Hands holding newspaper like that written by DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley
What Not to Say

Trigger Warning

Last week, I wrote this piece for the Washington Post on how parents can help children who are grieving. In case you haven’t read it yet, I introduced the piece by talking about how Claire was really missing her dad last summer at the pool, and then I discussed what experts say parents should do in similar situations. I did not describe Shawn’s illness or death at all.

I posted the article in an online group, thinking maybe others would want to read it. Also, I was genuinely proud of the work I did and wanted to share it. A few hours later, I saw that someone had replied to it, and had (somewhat rudely) insisted that I add a trigger warning to my post.

It’s not the first time someone has written something rude to me. I mean, I learned not to respond to comments after a few people freaked out over my first Post article, which was about taking my kids to the cemetery. (“Do not read the comments!” everyone tells me. I usually listen.) But it’s the first time some has asked me to add a trigger warning to something I’ve written.

I felt my blood pressure rise. What, exactly, was this person asking me to do?

I spent way too much time thinking about this. Was this person upset that I was interviewing experts about childhood grief? No, that couldn’t be it. They didn’t say anything offensive. Was this person upset that I mentioned my daughter missing her father? No, you couldn’t possibly be mad that a 10-year-old kid would say, “I miss Dad.” Or was this person upset that I had merely mentioned in the post that I had struggled after losing my husband to cancer? Was it my grief that was “triggering?”

Or was it just my life?

Did this person see a piece of my story – the one where my husband dies at 40 leaving me with three young kids and a mountain of grief – and feel scared that it could happen to anyone at any time? Was it scary to even think that something like this had happened to someone in the world?

It is scary. I get it. I see it on the faces of people I meet all the time. There are plenty of people who find out my story and are shaken by it.

But that doesn’t mean I need to warn everyone before I start talking about Shawn, or our life. I’m not going to tell a stranger the graphic details about how he suffered, or what it was like to find myself unable to stand after he died. I’m not going to go into that in the grocery store or the elementary school picnic. But I am also not going to pretend to be someone I’m not. I’m not going to keep a smile on my face and only talk about my family’s favorite trips and weekend dinners.

Listen, I get it. There are certainly pieces of my writing that probably should have trigger warnings on them. But this piece in the Post was not that. It simply mentioned my loss, and then experts provided ideas for parents to help kids. There are times and places when trigger warnings are useful (for example, I appreciate them when there are graphic descriptions of death so that I can decide if I want to read them) but everything in life doesn’t need to come with a trigger warning.

Moreover, asking me – or really any other family who has lost someone – to put trigger warnings on our story is just another way of asking us to stop talking about our loss. It’s another way of asking us to stop grieving and “just be happy” for the people around us….or at least to make sure that other people can choose whether or not to be exposed to stories like mine.

It’s maddening. Yes, it’s upsetting that Shawn died. He was so young, and it was so quick. We have openly grieved his loss for almost two years. But if there’s one thing I know for sure, it is this:

My life does not need a damn trigger warning.


  • Steph

    Marjorie of course aspects of this new life we’re forced to live shouldn’t come with a trigger warning- I’m sorry some feel compelled to make anything other than supportive comments. It sounds like an outcry for conversation and comfort, albeit it expressed in a negative way. It seems so very few have the capacity to empathise what this widow life is like. We deserved a big fat trigger warning ourselves before losing our partners! Rudeness or even thoughtlessness usually comes from a place of pain, and who better than us can understand that landscape- hope that helps x

    • Marjorie

      I think you’re right. I actually empathize with the commenter (even though I was mad when I wrote this post) because really, if just a mere mention of someone dying young is a trigger, that person must be fragile. We lash out when we feel hurt or when we don’t know what to do, so I think that’s what happened. I’ve done it too!!

  • Debbie

    You are a courageous woman and do not apologize for grieving.! I lost my husband, Gary, almost two years ago. We were married 25 years and combined our families. Our kids are grown, but the loss for them has been intense even though they are old enough to know that loss happens.! I can’t even begin to imagine helping young children with this loss experience! Every day I still feel the pain of losing the love of my life and know my children do as well. I will not apologize for feeling sad and empty because of my loss and neither should you. Your writings have touched my soul and helped me take each day as they come. You are a tremendous blessing to so many. My God continue to lift you up!!

    • Marjorie

      Thanks so much for this sweet comment – and thanks for sharing, too. It’s a tough process, and really, everyone has their own story – even the person who commented on my story. It’s a tough road, but the best way to do it is to communicate and remain open with each other.

  • Kate

    I am furious that someone would even send you a request like this. None of your Posts require a trigger warning ever. Unfortunately, life can be really really difficult and painful for some people. You should not have to apologize for the content of any of your blog posts. They are real and very meaningful to so many of us who have lost a spouse. Even people from intact families can learn from them as they may come across a friend who experienced loss and it helps them understand they person better and they may even find a way to support their friend. Having experienced the tragic and sudden loss of my own spouse, I can tell that some people have distanced themselves because they are scared. This isn’t supposed to happen to a young family, but then it did. It makes life real and it is not always perfect, but messy and heartbreaking and cruel. I thank you for putting feelings, pain and worries into words when so many of us are simply too numb to even describe what is going on inside of us.

