Shawn Brimley's widow Marjorie accepts plaque with her children at DC think tank
New Perspectives

Shawn’s Wife

Last week, I went downtown and spoke at an event in Shawn’s honor. It was a beautiful and deeply important night, and I was so glad that my entire family could be there. Over a hundred other people showed up as well. Those in attendance talked to me about Shawn’s life, our children and how much he had meant to each of them.

It was perfect, but it was also difficult. It was difficult because I was reminded yet again that he’s no longer in this world. But when I reflected on it a few days later, I realized it was difficult for another reason as well: I am no longer of that world.

The world I speak of is the downtown world of US national security. I still have friends connected to that world, sure, but I’m not going to catered parties and black-tie balls. I’m not meeting interesting dignitaries and being escorted into events by uniformed men. I’m not doing any of this because I’m not Shawn’s wife anymore.

In the overall picture of my life, it’s obviously not what I miss the most about Shawn. It’s an extra thing that was an interesting and fun part of my life before. But when I reflected a bit more about my life, I realized that it was emblematic of what I’ve been starting to grapple with lately. I am not who I once was.

I am not Shawn’s wife anymore.

Four years before Shawn died, I was pregnant with Tommy and we decided that I’d go to part time. Since then, I worked 3 days a week and did a majority of the childcare. I prepped our house for parties and went to Costco. I always attended the elementary school events and I organized the backpacks. When Shawn got home, I loved listening to his stories about work and sharing mine from the day.

I also went to his parties – and God, I loved his parties. Because I don’t know much about national security, I spent those parties telling funny stories or asking people about their kids or chatting up the bartenders. I sampled all the food. I held his hand as he introduced me to everyone. I didn’t feel diminished in this role. I loved it. I relished my role as Shawn’s wife, and it almost never annoyed me that people didn’t ask much about my job or the things I did at home. I was important because I was Shawn’s wife.

So what am I now? I’m Shawn’s widow, certainly, but I’m not his wife.

This shift in identity has been a powerful one for me, and one that I’m only just beginning to explore. What does it mean to be seen only for who I am, and not for whose hand I hold? And if I’ve been part of a duo for so long, how do I even know who I am without my other half?

I’m trying to figure that all out. As an older friend said to me a few weeks ago, “you were the ‘wife of Shawn’ and that was your role for so long. It’s hard to figure out what’s next.” She didn’t mean to diminish what I did when Shawn was alive. I don’t mean to do that either – being at home and working part-time was what was optimal for our family and I was instrumental in making sure that everything was the best that it could be for the five of us. Still, Shawn had the job that society considered “more important” and I didn’t mind being known downtown primarily as the wife of an influential man.

But that woman was a different person than I am now. As I look to the future, I’m starting to think, “what’s next?” I wish I had a real answer, but it’s only in the past few weeks I’ve actually started to look towards the long-term future. Not just to what I might do with my career or with my finances, but also to what I might do in the long-term with my life. I’ve started to think about who I might be.

I am not Shawn’s wife anymore. I recognize that I still have the same personality and many of the same values as I always have had. But I do not hold the hand of anyone anymore, unless it’s someone under ten years old. As I face the future, I face the unknown and I do it with some degree of uncertainty about my own role in this world.

I know who I am and I don’t know who I am. Maybe that’s the strangest part of widowhood.


  • Melissa

    Oh, Marjorie, you’ve hit the nail squarely on the head. I married the first time at age 18 and went directly from my parents’ home to living with my first husband. I met my second husband shortly after divorcing (after 11 years of marriage and two kids) and had been with him for almost 42 years until his death in June. I’ve never been on my own before now. At my age the odds of re-marrying are pretty slim, so I will probably spend the rest of my life alone. I’ve been asking myself the same question of “Who am I?” just like you. It is very strange indeed.

    • Marjorie

      Yes, I think getting married young makes it even more difficult, in a way. Shawn and I grew into adults together, so I’m now facing adult life for the first time without him.

      • Kate

        I also got married very young. I was 21 years old. I”m now in my 40’s. I never expected to be alone. My husband and I sort of grew up together and we grew together as we got older. I thought it would be forever…..

  • Melanie

    Hi Marjorie,
    It took me a while to come to terms with who I was and was to become when my husband died. It’s been 4 years and I realize that I was and am first and foremost myself but that being Philip’s wife shaped me and indeed, made me grow up. You see, we were married when I was 19 and he was 25 so I went straight from my parent’s home to his, and to this day I say that he finished raising me once I left my parents. I will always be “Melanie” but I will always be “Philip’s wife” as well because he instilled so much into my being throughout our decades of marriage. I know he changed me and I changed him, so he was as much my husband as I was his wife just as your Shawn would be proud to have been “Marjorie’s husband.” You know he was. You’re going through the reality of not being a part of his work world and all of its events, but you have something more important…his children and his being which lives on in your heart, your mind and many things that you do. and even say. I am standing on my own two feet now, but I always remember things Philip told me….how to hire someone who could be trusted, who to call, when to say “no”, his opinions about people, politics, the world, what “love” means, how to compromise, and so on, and I have all of the memories that other people don’t have. Although I’m not part of his world now and his friends and colleagues have pretty much all moved on past me, he’s still part of my world and who I am. Even so, I’m now also my daughter’s only parent; I am a grandmother of a 3 year old who is amazingly like his grandfather; I am a teacher who has touched 100s of lives; I am a little girl who grew up thanks to an amazing man who put me through college until I earned my master’s degree and with whom I created a fantastic daughter and traveled all over; I am the wife who supported her husband wholeheartedly when he and his business partner went their separate ways and he started his business over alone; I am “me.” I do think you know who you are but you don’t know yet who you will be. Losing your husband shakes your world and your entire being and existence and it takes quite a while to regain your equilibrium, to define who you are, and to come to terms with your new identity that changed because he died. You are early on in this journey; it is all still raw and new for you. It won’t matter if you someday remarry…you may do that if it’s right for you and your children…or if you decide to fly to the moon. Shawn will always be a part of you and who you are and will become, and he will always be “Marjorie’s husband” even if your “labels” change. There will be a part of you that will always be “Shawn’s wife” even if you hold it in the innermost secret place of your heart. First and foremost (right now), you are a beautiful young woman and mother who is walking through fire and surviving. Remember that.
    Take care,

  • Kate

    Dear Marjorie,
    I”m still very new in this journey, but I understand what you mean. For many years, I was part of ‘us’ and now it is just me. It takes time to get used to this new role. I often feel very lonely and I’m trying to figure out what I will do with the rest of my life. It seems overwhelming. The plans we made for the future are gone and the dreams we had for our lives are gone. I also feel uncertain about my future and what life has in store for me. I used to feel very secure with my life and my family and now everything is not longer safe.

    • Marjorie

      Yes, I agree. The loneliness is new for me – for a long time, I just missed Shawn, but now I miss our relationship too. It’s a tough road to travel, that’s for sure.

  • Seema

    Hi Melanie…your words are giving me hope. Marjorie has expressed everything I am feeling since my husband passed away almost 4 months ago. I was 20 years old and I, too, went from my parents’ home to a life of 30 years with my best friend. I am lost without him and I hope I can find myself…
    Thank you, Marjorie, for always putting your thoughts into words so eloquently. I have been having the same thoughts but you expressed them with such grace. Hopefully, our children will be the guiding light.
    Keeping you in my prayers,

    • Marjorie

      Yes, I agree with Seema – I feel like reading your comments always give me hope that there is some sort of future out there for me that isn’t totally sad all the time.