Arial view of 4 doctors like those treating husband of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley
What Not to Say


There were so many questions after Shawn died. So many.

Was there a family history of cancer?

Did he exercise?

What were the warning signs?

Why didn’t you demand a colonoscopy earlier?

Did he have a regular doctor?

Did he smoke?

Did the medical team try immunotherapy?

Did he eat a special diet?

Did he drink a lot?

Did he have symptoms earlier in the year?

Was he healthy otherwise?

Those were just some of the things people asked me. Of course there were questions. Shawn was an incredibly vibrant 40-year-old. How could this happen, they wondered?

But the big question was lurking under all of these questions, one that no one would say, but everyone was thinking:

There was something that made Shawn different from the rest of us, right?

I’m not saying that people who asked these questions didn’t genuinely care about Shawn. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be curious about how cancer can kill a healthy man so quickly. I’m not saying that it’s normal that a man with no family history of cancer should die 6 weeks after his diagnosis.

What I am saying is this: underneath all of these questions is fear.

It’s okay, I have that fear too.

The fear is that if cancer can steal away someone like Shawn, it could take any of us at any time. We are all only temporarily part of this world. Our lives could end today, tomorrow, or in 50 years.

That’s a daunting thought, and one no one my age wants to think about. So we ask questions like those that I got about Shawn. We look for loopholes. “Well,” we reason, “Shawn ate too many processed foods, and I never eat processed foods, so I won’t die like him.”

It’s normal to think like this. Hell, I think like this! But here’s the deal. Sometimes, death comes for us. Sometimes there is no reason, no explanation. And even if there is, even if someone went skydiving and didn’t wear proper safety gear or decided to try and tame a wild animal with no training – even then, it’s senseless and tragic. Even then, these questions about how a loved one has died doesn’t bring them back.

And those questions don’t protect the living either. We want to know why because then we can be safe. We want the answers to these questions to give us solace.

Wear a helmet. Buckle your seat belt. Get a colonoscopy when you turn 45. Get that cough checked out. Teach your kids to swim.

But please don’t ask me if my husband had a good diet. His love affair with Pop Tarts in seventh grade wasn’t the reason he died.

He died because sometimes life is unexplainable. Sometimes, life is unfair and no matter how much we want to, we just can’t plan for everything.


  • Kate

    I pondered this question myself a thousand times, but sometimes life just happens. It sucks and it is horrible for those left behind. But there really isn’t any guarantee in life. You can be here today and gone tomorrow. Tomorrow is never promised. My husband died in a really freak and weird accident and there is no rhyme or reason behind it. Stuff happens and it hurts like hell, but there really wasn’t anything that anyone could have done to prevent it. I agree with you though that it does scare people because it shows how vulnerable we all truly are.

    • Marjorie

      Yes – truth. It shows our vulnerability when someone dies young and tragically. I mean, I’m only 40, as are most of my friends, and we’re supposed to be right at the START of the good life.

  • Martin

    6 weeks? That is so so sad. It brings tears to my eyes. I wish it could have been different. Things that suck is such an understatement.

    • Marjorie

      Thank you. We had no real time to plan because it was so brief. But Shawn still made sure to help me with what would come after his death and he made some beautiful videos for the kids. I just wish we had even a few more days.

  • Diane

    Truth Marjorie!

    My husband died suddenly of a heart attack at 55 which was ‘because he was obese.’ Ok, makes sense. However my father lived nine days longer at 79 and had been obese for over 40 years. Sometimes the answer to ‘why’ is in God’s hands alone.

    • Marjorie

      This is why I said, “even when there’s a reason, it’s senseless” – because it is! Why do some people die early of lung cancer after never smoking, and others smoke their entire lives with no poor health outcomes? I’m so sorry for your loss.

  • P

    My wife died of a brain hemorrhage 4years ago when I was 38 and our son was 5. She was at the hospital two weeks before but they messed up, didn’t do the right tests and misdiagnosed her with a neck strain. She collapsed just after I’d put my son to bed (thank goodness he was asleep) and died two days later never regaining consciousness. I fought the hospital for 18 months after that to prove their mistakes and won.

    I’m now engaged to a wonderful woman. I tried online dating and met her on my second ever date. I feel damaged by the trauma of what happened and the stress of the events after it. I’m also discovering that my wife wasn’t actually a very nice person something which is hard to deal with only seeing things from new perspective. But my fiancee is endlessly patient with me and doing her utmost to be a mother figure to my/our son. So the future is bright.

    Best wishes to you.

    • Marjorie

      This is all so difficult to read – so heart wrenching. Sometimes, there just isn’t anything good to say, because it’s terrible. I am so happy that you were able to find happiness with someone new, but yes, the trauma does remain. Thanks for sharing.

  • Beatrice

    My husband was killed at age 33 by a drunk driver. He had just gotten a,promotion, and we were going to start baby number 2. It was so sudden that I went into survival mode to cope. 12 years later, I have not found a special other person. I have spent the last decade raising our daughter with no family in this,country to help at all. I am financially stsble but feel exhausted. Now, that Ellyse is 14, I might have the flexibility to start dating. I had to resort to medication to get out of depression and after getting the PTSD diagnosed I started to get better, slowly. It took 5 years for me to accept that situation that was thrown so violently and irrremediably onto our family. Bonne chance at bon courage !!! Beatrice

    • Marjorie

      It can take so much time to figure out how to move forward. Sometimes, it can feel impossible. I think timelines (like how long you should wait until you start dating, or how long is too long) are totally useless. You just do things when you can. Best of luck to you. Thanks so much for reading. Sending hugs.

  • ABP

    Another Friday night and your blog is my date. i like to go back to previous iterations and read. M, Thank you for sharing. It seems no matter which one i go to it brings fresh revelation. Well tonight more Chris Botti. Tonight i am starting with his Impressions album. Today was destruction of, or the start of destruction of, eight years of Statement of Benefits from Tricare on the billings and copays etc. for her cancer saga. So thankful that we had healthcare benefits…I would not have any means left if it were up to us to pay the monetary costs…at least the ones annotated on the statements. Apart from the monetary, the costs of cancer are much greater. You know that and are dealing with them along all of us who read your blog. It’s only been since last Nov since she passed. i still have not been able to experience anything more than just one day at a time. There is no continuity or pattern…just a bunch of separate days to get through. Life is pulling me onward….before she was sick, i lived life like it was the other way around…us pushing or living the life we wanted. This is not well expressed…Will keep thinking through it. Is it now a lack of purpose? Perhaps. I want to renew that sense of purpose. Perhaps, it takes time. In the meantime, will count my blessings and be there for those in my circle…purpose enough…

    • Marjorie

      It’s beautiful. And perfectly expressed. The first year of grief for me felt very disjointed – like I was having a hard time figuring out anything, including who I was. I’m glad there’s some solace in this blog for you. Hang in there.