    • Marjorie

      Thanks so much for this comment. And yes, it’s insane to respond to certain comments (some have been much harsher than what happened in this post!) but it’s part of being a writer. That said, my goal is to speak my truth, and sometimes that’s painful. But the mere mention of my loss shouldn’t be something I have to protect others from! Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Sharon

    As a therapist (we met at the bucca event, hi)
    !) I’ll say your post piece was so well written and I shared it with colleagues and friends. Definitely didn’t warrant a warning.. ❤️

    • Marjorie

      Well, thank you for that! I’m glad there are others who agree. And thanks for reading – so glad we met!

  • Melissa

    I think this is the opposite side of the coin from the nosy people who want to know “what kind of cancer” it was so they can calculate their own risk and perhaps convince themselves that it couldn’t happen to them. The person who wanted a trigger warning (has it come to that, really?) doesn’t want to know ANY of it because just knowing about this frightens them. As you say, your goal is to speak your truth. You shouldn’t change anything about your writing. It’s perfect.

    • Marjorie

      Thanks – and I love this description! Yes, it’s like the opposite of wanting to know everything, which is also unneeded. Great point!

  • Michelle D Perkins

    I think the “trigger warnings” on EVERYTHING have gotten out of hand. I’ll even go so far as to say that (in my humble opinion) our society in general seems to feel the need to take offense at just about every topic. And, of course the anonymity of the internet makes people feel like they can voice their (mostly negative) opinions on everything they read. I’m not a widow, so maybe it’s not my place to voice an opinion on your piece, but I thought it was well-written, honest, and could certainly be extremely helpful to anyone dealing with how to handle grief in children. Keep doing what you’re doing; it seems to me that you are helping SO MANY with your words!

    • Marjorie

      Well thank you! And yes, I think that trigger warning requests can get out of hand. As I noted in my post, there are times for them, but making me put one on my MERE EXISTENCE is just….too much. Thanks for such a sweet note!

  • Wendy

    Margorie.. I ran across your blog the other day. I too lost my husband this past January 14th 2019 to colon cancer. My husband Larry passed away at just turning 54 after a courageous 2 year battle with this terrible disease! I have had enormous grief since he’s been gone. We had been together for 38 yrs and of the 38 been married for 30 yrs. My 2 adult kids are fairing well but I on the other hand am struggling. I did though feel great comfort in reading everyone of your posts. You are such a strong lady.. on my husbands last night with us he held our hands and told us to continue on and that he loved us. I see Margorie in your words how you have continued on with your little ones, with the joy and sometime sorrows of life.. I hope in time that my family will do the same… I will continue reading your posts as long as you write them.. Take care. Wendy

    • Marjorie

      First of all, I’m so sorry for your loss. That’s awful – and so recent. I too have found that even my young children have fared well overall, whereas I have had a harder time. Hang in there. Thanks for reading.

  • Danielle

    Hi, I lost my spouse of 26 years (we met young) and father to my two girls 5 and 8, just two months ago. It was sudden and unexpected (he was 44) and I struggle every day to face people knowing that the mere sight of us causes them fear. I loved your post as my focus on trying to find anything that can help with my grieving children has been met with mostly what it looks like at different ages. In fact, I am going to read it again as widow brain means I don’t retain much right now. Thank you for your posts. I am glad I found them, as I need anything that can help me through this intolerable pain and suffering. Danielle

    • Marjorie

      I’m so sorry. That’s just awful and the new-ness of it makes it even worse. I was in such a fog for the first few months, and though the grief doesn’t go away, it does get easier to move through the world. I’ll be holding you in my heart.

  • Henry

    A trigger warning implies that someone should be protected against something they don’t want to hear. You said “my goal is to speak my truth,” and it seems pretty clear that the commenter did not want to hear your truth. Melissa’s surmise that he found it too frightening is probably right. I doubt that he accepted your advice that children need their parents to be honest and available.
    As usual, you came up with a wonderful vignette at the end of your article to demonstrate your point. When Claire became upset, you wrapped you arms around her little body, empathized with her, and squeezed her tight. Beautiful ♥

    • Marjorie

      Oh, thank you. It’s what I do when my kids are upset or anxious….I wrap my arms around them and tell them they are safe.

  • Krista McKeage

    A trigger warning? Wow! I have found that in general, in our society most people are uncomfortable with sadness, grief, feelings that fall outside of a narrow realm of acceptable. My 4 year old and I talk about his Dad who died frequently. Children CAN be taught about death in developmentally appropriate and very healthy ways. My son “gets it”. I repeat things often (No, Dad does not live at the hospital now) and it sometimes makes me cry….so be it. We’re human. We’re supposed to FEEL. As always, I love your writing. Thank you.

    • Marjorie

      Yes. Part of living in this world is living in discomfort sometimes. There are limits on both sides, of course – I don’t want to expose everyone to something horrible without warning them, but I also shouldn’t have to walk around with a sign on me that says “trigger warning, I’m a widow” every time I speak. I just want some moderation and acceptance of my family that doesn’t have to come with a warning!