Nora McInerny: What Does Moving Forward Look Like After Loss?

Jun 21, 2019

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Moving Forward.

About Nora McInerny's TED Talk

In 2014, Nora McInerny experienced a wave of loss that reshaped her whole life. Despite the painful memories from that year, she explains why she doesn't want to "move on" from her grief.

About Nora McInerny

Nora McInerny is a best-selling author and podcast host. In 2014, she lost her father, husband, and a pregnancy in the span of six weeks. Since then, she has written and spoken about her experiences with grief and trauma.

Her books include The Hot Young Widows Club and It's Okay To Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too). Her podcast is called Terrible, Thanks For Asking. She is also the founder of the nonprofit Still Kickin.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So in the fall of 2014, writer Nora McInerny was going through something devastating, something a lot of us might struggle to even imagine.

NORA MCINERNY: Yeah, that's the common reaction is sort of a - or saying, I can't imagine. And the thing is we can - all of us, we can. We can imagine all of these things. It's just very uncomfortable to do it. And it is also sort of a futile exercise. There's no amount of imagining that would prepare you in any way for it, so I don't blame anyone for not wanting to imagine it because I wouldn't have either.

RAZ: It started on a day in October.

MCINERNY: Yeah. Anyone who has been through something hard can recap all of their tragedies for you as if they're listing their grocery list, so here's mine. October 3, I lost my second pregnancy. It was 11 weeks and six days, which is, like - you just feel as if there's a magical 12-week mark, where you're past the first trimester. And then nothing bad can happen. And that's absolutely not true, but I did have that feeling sitting there in the doctor's office, thinking, like, oh. If only I had waited till tomorrow to come in, then the baby would have been alive - just this magical thinking. And downstairs in the parking structure was my husband, who was dying of brain cancer. And five days later, my dad was dead. And six weeks later, my husband Aaron was dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCINERNY: And so it was this wave after wave after wave of loss, and that marked the end of 2014 for me. I didn't know how to do any of this. I was completely new to all of it. It was the first time my dad had died, the first time I'd lost a husband...

RAZ: Yeah.

MCINERNY: ...The first time I'd lost a pregnancy. And I didn't know how to sit with my own discomfort and my own pain. I wanted to be anywhere else.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Nora McInerny shared her story on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MCINERNY: So since all of this loss happened, I've made it a career to talk about death and loss not just my own - because it's pretty easy to recap - but the losses and tragedies that other people have experienced. It's a niche, I have to say.

(LAUGHTER)

MCINERNY: I'm just trying to do what I can to make more people comfortable with the uncomfortable, and grief is so uncomfortable. It's so uncomfortable, especially if it's someone else's grief. So a part of that work is this group that I started with my friend Mo (ph), who is also a widow. We call it the hot young widows club, and it's real. We have membership cards and T-shirts. And when your person dies - your husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend - your friends and your family are just going to sort of look around through friends of friends of friends of friends until they find someone who's gone through something similar, and then they'll push you towards each other so you can talk amongst yourselves and not get your sad on other people.

(LAUGHTER)

MCINERNY: So that's what we do. It's just a series of small groups, where men, women, gay, straight, married, partnered can talk about their dead person and say the things that the other people in their lives aren't ready or willing to hear yet. Most of the conversations that we have in the group can and will just stay amongst ourselves, but there are things that we talk about that the rest of the world - the world that is grief-adjacent but not yet grief-stricken - could really benefit from hearing. And if you can't tell, I'm only interested in/capable of unscientific studies, so what I did was go to the hot young widows club and say, hello, friends. Remember when your person died. Do you remember all the things people said to you? Which ones did you hate the most? I got - there were a lot of comments, lot of answers, but two rose to the top pretty quickly - moving on.

