Brimley family in field before losing Shawn and becoming a widow
What Not to Say

A Review of “A Widow’s Guide to Healing”

I went on Amazon the other day and put in “widow book.”  Now that I’m emerging – just a tiny bit – from the fog of the first few months, I’m trying to figure out how to make my life work.  I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on about loss and grief.  I talk to everyone and I keep going to different types of therapy.  I know there’s no magic answer, but I figure it can’t hurt to just try everything I can to help ease the pain.

Anyway, Amazon recommended this book called, “A Widow’s Guide to Healing,” and so I bought it.  I’ve spent the past few nights reading it.  There were some good parts.  I really appreciated the discussion of post-traumatic growth, for example.  But then there were the other parts.

For example, in the first chapter, which is titled “the 411 on surviving the first month,” there is a section (in bold) called: “Tasks that Should Be Done by the End of the First Month.”  First off, I can’t believe that there is even a list under this title.  If I had to list the tasks that needed to be done a month after losing a spouse I would list one thing – SURVIVE.  But I digress.  The book has nine things that need to be done within the first two weeks and six more things that need to be done in the two weeks after that.  Some make sense, but then there is this awesome one: “Prepare a list of people who need to receive acknowledgements of flowers, gifts, or condolences.  You may want to send a note or handwritten card to everyone who attended the funeral or sent flowers.”

What. The. Hell.

As if widows – especially young widows with kids – don’t have enough to do, I’m expected to send a handwritten card to everyone who came to the funeral, sent flowers or gifts, or merely told me that they were sorry?  And I need to do it within the first month after my husband dies?

It gets worse.  Still in the first chapter, the authors ask, “how long will I feel bad?”

They answer their own question.  “It will take at least two years to begin (emphasis mine) to make a recovery and begin (again, emphasis mine) to transition to the next phase of your life.  Many widows we interviewed for this book told us they were in their fourth, fifth, or even sixth year before they were starting to feel ‘normal’ again.”

Well that’s encouraging.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ll never get over the loss of Shawn.  But the idea that I won’t start to heal until 5 or 6 years from now is terrifying.  I’m not even sure why I kept reading past the first chapter, but I did.  A few chapters later, I came upon this gem:

“If someone asks you, ‘how are you?’ you may take this quite literally and start telling them about how you are really feeling, sharing your misery and loneliness.  But, nobody really wants to hear how awful your life has been since your husband died.”

Really?  They don’t?  So I should just plaster a smile on my face?  That seems healthy.

“While it may be difficult to keep your negative thoughts and feelings to yourself,” the authors write, “it’s important to ensure you’re not inappropriately pushing your grief on everyone around you as well.”

Dear Lord.  I think I’m doing just about the opposite of what this book is instructing me to do.  I’m using all my time to tell everyone about the grief that I feel, rather than smiling politely and writing those damn thank-you notes.  At first, when I read the book, I felt like it was just fluff, something to ignore and move on from.

But then, I started really thinking about it.  Why must we tell widows – or really anyone experiencing grief – that they must hide their grief?  Why must our grief be managed with thank you notes and kind smiles, rather than felt in its raw sense?

Why are we so afraid of grief?

In other places in the world, grief is not hidden.  In these places, grief is more public and it is more acceptable to share that grief with others.  But here in America, we seem to want this sanitized view of grief.  The young widow will be sad…but not too sad.  She will be able to cope with her life…but she certainly won’t start feeling better anytime soon.  She will remain in the confines of what society wants her to be…no longer sad, but not happy either.

Well I’m sorry.   I’m not going to follow this guidebook.  Obviously, my blog is probably the opposite of what this book’s authors would advise, but I hope that my writing is helping people to talk about grief and loss.  I know it’s helping me process my own pain.  And even though I’ve just read that I shouldn’t think about having any sort of normalcy for a few years, I am still going to laugh with my friends even if I cry with them as well.  I may even (shockingly!) cry when I talk to strangers.

But maybe – just maybe – all that talking and crying with everyone around me is helping me heal.  Maybe the reason that it takes some widows 5 or 6 or more years to begin their healing is because they are expected to keep it hidden, or at least perfectly curated for a public audience.  Maybe, rather than writing thank-you cards, we should encourage widows to ask for help and share their stories with tears and heartfelt remembrances of what they’ve lost.

Finally – just so I cover my bases – I truly appreciate all of you who came to Shawn’s funeral and heard my eulogy and sent flowers and contributed to my kids’ college accounts.  You may never get a handwritten note, but all of those things you did for me made me feel like the world was wrapping its arms around me and my kids.  But it wasn’t just the tangible things that were great.  I also really appreciate all of you who let me cry and laugh at seemingly inappropriate times and asked for more stories about Shawn.  I appreciate those of you walked with me through the pain, even when it wasn’t pretty.  More than anything, that’s how I’m starting to heal.


