Austin Brimley looking at Shawn Brimley's grave outside DC

Shawn’s Birthday

My kids always seem to have a knack of knowing when important dates are coming up.  They are too young to use calendars, so they don’t usually recognize when something is about to happen.  But somehow, in the past six months, they’ve known when a big event is on the horizon.  Maybe that’s because I become anxious, and they can feel it in the air.

Father’s Day was like this.  The kids didn’t know exactly when it was, but they seemed to be just a little more on edge in the days leading up to it.  And so, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when they were totally wild last night.

Because as many of you know, today would be Shawn’s 41st birthday.

I actually told them last night that we’d be having a few friends over to celebrate Dad’s birthday.  They seemed generally excited, and Claire said, “great!  Finally, a party.  We never have parties anymore.”

She’s not totally wrong.  Compared to our “party every weekend” mindset we had for much of our marriage, the past six months has been pretty devoid of gatherings.  I’m not quite sure why.  I love having people in the house, even when I’m sad, and it’s certainly fun for my kids.  But it’s just that the entire process of having a party seems too overwhelming when I think about it, and so I just don’t do it.

In any case, Claire was super happy that she’d at least get to see a couple of her old friends.  The boys seemed delighted as well, and I thought that maybe celebrating their Dad would turn out to be a great plan.

But then everything went downhill.

It started with a fight over the covers at bedtime.  Austin and Tommy have bunk beds, but they both sleep in the same twin bed on the bottom bunk.  They’ve done this for a few years, and Tommy has a really hard time sleeping when Austin isn’t there.  Tonight, Austin was trying to steal all of the covers, and Tommy wasn’t having it.  I tried reasoning with Austin, which didn’t work, and I tried demanding that he share the covers, which also didn’t work.  I started to really lay into Austin about being nice to his brother and so he threw the covers off of himself and climbed on to the top bunk.  Tommy started to cry and then Claire started to whine that everyone was making it impossible for me to read to her.

I eventually got the boys settled and I went to Claire’s room to read to her, which went fine for about five minutes until Tommy came in crying.  “Austin says that Bloody Mary is in my bed!” he shrieked.  (Bloody Mary is a game from my childhood.  Many years ago I stupidly taught the kids about it and now they are terrified by this potential ghost.)  I tried to console Tommy, but just then Claire started whining about not wanting to go to camp the next day.

I moved everyone into the boys’ room where I tried to read to Claire while also sitting with both boys, who had decided to sleep in the same bed once again.  The entire time, Austin kept pushing me, ever so slightly, with his foot.  “Stop,” I said to him, repeatedly.

Claire was frustrated.  “Why can’t the boys let you read to me?” she whined.  “And why do we have to go to camp tomorrow?”

“Ya,” Austin chimed in, “I don’t want to go to camp.”

Austin kept pushing me with his toes.  “What is the deal?” I finally asked him, with more than a little anger in my voice.

He shrunk back down into the covers.  He knew he’d pushed me a little too far.  “I just want to go to the cemetery with you tomorrow,” he said in a small voice.

Shit.  I hadn’t even thought about whether I was going to do that.  “Okay baby,” I said.  “Let’s just see what I feel like tomorrow.  Maybe we can do that, or maybe we’ll do it another day.”

No one wanted me to leave them.  So I snuggled in with the boys’ legs on top of me and Claire in the crook of my arm and read a book about a family of witches who owns a bakery.

As I was reading to them, I had a moment where I recognized my own anxiety that had been particularly bad all day.  That morning, I had woken up with a start, not sure why I was feeling so out-of-sorts.  It took almost an hour before I realized that it was the day before Shawn’s birthday.  I didn’t really know what to do with how I was feeling, so I just kept moving.  I was still reeling from being really sick, but I didn’t let myself sit down all day – or at least not until the moment when I was reading to the kids.

It’s really strange to feel anxiety when I’m cuddled up in bed with all three kids.  I never felt anxious at bedtime before Shawn died.  Annoyed or tired, certainly, but not anxious.  If I was a therapist, I’d probably recommend cuddling up with kids to make anxiety diminish.  But for some reason, it didn’t help last night.  I think it was because I could feel their anxiety too, or at least I could feel the unsettled feeling that they were clearly experiencing.

We fell asleep curled up together on that one single bed.  I eventually moved everyone to a good sleeping spot, and I fell asleep in my own bed.

I dreamed of Shawn.  That doesn’t actually happen much.  I dreamed that he was alive, and that actually in the past six months, he had been hidden by some strange villain, his death faked and our family tricked at the hospital and funeral home.

But then I woke up alone, and the reality hit me.

In fact, the reality actually physically hit me in the form of Tommy shaking me awake in my bed.  “I want oatmeal!” he cried.

My kids have a way of both horrifying me and making me carry on with my life.  It’s like in one instant they can be the worst reminder of what I’ve lost and the best reminder of why I carry on.

They were oddly quiet in the morning.  I told them that I was planning on going out to the cemetery while they were in camp, and Austin immediately decided he wanted to go too.  He loves the cemetery.  “I want to go too,” I heard Claire say softly across the room.

Claire hasn’t been to the cemetery since the day Shawn was buried there.

“Really?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said, “but….I’m scared too.”

“I get that,” I said, “and you know you don’t have to go.”

“I know,” she said, “but….I think I want to go.”

