Arms in washing machine like that of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley
What Not to Say

Tough Love

I read a lot of things about grief, much of it online. There are some really great websites that deal with grief (like Modern Loss) and also a ton of Facebook/Reddit/Instagram/Twitter resources and forums. In a lot of these places, people come together to say something like, “I lost a person I love and cry every day. How did other people cope?”

I almost never post in these forums. I love that there are places on the internet where people can go for support, but I would rather rely on the support I get from my blog readers and my in-person friends and family. Sometimes I do post an encouraging comment, but otherwise, I’ve found that putting things on these forums can often lead to ridiculous responses (like the woman who told me I needed a “trigger warning” on a post, merely because I had written that my husband was dead.)

But the other day, I couldn’t look away. On one of these forums a woman had posted something about how to help her daughter. Her daughter’s partner had died the week prior, and she was struggling with parenting her young child (this woman’s grandchild.) This grandmother, who was clearly trying to be thoughtful, was asking how she could get her daughter to function better as a mother (i.e., by making sure her child was ready for school on time, etc.)

Lots of people chimed in with “helpful” advice. You know, things like, “remind her that being an involved mother is the way she’ll get through the pain” and “kids need consistency.” I was scrolling through the comments and could feel the bile rise in my throat.

I put my phone down. “Stay away from the internet,” I actually said out loud. I do not know these people. There is no reason to get embroiled in a discussion with people whose lives are not my own. Remember, my default is that I do not comment in these forums.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I knew there were people who worried about me in similar ways when Shawn died. They worried that I never took my kids to school, that I didn’t show up at basketball games with my older son or guitar lessons with my daughter. Months went by and I still wasn’t making my children’s lunches or returning to work. I managed to do some things (I paid my mortgage, for example) but really, I let a lot slide, including a lot involving my kids.

But my children didn’t suffer terribly from my lack of parenting, mostly because my family and my community stepped in to help. Obviously, my dad was critically important in maintaining consistency for my kids. My aunt Nancy also stayed for a month after Shawn died, doing everything from cleaning the bathrooms to stocking the fridge. My friends did everything else I needed – from grocery shopping to carpool to home repairs – for six full months (and they continue to help me today.)

All I did was grieve. I also wrote, and after a few months, I went back to work. Slowly, I started taking my kids to school. But no one pushed me to do any of these things. I got to decide when I could handle different parts of “normal” life.

So the idea that someone who is grieving should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” is abhorrent to me. We love to tell grievers this. And if I can get on a soapbox a little bit, we also love to tell new parents this. And working mothers this. And young people this. And people with chronic illness this. And depressed people this. And people of color this. And women this. (Okay, I’ll stop.)

I’m not saying that as a society, we should allow people to be lazy or that as parents we should over-indulge our children. As a teacher, I think tough love certainly has its place. My children often don’t get what they want. My students get failing test grades sometimes. My own life should not be devoid of hard stuff just because my husband died.

But “tough love” and early grief are incompatible.

Eventually, after thinking about it for a long time, I replied to the comment on the forum. I was probably a bit too long-winded, as I felt the need to reiterate how difficult it is to be widowed at a young age. I made sure to point out all the things I didn’t do immediately after my husband died. I discussed the importance of getting help that came judgement-free. I talked about how hard it is to “pull yourself together” after such a loss.

I ended with this comment for the grandmother about her daughter: “You are not spoiling her by doing the work she ‘should’ be doing right now. You are loving her.”

I haven’t returned to this site to see what people said in response. Maybe it was well-received, and maybe it wasn’t. I truly believe that screaming into the internet helps no-one. But sometimes, I just can’t stop myself.

I believe in tough love. It has its place. But what people in the throws of early grief need is compassion and a whole lot of help. They don’t need encouragement to “just keep going” without any outside support, especially if they are parenting through grief.

Yes, I remember those people who implied that I should be pulling it together on my own in the weeks and months after Shawn died. But much more than that, I remember the people who came over and fertilized my lawn or raked my leaves without asking, the people who left groceries on my front porch or who fixed my broken appliances, the people who picked up my kids at school or who took them to church. Eventually, I did all those things by myself, at least mostly. But in the beginning, I didn’t do any of it, and that didn’t mean my family and friends were overindulging me.