  • Ian

    That’s some half-baked sh*t, right there. I recommend you take this weighty tome and use it to start your next camp fire!

  • Christina

    I wonder if the widowers books offer the same guidance? Hiding or denying grief helps no one. Your blog subtitle is spot on. There is NO handbook for this. Keep on doing you.

    • Marjorie

      That’s a really good question! I don’t know, honestly. But yes – I am going to just try and keeping doing it my way.

  • Bryan McGrath

    Quiet, beautiful morning here on the Eastern Shore, and I decided to look in on you here after talking about you and Shawn at a function in DC earlier in the week. The conversation came round to this blog, and what a real talent for writing/storytelling that you have–one that anyone who heard your eulogy would have realized. Shawn is missed, and you and the kids remain in the hearts of his friends.

    • Marjorie

      Oh, thank you so much for sharing stories about Shawn and thank you also for reading my blog. I love those quiet mornings – as did Shawn.

  • Michelle O'Hara Levin

    I totally agree. You know I think we need to move towards what I call “noisy grief.” In other cultures, people wail and scream and secrecy and howl at funerals and after. Here we try to sob silently or, better yet, aim for some long-ingrained stiff upper lip. To me, the silence doesn’t serve. It makes for lonely grief, shameful grief. Grief is loud and messy. Grief is sloppy, slippery and sneaky. Just like all our other emotions like love, anger, frustration and joy, we need the social space to shout it from the mountain tops, to wail and hail it, to see and hear it. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but you’ve hit on a nerve for me that I hope resonates with lots of people. Love you, xo

    • Marjorie

      I know we talked about this a lot way before Shawn was even sick – but yes, I love your perspective. And as you know, I feel like I can definitely “grieve out loud” with you, my dear friend. xo

  • Cynthia

    Gotta love how to books on something so personal as grief. In my experience (8 months) it ebbs and flows. Some days I want to talk about it, other days I just answer “fine.”

    • Marjorie

      That should be the title of a book on grief – “ebbs and flows” – because it’s way more accurate than anything I read in this book! Thanks so much for reading my blog and sharing a bit of your feelings as well.

  • Jennifer Munson

    Well ffs. I’m so glad you posted this or I might’ve gone and bought this book in my next bibliotherapy binge. I can’t handle how our culture deals with grief. As if we need an Emily Post to shame us about thank-you cards or how to respond to “how are you?”. I’m sad this was written, sadder that it was published, and saddest that we all are so desperate to find guidance in this nightmare that we can’t avoid shit like this. Grateful for you, for writing the much-needed counter-narrative. Could you review Option B next, lol? (p.s. I hope you post this as an Amazon review!)

    • Marjorie

      Oh yes….definitely avoid this book. Unless you need something to bring to your next “widow gathering” to lambaste! I actually have also read Option B and yes, I think I’ll need to review it. I liked it more than this book (which wasn’t hard!) but I think it’s just WAY too positive for me. So, maybe that’s next. And I didn’t even think of posting this as an Amazon review, but that’s actually a great idea! Thanks for reading and sharing.

  • Katy Allen

    Was this book written in 1955? WTF? I am grateful this is not your ‘guide’ to managing grief. What shit!

  • Lisa

    Here’s the thing: you are doing this as perfectly as you can. Maybe YOU write the book on how grief looks when you so tragically lose the love of your life. Screw the other author. You’ve got this and I know you know that.

  • Nicole Starr

    I think you should write your own book. You have an incredible voice and a more real perspective on life that people can relate to. I’ve learned so much from you already.

  • Jim Clark

    Hey Marjorie… unfortunately in my job I’ve run into a lot of life situations that people are going through. Whether it’s a bankruptcy, a business failure, a loss of a parent, child or spouse, or any other significant life shift. I have decided that there is a five year process to the recovery. Now this works on a bell curve so some people get through it quicker and some get through it slower. But what I’ve seen is that the first two years suck. You are going through holidays, birthdays, and everyday things for the first or second time and it is natural for it to suck because wisdom only comes from experience. Each time you go through it will get “easier” only because you know what to expect. By the third year you can start to see the path forward much easier (even though you don’t like the path without Shawn). Somewhere in the third to fourth year things actually start to become easier because you will start to truely remember all of the great things about Shawn and it won’t be a sad remembrance. This is where I always tell people that you need to be careful. If you are getting through these two years and the sadness or grief is just as strong as it was before, you need to reach out for help. I’ve seen people who have not reached out and they have a tendency for their new normal to be in that sadness and grief stricken state. Shawn would definitely not want this for you, as you are too beautiful a person for that.

