey to choose not to send cards. I’ve put a string of lights on the mantle. That is all. I know it will get better but my husband loved everything about Christmas, while I’ve always been lukewarm about it. He brought it out in me and did bring more joy into my holiday seasons. But I need a little more time.

    • M Brimley

      I get that. And I say take all the time you want to…and it may be that you never send cards again. Either way, it’s okay. I promise. I get how it could be really hard to embrace the season if your husband was the one who loved Christmas so much.

  • Babette

    I am sobbing as I read this during my first Christams season without my husband. I love the photo and now will make my own card. Thanks for the inspiration!