It meant they were loving me.


  • Phyllis

    I am so glad you wrote this. Sadly, talking about grief and how to help those grieving is really lacking in parts of our society. Grief is physically and emotionally draining. I like you read a lot about grief. Kay Warren (she lost a child to suicide) wrote this: When you can you will. I thought this simple statement spoke volumes. I am so grateful for family and friends who walked along side of me until I could walk on my own and do things. You are making a difference with your blog. I have found in talking with people sometimes they really don’t know and want to learn. When we know better we do better.

    • Marjorie

      Thank you for saying this – grief can be SO draining. Support is what is needed first and foremost, if at all possible.

  • Bhines

    While tough love and early grief are no doubt incompatible, very few are afforded the luxury of the compassion you received and continue to receive. That level of compassion is truly a privilege.

    Most often times, young widows must endure tough love and continue with their parenting, working, etc., the children and the paycheck and the day to day tasks must be prioritized.

    I’m thrilled for the few that receive such support as you did, but like you, I couldn’t walk away from commenting on this one. Please recognize the amount of privilege involved.

    • Marjorie

      You know what? You’re right. Absolutely right. I was extremely lucky to get bereavement pay from my work and time off. I also got lots of support from family. I guess my point with this post was that if this grandmother is going to live with her daughter, it’s probably best to help as much as possible in the beginning, when grief is fresh. For more of what I’ve written on this topic, especially please do see my other posts, most specifically this one: but THANK YOU for pointing this out.

  • Anne

    The grief process is so different for everyone and what is most important is not making comments or judgements on “how” someone goes through the process. As you say so eloquently, it’s about kindness and love. I personally did not have a lot of family support nearby and actually preferred to figure out how to manage 3 small children by myself. I felt that most offers of help were “pity” and I didn’t want pity from people I didn’t really know well. I actually got comments that I was too “competent” and “stoic” because I got my kids to school and managed my life. Like they would be want to see me more of a mess. I preferred grieving privately or with my friends and family that I trusted. The judgements would be there no matter how I managed life as a widowed parent. Do what feels right for you and your situation. One can only know the path of grief if they have walked it themselves or if they walk with kindness and compassion in every situation.

    • Marjorie

      Amen. So true. I wish I had said it as eloquently!!

      And yes, I think we all figure out the best way to do it for ourselves – sometimes it means having less interference from others and sometimes we need more. The best thing to do is to ask, and not impose, as you note.

  • Henry

    There is another aspect of tough love that is rather incompatible with grief. My (adult) son has had a lot of needs but is also quite manipulative and self-centered. In this case tough love means an ongoing exercise in judgement about whether and when to provide help or to set and enforce limits and structure. It is quite difficult to exercise this judgment when you are grieving – and it is much harder when you find yourself suddenly alone as a parent.

    • Marjorie

      Yes, I think part of widowhood is also accepting that we have to have some boundaries with what we can offer to others. Knowing how to set up those boundaries is so difficult when you are grieving, that’s for sure.

  • Lori

    Setting aside all comments above, I would say Ditto to you Marjorie. Thank you for sharing this and thank you for speaking up in this situation. I try to stay away from those sites as well, but I think the world of you for answering that. Sadly….I probably would have thought differently until I went through it. I’m out 2 years and there are STILL things I am struggling to do in a major way and I STILL have to remind myself that I am on MY grief timeline and I DO have wonderful people reminding me of this when I feel like a loser for NOT being able to pull up my bootstraps and suck it up. Yes….you were privileged beyond words to have your support system. I had a pretty good one, not as extensive as yours (been a little jealous for sure at times), but I’m super thankful for the MANY people who helped and still do!!! Your site has been SO encouraging. Thanks for writing this…..I appreciate it greatly!!!

    • Marjorie

      Thanks for the sweet comment. And yes – it’s so important to remind ourselves that we are on our own timelines and that everyone’s is so different. Sometimes people ask me “what widows would think of X” and I say, “I only know what I think! Not what every single widow thinks!”

  • linda haslach

    Had not visited your blog for a year!?!? And came across an old email exchange just now as I was doing a Jan. email purge.
    Thank you for continuing this loving ministry, Marjorie. Maintaining a heart full of love is not a slam-dunk. Wishing you and your dear ones well today and every day.