    The reason I always talk to people about this timeline is to make sure they don’t think you should be fine after 6 months or that they are somehow doing it wrong because their not happier at that point. You are wonderful and the first two years will suck, but it is perfectly normal for them to suck. And sometimes knowing that can be helpful.

    I love you, Jim

    • Marjorie

      Oh, Jim, I love you too. Thanks for this, my dear, dear cousin. As I write this, I’m listening to your voice singing Amazing Grace – my kids still request to listen to it every night. Love you.

  • Melissa

    I looked at this book on Amazon after my husband died and almost fell out of my chair. I was offended. The thank you note thing in particular is just absurd. I didn’t buy the book. Then I received in the mail, completely unsolicited, a “lovely bound volume” of Christian platitudes about grieving that had been sent to me courtesy of several local businesses who were named prominently on the first page along with their addresses. And to top it off, they included a bunch of unstamped, unaddressed postcards with the recommendation that I write thank you notes to all these businesses who sent me this thoughtful gift! The whole deal went straight to the trash.

    The one thing that I have found helpful was a slim booklet from hospice that one of their social workers suggested to me in a follow-up phone conversation after my husband died. There is no one way or one size fits all approach to grieving. It is not a linear process that goes through a set progression. Some days it’s two steps forward and ten back. And telling widows to suck it up and put on a brave face is just wrong on so many levels. I’m glad you didn’t follow that “widow’s guide” advice. I admire your candor in sharing your story. All the best to you.

    • Marjorie

      I know – I can’t believe this book is the first one that pulls up when you put in “widow book” on Amazon. I need to write a book that has “widow book” in the title just so this book can stop getting the #1 slot! 🙂

  • Diane

    Holy Cow! This book can’t have been written by a widow, can it? After my husband died, I thought getting out of bed every day and doing what I had to was the achievement. I couldn’t have done anything but look after my daughter and untie an ugly financial situation that my husband had left because his death was so sudden. I wish I had an alternative for you, but I do like

    • Marjorie

      Yes – I like that website too. I also like – a great resource. But my goodness, this book was THE WORST. I still can’t believe I thought it could help me!

  • Jen

    That book of what to do the first month is just beyond ridiculous. And thank you cards, handwritten. No way. I could barely remember my name the first month let alone sign it.

  • Jen

    Thank you Marjorie for posting this review and your reactions to the suggestions. I am two months into my husband’s unexpected death and I thought to myself that when I am finally up to it I would have to write a poor review and here it is posted by you. It did nothing more but give me something to read. I have to say that as a young woman raising kids, it only added to my feelings of hopelessness. Emphasizing stories of pretty never feeling better and making me feel like damn, it’s true no one wants to hear me anymore. As I need a reminder that at the moment when I need others the most many have moved on. For me it’s just beginning to sink in. It is like falling and having someone stand over you to say “oh damn, that was a bad fall”. I know, I fell. We need hope, not the you’re going to feel like crap and no one will give a shit speech. I guess it was different for her not having kids to raise. I have three and I laughed and felt like you knew me when I read this post. We have to try to figure out how to put on a brave face for our kids, not the world, but also balance that with showing them that we miss dad and that it’s okay to greive. I am with you on the do it your way thing. When you dish it out and the person doesn’t want to hear it and avoids you, they were never in your corner. It is a good way to see who is and isn’t there. Let it all out! We have every right to seem a little insane and maybe even forget a few thank you cards when it’s this hard to get out of bed in the morning and sleep in our empty beds. The book was written in the context of all the ways that people who are not the windows or children left behind can make it about themselves. Those thoughts should not be our biggest thoughts. The best people are those who check in and actually mean it when they say “I am here for you”. Thank you for being direct and real about it.

    • Marjorie

      Oh, gosh, I’m so glad you got something out of my blog post which was mostly just a rant on this book! I’ve thought recently that I should do a list of great grief books to read, because there are some good ones out there. But yes, even now, a year and a half later, I stand by my comments – the book wasn’t helpful then when I was new to grief and it still isn’t helpful now! Take care. Those early days are so, so hard. It does get easier.

  • Kathy

    I am so happy I never found this book. 4 Months into this new husbandless/fatherless existence. I might have torched this book on the spot. I appreciate your perspective it helps normalize the unimaginable life that is now. Thank you.

    • Marjorie

      Oh, I RAGED when I read this book. There are so many bad grief books, but this one was the worst. Hang in there – four months out was my lowest point. It did get easier for me after that.