We talked for a bit longer about what it would be like to go to the cemetery.  I told her that Dad’s grave isn’t open anymore, that there is dirt over the grave and grass growing there.  I told her what the gravestone looks like and how the whole place looks more like a park.  She listened very closely.

“The last time we went,” Claire said, “it was so terrible.  You were breathing so fast and looking at the grave.”  She imitated what it was like to watch me almost hyperventilate when the casket was lowered into the ground.  “It was scary, mom.”

God.  I hadn’t really remembered that.  I remember feeling like I was going to pass out, and barely being able to hold on to my children.  I remember watching the casket lower into the ground.  But I don’t remember breathing like that, and I don’t remember it scaring my children, though it obviously did.

“That was a really sad moment for me, Claire,” I told her.  “But I’m not like that anymore when I go to the cemetery.  I feel peaceful instead.”

“Okay,” she said, looking me right in the eyes, “then I want to go.”

And so, at lunch today, I’m picking Claire and Austin up from camp and we are going to drive out to the cemetery.  I have no idea how it’s going to go.  I told Claire that if she gets there and doesn’t want to get out of the car, she doesn’t have to.

Maybe we should have waited for a different day to go to the cemetery.  But maybe not.  As with everything I’m doing these days, I don’t know what the right answer is.

I do know that we’re getting in the car in just a few minutes, and going to a place where the air is still and the geese run wild and my husband’s name is etched on a stone in the ground.  I hope we are also going to a place that will finally bring my daughter some peace.


  • Sheryll Brimley

    and I am thinking that there really isn’t a right or wrong answer these days. The beginning of your message today actually made me smile a bit…I can just picture all the chaos!!
    So glad you are having friends over to celebrate my son’s birthday. That is exactly what he would want. Even as a toddler & young boy, Shawn loved his birthday parties…& loot bags. Love to all.

  • Jenny

    My husbands birthday was the 20th he would have been 37. I didn’t want the day to come. It was a pretty uneventful day despite being at the beach. After dinner someone set off fireworks at the pier. The kids thought it was just for Daddy. It was the only time that day I cried, because I was so numb. All these firsts are exhausting.

  • Judy Tavares

    My mother’s birthday was on the 15th. It’s been 25 years and the day unfolds the same way each year. Just like you described. Waking up and being out of sorts, not really knowing why, but then realizing it is because you will have to face another big life moment without them. Thank you for putting into words what we all feel after losing a loved one. You are doing great.


    • Marjorie

      Oh, thank you so much for saying this. I always wonder how people relate to my blog who haven’t lost a spouse or weren’t super close to Shawn, but your comment helps me understand. Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Joy

    I love how transparent you are with the kids. You let them see you and your grief and I think that’s such a gift. They seem to return the honesty and share what they need–Claire, explaining her thoughts about the cemetery and that she wants to go today. You’re a great mom.

    • Marjorie

      Thanks my friend. I always read the blog posts to my kids when they involve them, and for these ones, Claire said, “yes, that’s what happened. You can write it.” I appreciate that she wants to be honest too, and that she understands the importance of sharing vulnerability.

  • Nancy

    Hanging in there and, at the same time, being clued into your children is a feat that is enormous. Emotionally, there is nothing that can make this first year easier for you. You just have to get through it and you are doing a remarkable job, Marjorie. Next year will start to be a little better. Just keep getting up each day and make it through the best you can.

    • Marjorie

      Thanks Nancy. I think you are right – there’s really nothing that makes it easier. Just one day at a time. Can’t wait to see you. xo

  • Henry

    Your comment about your kids being the worst reminder of what you’ve lost and the best reminder of why you carry on was so profound! You worry about them and have to deal with their grief, and they can drive you crazy, but you are so lucky to have them there. For me, my wife’s first birthday after her death was a very lonely day. Kids don’t banish that kind of loneliness, but they help in various other ways. Going to the cemetery as a family on that day was a rite of its own. You may feel that you’re always groping blindly for the “right answer,” but I think in this case you found it.

    • Marjorie

      Yes, I think you are so right, Henry. I feel lonely without Shawn, but not in the same way that I might without the kids. There’s still someone hugging me all the time. It can be overwhelming to parent alone, but I am so thankful for my 3 kids. Thanks for writing this.

  • Cathleen Decker

    Every time I see a post of yours, I am stunned again by the strength and grace you’ve held onto in such awful circumstances. I’m sure–based on your writing–that you don’t feel that way all the time, but from a distance it is as clear as can be. Your kids are navigating this by the light you are aiming toward the future. Their resilience in life is a stunning gift from their mom. Blessings on all.

    • Marjorie

      Thank you so much for these kind words. I love what you wrote here – “Your kids are navigating this by the light you are aiming toward the future.” I’m going to keep that thought with me going forward.

  • Sari

    My husband recently died (7 weeks ago) from a 4.5 year battle with cancer. I am 35 with a 3 year old girl and 10 week old boy. Just looking around to find some comfort and I came across your blog. If so weird I had that same exact dream! I love your posts and often have the same thoughts you write about. It has brought me a lot of comfort these past few weeks! I also live outside if DC and know the scene well so extra comfort there as well! Thank you for sharing your stories and providing comfort along the way during such a shitty time. Xoxo

    • M Brimley

      I’m so sorry to hear about the death of your husband. It can seem so impossible to see the future in the early days, but I promise – things will get easier. Hang in there. I’m thinking of you.