Now, since 2014, I will tell you I have remarried a very handsome man named Matthew. We have four children in our blended family. We live in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minn., USA. I drive a minivan, like the kind where doors open. I don't even touch them. By any measure, life is really, really good, but I haven't moved on. I haven't moved on, and I hate that phrase so much. And I understand why other people do because what it says is that Aaron's life and death and love are just moments that I can leave behind me and that I probably should. And when I talk about Aaron, I slip so easily into the present tense because the people we love who we've lost are still so present for us. So when I say, oh, Aaron is, it's because Aaron still is. He's indelible, and so he's present for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: When people say - literally say to you, you need to figure out how to move on, did - like, was that something somebody articulated to you just like that?

MCINERNY: People would say - I mean, gosh. People say so many things, and they don't mean them...

RAZ: No.

MCINERNY: ...Badly...

RAZ: No, right.

MCINERNY: ...Which is what makes it so hard. But also, I would hate people, like, basically, immediately. So (laughter) they would say, like, I mean, you know, you'll meet someone. You'll move on. You'll get over this. And I wrote a book, and it came out not even a year and a half after Aaron died. And people would say to me, you know, it's so amazing to see how you've moved on. And I would think, why do you think that? And also, why would that be my goal?

RAZ: Yeah.

MCINERNY: And it hurt, too, because I was with somebody when that book came out. Our families were blending together. I was pregnant, and I felt horrible about it. Like, I felt horrible for feeling any sort of happiness, and then I felt horrible for not appreciating my happiness. And I felt horrible that people would think that the beginning of this relationship meant that I didn't care about Aaron anymore. But in reality, I haven't had a day since he died where I haven't thought about him.

RAZ: Yeah.

MCINERNY: And it's not always sad. Like, I like to be able to think about him.

RAZ: Yeah.

MCINERNY: And I like for people to remember him. And what we had was, like, such a good marriage and such a normal marriage, really. Like, we were married for three years. And it's unusual for two people in their early 30s to spend a Friday night on the oncology floor eating White Castle. And it was also so fun, which sounds so strange. But like, those were the hardest years of my life to date, and I do think they were the happiest.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MCINERNY: When you watch your person fill himself with poison for three years just so he can stay alive a little bit longer with you, that stays with you. When you watch your son who isn't even 2 years old yet walk up to his father's bed on the last day of his life like he knows what's coming in a few hours and say, I love you, all done, bye-bye, that stays with you. Just like when you fall in love finally - like, really fall in love with someone who gets you and sees you, and you even see, oh, my God. I've been wrong this entire time. Love is not a contest or a reality show. It's so quiet. It's this invisible thread of calm that connects the two of us, even when everything is chaos, when things are falling apart, even when he's gone. That stays with you.

We used to do this thing - because my hands are always freezing and he's so warm - where I would take my ice-cold hands and shove them up his shirt, press them against his hot bod. And he hated it so much, but he loved me. And after he died, I laid in bed with Aaron, and I put my hands underneath him, and I felt his warmth. And I can't even tell you if my hands were cold, but I can tell you that I knew it was the last time I would ever do that and that that memory is always going to be sad. That memory will always hurt, even when I'm 600 years old and I'm just a hologram...

(LAUGHTER)

MCINERNY: ...Just like the memory of meeting him is always going to make me laugh. Grief doesn't happen in this vacuum. It happens alongside of and mixed in with all of these other emotions. So I met Matthew, my current husband, who doesn't love that title.

(LAUGHTER)

MCINERNY: I met Matthew, and there was this audible sigh of relief among the people who love me. Like, it's over. She did it. She got a happy ending. We can all go home. And we did good. And that narrative is so appealing, even to me. And I thought maybe I'd gotten that too, but I didn't. I got another chapter, and it's such a good chapter. But especially at the beginning, it was like an alternate universe or one of those old choose-your-own-adventure books from the '80s, where there are two parallel plotlines. So I opened my heart to Matthew, and my brain was like, would you like to think about Aaron - like, the past, the present, future - like, just get in there? And I did. And all of a sudden, those two plots were unfurling at once. And falling in love with Matthew really helped me realize the enormity of what I lost when Aaron died. And just as importantly, it helped me realize that my love for Aaron and my grief for Aaron and my love for Matthew are not opposing forces. They're just strands to the same thread. They're the same stuff. So I've not moved on from Aaron. I've moved forward with him.

