Beach and ocean for blog by DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley Hale
New Perspectives

Things That Remain: Accomplishment (Part 3 of 4)

In this four-part series, I discuss the things that remain for me (and for some of my readers) in the years after widowhood.

I sobbed the first time I tried to change the wiper fluid in my car.

I didn’t know how to do it. I mean, I had just turned 39 years old for chrissakes, an age at which you should know how to do such a thing. I’d been widowed for about two months and had pulled into a gas station to get gas and clean the dirty windshield. Here’s what happened, from the blog post, “Who’s Saving Our Basement?

I got out to clean my windshield and the wiper that’s usually in the bucket was missing.  I’m sure someone else was briefly using it, but for some reason, this made me totally lose it.  I had to get back in the car because I was crying so hard.

Shawn always filled up the windshield wiper fluid.  Since he got sick, I’d just go to gas stations to clean my windshield, or I’d use the Windex on it at home.  I know this was a stupid solution, but trying to figure out how the car actually worked was just too much for me.  Shawn was supposed to fix it, dammit.

I knew that the windshield wiper fluid went in under the hood, so I tried pulling myself together and popping the hood.  But then I couldn’t figure out how to actually open the hood.

This is a car I’ve had for 7 years.

I started to feel really overwhelmed.  I knew in the back of my mind that this was insane because we are talking about windshield wiper fluid and the world doesn’t end even if you never have any windshield wiper fluid ever again.  But it didn’t matter.  In that moment, it was symbolic of everything I couldn’t do, and everything that I needed Shawn to take care of.

I mean, there were about a million things I didn’t know how to do after Shawn died that were way more consequential than windshield wiper fluid, but that was what broke me that day. Eventually, I was helped by someone very kind at the gas station who showed me how to open the hood and change the windshield wiper fluid. He even made me show him I knew how to do it, so I wouldn’t forget. I left feeling this totally outsized feeling of accomplishment. I knew how to change the windshield wiper fluid!

I knew, even then, that my emotions weren’t very rational. I knew that far greater logistical problems still existed in my life. But I’d fixed one of those problems.

Which meant that I could fix more.

I didn’t follow a clear path forward where I easily learned how to fix things and organize my finances and be at a party by myself and online date. It was mostly a cluster of mini (and sometimes major) disasters, one right after another. (For proof, see year 1 of this blog.)

But there were accomplishments in there, too. Not just for me, but for many widows I know. When I asked my readers about things that remained for them, many of them listed tough issues they had to address. But some also talked about accomplishing new things, and the satisfaction they got out of learning new skills and tackling previously “impossible” tasks.

I know that one of my biggest accomplishments was learning how to grill, and it’s also one of my most-read blog posts ever. I don’t think this is because I have a particularly interesting story, but for some reason it touched a nerve. It was such a specific thing that didn’t really matter that much, but it was a metaphor for my life, I think.

I could do things that I didn’t think I could do.

Honestly, my biggest accomplishment was one that I share with some other readers who wrote me – it was about rediscovering who I was and what I wanted for my life outside of my marriage. I hadn’t been much of a grown-up when I met Shawn at age 22, so figuring out who I would be without him was a huge task.

And yet, like the grill, I worked at that challenge. While there wasn’t a day when I woke up and thought, “I know who I am!” there was certainly a time period (about 18 months after widowhood) when I could much better identify the things I wanted from the life I found myself living.

That was a huge accomplishment. I didn’t just come upon it, however. I had to set that goal for myself, and allow myself to experience huge failure (mostly huge emotional failure, which is harder than not-figuring-out-how-to-turn-on-the-grill failure).

But out of that failure? There was joy that came, too. In fact, here’s an excerpt from that blog post (“Year of Yes“) where I set a goal of finding new joy in my life. I’d been listening to music on the beach and thinking about what I wanted, and I realized I wanted to dance:

I started dancing right there, in the waves.  No one was around, so what did I care?

At that moment, every emotion of 2018 and every emotion of 2019 came over me.  The tears kept coming but I was also laughing and I felt for a minute like maybe I was going a little crazy.

But I kept dancing.  In fact, I danced in the waves with the song on repeat for probably 20 minutes.  I liked the beat, the music and even the profanity.  It all felt appropriate. 

I felt alive.  And it felt great.

Feeling alive? That seems like quite the accomplishment for any widow.


  • Samara

    This post resonnated with me deeply. Where I was proud of myself for fixing a clogged sink or buying my first online plane ticket at the age of 45 (!), what broke me down the most was filing my taxes this year (he died last April but submitted our filing every February). He always handled the taxes, and getting it accomplished correctly weighed on me (even if I hired a CPA to help). The moment I hit send on my filing–which also happened to be on the same day as the first anniversary of his funeral–the lifting of the weight broke me. My daughter witnessed the seconds it took me to go from the jubilation of accomplishment to the emotional exhaustion from letting it go, and she cheered then rushed to hold me as I crumbled. What a complex richness to this experience…

    Thank you for sharing your experience, which allows for this relatability. Your words are a gift.

    • M Brimley

      Oh, I totally get this – the feeling of accomplishment combined with the feeling of loss. It’s so much. I love how you call it a “complex richness” because that is so the feeling I’ve had a million times. Thanks for sharing!