Family of DC widow blog writer in front yard before husband's death

Excerpt from Marjorie’s Speech, “Remembering Those We Love”

On December 1st, 2017 my husband Shawn was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer.  He never left the hospital for more than a short stint at home.  Less than six weeks later, on January 9th, 2018 he died in my arms.

So to say that the holidays are fraught for me….well, that’s an understatement if I’ve ever heard one.

What are you supposed to do when you’re faced with a cancer diagnosis but can see the twinkling Christmas lights from your hospital room? What are you supposed to do when you are watching all the kids walk down the street dressed up for Halloween, and your own child is gone from this world? What are you supposed to do when you face the holidays without someone who carved the turkey or made the best cranberry sauce or said the blessing.

What do you do when you’re faced with the impossible at the holidays?

My friend Kumar asked me to come here today to talk about my life, and how I’ve managed to make it through the holidays over the past two years.  I’ve written a lot about it on my blog and even for a few newspapers. But I don’t really have any answers. I just have my own story.

While I have a few ideas about how to approach the holidays in a practical sense, I guess what’s so hard to come to terms with is how I’m going to continue to move through this holiday season – and every future holiday season – while still making meaning of my life and honoring Shawn. How can I embrace my husband, and the loss of him, while not fully rejecting the joy that’s part of this time every year?

I actually listened to a sermon the other day at my church, and it got me to think more about this time period, which is, of course, called “advent” for Christians. (As a note, advent is the period beginning four Sundays before Christmas and is a season observed in many Christian churches as a time of “expectant waiting.”) That night, I came home and opened the New York Times, and read an article by Tish Warren about the advent season and embracing the darkness during it. I started searching online about advent and as I read more and more, I got a bit of a lesson in how I might best be able to best move through this time period each year.

Now, before I start down this path, I need to note that I am no religious scholar and not a very good Christian either. So what I’m going to say next is about Christianity and advent, but really, I mean it to be non-religious. I just think that understanding the Christian meaning of this time period can shed some light about how to think about this season – especially as mourners.

In Christianity, the advent season is a time of waiting, yes, but it is also a time of longing, darkness and even of mourning. It’s a season of duality and uneasy contradictions, a time when we are actually supposed to reflect on the chaos and struggle that is part of this world. As Americans, we want to decorate the season, of course, make it beautiful and bright and about Santa and cookies and presents. But, really, this time is one that’s known in the Christian church as a time to reflect on our collective humanity…and not all of it is pretty.

Yes, advent culminates in the birth of Christ – one of the most joyful events on the Christian calendar. But isn’t joy even more profound, more real, more true, if we have to wait in the darkness ahead of time? During this period, Christians are supposed to search for justice in an unjust world and hope in a time of despair.  But if we take it a bit father, can’t we apply this to our own lives as well? To the parts of our lives that make us feel sad or even despondent?  Is it really best to run away from it all?

Maybe when we dismiss the pain that’s around us, we also partially dismiss the joy that is out there in the world.

When Shawn was alive, we loved so many things about the holiday season, but there is one thing that stands out now: the way he decorated our house. He bought a number of inflatable objects and a zillion lights and little light-up reindeer and floodlights to make it all show up for anyone who might otherwise be missing it. I mean, he used to string so many lights all over our house that it looked like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in our front yard. I mercilessly mocked him for it. Now I miss it, of course.

And sometimes, when I’m getting into the car in December, and the kids are running around the yard and I remember what it was like when there were ten times more lights in our yard and I feel a pang of grief in that moment – sometimes I want to ignore that memory and just keep moving.

But here’s the thing. If I try and smooth over the pain I feel when I miss Shawn in those tiny moments, if I just keep moving without letting my breath catch a little and maybe even cry for a bit….well, then, the joy I do feel – that joy of, say, Christmas morning with young kids, when Tommy runs around with such excitement because he’s five and just can’t handle it all – then that joy isn’t quite as bright.

If I don’t let myself feel sad in the moments before Christmas morning, the joy of Christmas morning will be diminished for me. In other words, if I really want to see the joy in my life, I have to embrace the pain too.

I think that advent – and really all of the holiday season, no matter what you believe, is about joy. But it’s also about embracing pain, feeling grief because we miss those we’ve lost, and waiting a bit in the darkness.

*This speech is excerpted from a longer talk Marjorie gave at an event titled: “Lights of Love: Remembering Those We Love” put on by the Washington Home on December 11, 2018.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.


  • Ian

    Beautiful stuff. Thanks for thinking this through and expressing your thoughts so eloquently. As usual, you’ve helped my thinking along during a time I needed it – so thanks.

    All the best to you and the kids as the countdown continues!


  • Wendy

    I too lost my husband to stage 4 colon cancer on Jan. 14 2019.. My husband Larry was diagnosed on Dec. 16 2016. He had no symptoms what so ever, It was a complete shock to us. He fought so hard with chemo and surgeries, always telling us, it’s all going to work out, I’m going to beat this.
    It wasn’t meant to be. On the early morning of the 14th he held mine and our 2 kid’s hands, looked into our eyes and told us.. I love you.. he then took his last breath and he was gone, forever. I thought I was prepared. I have cried everyday since he was diagnosed. There have been a lot of firsts for us this year, but his recent birthday and now Christmas have and will be the hardest. When I read your blogs Marjorie a flood of emotions overcome me.. it brings back a lot of memories of our family and what we went through those 2 years. I hope one day I will be able to move on with my life as you have. God Bless you and your family.

    • Marjorie

      Wendy, I’m so sorry. I wish there was something I could say to make it easier, but I know there really isn’t. I will say this – the second year was easier for me. I kept reading how it would be HARDER, and that felt impossible. But for me, it was easier. Not EASY still, but you know, easier.

  • Carmelita

    I had a friend visit me recently. Her husband died suddenly, from cancer. He had been extremely healthy his whole life. Anyway as my friend shared her grief and upset, I realized at one point that I just wanted to sob and sob with her. I mean she wasn’t sobbing, she was talking. But I wanted to and I surprised at this feeling. And I was afraid she might look at me if I were to begin sobbing and think good God is this what it’s like after six years? Which is how long it’s been for me. Later on I realized I don’t always feel that sad. Sometimes I feel fine and my life is moving along and I still love and feel my husband daily. But in retrospect, I lost something by not sharing that with her. At least I could’ve told her how I was feeling. And how I wanted to cry. Anyway the point of this is yes when we don’t acknowledge the very real sadness or whatever the emotion is we lose something in that moment..I won’t do that again. Or at least I’ll try not to.

    • Marjorie

      I love this. I mean, we can’t be perfect – there are so many times that I wish I’d said something different to a grieving friend too. We just do the best we can and keep trying to make this world just a little bit easier for each other.