RAZ: Moving forward is very different from moving on. It's about holding onto memories, even to pain, because when what you're expecting doesn't work out and the life you've envisioned slips away, how do you cope? How do you reshape your expectations? Well, on the show today, we're going to explore ideas on moving forward - how to create a new path without letting go of the past. And in just a moment, we're going to hear what Nora did to move forward after Aaron's death. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today - ideas about Moving Forward. And before the break, we were hearing from Nora McInerny about how she coped with a series of losses. And one of the ways she did it was to write her husband Aaron's obituary, which was published in the local paper.

MCINERNY: The first line of it - I won't read you the whole thing, but I do remember the first line. It said, Purmort, Aaron Joseph, age 35, died due to complications from a radioactive spider bite and from a years-long battle with a nefarious criminal named Cancer who has plagued our society for far too long. Aaron and I wrote that together the night he entered hospice because I just didn't want - I'd written my dad's obituary after he died, and I remember struggling with my siblings, being like, what is the most important thing to put in this?

RAZ: Yeah.

MCINERNY: And why hadn't we asked my dad before he died? And the night Aaron was told that there would be no more treatments and it was just going to be hospice care, I told him, we have to do this because I don't want to wonder, and I don't want to get anything wrong. And he had already made a funeral playlist because he did not trust my taste in music, and I do not blame him because I have no taste. And we sat down. And he talked, and I typed. And we just, like, went back and forth and punched it up. And I was like, there's no way they'll publish this. But they did, and it went viral.

And I got so many messages from people - like, all kinds of people who had been through all kinds of things and not just death. And I would reply to them, and they were so shocked. I don't think that they were looking for a reply. They just wanted to feel heard, and they just wanted to feel seen. And I let them tell it in their own words because, in 2014, I just wanted to exist.

RAZ: Yeah.

MCINERNY: I just wanted to exist without being a sad story to somebody.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MCINERNY: Grief is kind of one of those things like falling in love or having a baby or watching "The Wire" on HBO, where...

(LAUGHTER)

MCINERNY: ...You don't get it until you get it - until you do it. And once you do it - once it's your love or your baby, once it's your grief and your front row at the funeral, you get it. You understand what you're experiencing is not a moment in time. It's not a bone that will reset but that you've been touched by something chronic, something incurable. It's not fatal, but sometimes grief feels like it could be. And if we can't prevent it in one another, what can we do? What can we do other than try to remind one another that some things can't be fixed and not all wounds are meant to heal?

We need each other to remember, to help each other remember that grief is this multitasking emotion, that you can and will be sad and happy. You'll be grieving and able to love in the same year or week, the same breath. We need to remember that a grieving person is going to laugh again and smile again. If they're lucky, they'll even find love again. But yes, absolutely, they're going to move forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: I know you've both described it and alluded to it in this conversation, but I want to ask you sort of a slightly different version of the question, which is - what does moving forward look like in your life? How does it sort of practically appear?

MCINERNY: Yeah. So for me, moving forward has been this - that in 2014, I lost a parent and I lost my husband and I lost a pregnancy. And my life, in really almost every way, is completely different than it was five years ago. I had one kid, and now I have four kids. I had one husband, and now I have two husbands. And one of them is dead, and one of them does my laundry. And now I have two mothers-in-law and two fathers-in-law, and all our kids have four sets of grandparents. We have a lot of grandparents.

So moving forward is - you're going to get up; you're going to go for a run; you're going to put on makeup; you're going to do your hair; you're going to show up; you're going to get a new job. Moving forward looks like moving on if you look at me. But if you talked to me, if you talked to my family, you would know that the things that we have lived through - like, we're aware of how they shaped us. And consciously moving forward, to me, is choosing to live.

RAZ: That's Nora McInerny. She's the author of the book "The Hot Young Widows Club," and she also hosts a podcast about grief and loss. It's called "Terrible, Thanks For Asking." You can find Nora's full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.