Sons of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley Hale
Things That Suck

Things That Remain: Fear (Part 2 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.

Here’s one of my dark little secrets:

Every morning, as I kiss my kids goodbye and watch them leave the house for school, one thought always enters my head:

I hope they don’t die.

I know – what a morbid thing to think! I don’t know if I ever worried about this before Shawn died, but I know it was a bit of an obsession of mine after he died. I knew I would be broken without my children and even though I tried not to think about the worst-case scenario, every morning this fear would return. What if something happened to one of them?

This specific fear has eased somewhat over the past 4 1/2 years. But it’s still there. And now, it’s also there when I think about Chris, as I’ve written about.

I know I’m not alone. In fact, maybe more than anything else, it’s the dominant emotion that remains for me, and I think for many widows after loss. Fear – of losing a loved one, of abandonment, of somehow having to re-live watching someone die – it can feel all-encompassing. For about six months after Shawn died, I had to force myself to leave the kids for more than a few hours. I irrationally thought if I was with them, then things would be okay.

I’ve worked on this a lot in therapy. Everyone I love is not going to die, at least not right now at this moment. Kids go to school all the time and come home and are fine. Same with all the other people I love.

And yet. Chris is sitting right next to me as I type this, but he doesn’t know that two nights ago, he was so quiet in the middle of the night that I moved closer to him so I could hear that he was breathing.

I’m not exactly proud of all of these emotions. I try and keep it all in check. But the fear remains for me, even if it’s not as bad as it once was.

There are other fears, however, ones that aren’t so obvious and yet are still such a part of my life. Here’s another big one for me: I’m really fearful of being a bad mom to my boys.

It’s a very specific fear (I guess I maybe should call it an “insecurity” but this is a blog post about fear, so we’ll label it as that). I worried about my role as a single mom to two young boys a lot in those early days of widowhood, so much so that I wrote a piece about it for the Post. I thought about how to be a good “boy mom” a lot. And yes, as everyone has told me, I know it’s just about being a good mom. But there’s so much that I felt I knew about parenting Claire that was harder for me about parenting boys.

And I messed up a lot.

This worry has led to some harsh parenting moves by me. I never wanted anyone to say that my boys were behaving badly, so if they did something mean or got in a fight or whatever, I almost always immediately intensely disciplined them and made us leave wherever we were. I have a vivid memory of yelling at Austin as I stormed all three kids home, maybe a year after Shawn died, screaming something like, “I’m not going to have anyone say that you act out because you have a single mom!” I knew I’d gone over the top when Claire tried to calm me down, and Austin started to cry.

I’m not proud of that moment, not at all. But I think it helps show how sensitive I was.

And am.

You’d think that having Chris as a co-parent would have eased this fear, but it has not. It’s one of those things that sticks around, even now. Chris is aware of this, and if something happens with one of the boys (honestly, anything – a spat over a ball game or using a curse word or whatever) it can take days before I calm down. Let me be very clear – my boys are really sweet boys! Tommy is the biggest cuddler and I don’t think has a negative word to say about anyone, and Austin is the kid who always sets the table and unloads the dishwasher without anyone asking. We talk a lot about respect and love and kindness. But the fear remains.

I don’t totally know how to live with these fears, but what I do know is they aren’t going away. I can rationally understand that everyone I love isn’t in danger of dying at multiple points in every day and that our boys are going to turn out to be good men because they are loving souls who will get the discipline and structure they need from our family. I don’t need to worry.

And yet, every morning, I tell the boys to “be kind” and I double-check Claire’s helmet as I try and push the terrible thoughts away.

It will be okay, I tell myself.

It’s just a hard thing to believe sometimes.


  • Melissa

    You are not alone in your fear of not being a good enough mom to your boys. I thought this was particularly striking in an article in WaPo about former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s funeral:

    “World and national leaders arrived in motorcades and with security details to pay respect to the single mother of three who — like so many of us — worried that she was never enough.

    “I do think every woman’s middle name,” she recently said to Amy Poehler, “is guilt.”

    While her fellow lions got their briefings and sipped the coffee handed to them, Albright was waking her daughters: “Up and at ’em!” Judge Anne Korbel Albright, one of Albright’s twin daughters, remembered.

    “Usually, Mom had risen hours earlier to work on her PhD dissertation, to fix our breakfasts and organize our backpacks,” the daughter told world leaders who had never had to do such a thing.”