Nora McInerny: It's Okay to Laugh

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podcast banner Nora McInerny: It’s Okay to Laugh

Nora McInerny: It’s Okay to Laugh

Nora McInerny had a miscarriage, lost her father, and lost her husband all within a few weeks. Much to her surprise, she kept living. But she didn’t “move on.” Nora and Kate discuss how grief is messier and less linear than we imagine. And even when you may feel like you might never “get over” what happened, love is there somehow. Nora shows us why it’s time to reframe how we think about a happy ending. 

Guest

Nora McInerny

A reluctant grief expert and “notable widow” (her words), Nora McInerny miscarried her second baby, lost her Dad to cancer and also lost her husband, Aaron, to a brain tumor all within 6 hellish weeks in 2014. A prolific creator, Nora wrote the critically-acclaimed memoir It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too) (HarperCollins Dey Street Books), hosts the award-winning podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking, founded the non-profit organization Still Kickin and writes essays published in Elle, Cosmopolitan, Time, Slate and Vox. A master storyteller, Nora is known for bringing heart and humor to even the toughest topics. She is very tall.

Show Notes

Click here for discussion questions on this episode.

Nora’s the author of It’s Okay to Laugh, No Happy Endings, and The Hot Young Widow’s Club.

She also hosts the hilarious and meaningful podcast that you will absolutely love called Terrible, Thanks for Asking.

And you should absolutely check out Nora’s non-profit, Still Kickin and The Hot Young Widows Club, which is an online community for those who have lost a deeply romantic partner.

If you haven’t already, you MUST WATCH Nora’s fantastic TED talk on why we don’t “move on” from grief. It will give you the permission you didn’t know you needed.

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Transcript

Kate Bowler:                 I think a lot about the things we’re allowed to say, the little rules we have for what is acceptable and unacceptable, especially about loss. We pretend we don’t have rules until somebody breaks them, and then we are affronted. “How dare you laugh when your mom died last week? How could you complain when you were supposed to be a grateful cancer patient? Shouldn’t you be a little more cheerful? Your kid was only lightly maimed.” Okay, no one says lightly maimed anymore, but you get the picture. Hey, I’m Kate Bowler and this is Everything Happens.

So we have rules and we don’t always love rule breakers, except the one sitting in front of me today, Nora McInerny. I’m always a little awed by her. She is the author of It’s Okay to Laugh, No Happy Endings, and The Hot Young Widow’s Club, and is the genius behind a podcast called Terrible, Thanks for Asking. She runs a nonprofit called Still Kickin, which supports people who are going through their own awful times. And when I was having a really bad day, she sent me a present, even though we had never met until today. She breaks all the rules around how we talk about grief, so I feel like I’ve been waiting for this conversation my whole life. So, hello.

Nora McInerny:             Hi Kate.

K.B.:                             So, we have something a little bit terrible in common, which is that our kids were both almost two…

N.M.:                            Yeah.

K.B.:                             When our lives fell apart.

N.M.:                            Yeah.

K.B.:                             I hate starting with the terrible part first, but I wondered if you could tell me what happened.

N.M.:                            Yeah, um, Ralph was 22 months old when my husband, his dad Aaron, died of brain cancer. That was the third in a series of terrible events that happened in 2014. First I lost Ralph’s first sibling at 11 weeks, 6 days, which, as a woman you know, if you just hit 12 weeks…

K.B.:                             Yeah, magic!

N.M.:                            Nothing bad can happen, ever. Nothing bad will ever happen to you or your child, as long as you can get through the first trimester. And I am being sarcastic, but it sure feels like that 12 week mark is like magic. And even though miscarriage is so common, it feels like no one has ever done it. This is the first, the biggest, the worst thing that’s ever happened. And that was, I knew at the time my husband had stage four brain cancer. It had gotten worse. That was our last chance to have a baby, another baby, together. And, my dad was in the ICU. He had been recently diagnosed with cancer…

K.B.:                             Aw.

N.M.:                            And Aaron was like, “I did at first. Just let the record show, your dad is sweeping in here, and trying to take all the glory.” Yeah, and so my dad’s in the ICU. I had this miscarriage. I had a D&C.

K.B.:                             Aw.

N.M.:                            Because I didn’t have time. I didn’t have time to wait. I didn’t have time to go home. I had someone, I had two other people to take care of. Five days later, my dad died…

K.B.:                             Aw.

N.M.:                            And then six weeks after that, Aaron died. And that was when Ralph was almost two years old. So, that’s what I think of when I think about his toddlerhood. I think about his little body in overalls, standing next to his dad’s hospital bed, saying bye. Yeah, so that was 2014. That was almost five years ago, and it feels like…

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            It feels some days, like I’m describing a story I heard from someone else about someone else’s life.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            And then some days, it feels like, like this is happening now. That’s what it felt like on Friday night. I was hanging out with my friend. We were both just bawling like, “What happened?”

K.B.:                             Yeah. I think about that sometimes, like my 2:00 PM and my 2:00 AM self. Like 2:00 PM, I’m fine. Like, I got it together. I mean, maybe something bad happens to me sometimes. And then 2:00 AM, there’s just no room for the ambiguity of pain and I, like, there’s no filter.

N.M.:                            Yeah.

K.B.:                             And everything’s real again.

N.M.:                            Mm-hmm. Yeah.

K.B.:                             There’s this, um, way that you describe Aaron’s sickness, where I just noticed how much you… You were so able to see his heroism in it, how hard he fought to be with you. And then, you know, looking at you, I can tell how hard you fought to stay present with him.

N.M.:                            Yeah.

K.B.:                             It seemed like you got a very intense crash course about this very mutual really no-holds-barred kind of love.

N.M.:                            Yeah, and thank God I did, honestly. I… I’d never really had love before. I mean, I had my parents, I had my family, and I’d had boyfriends and I had love for them, but it wasn’t that. And, I do think that’s so special and I will never have that again. And I am married to a new person and I love him. I will never have that again.

K.B.:                             Mm-hmm.

N.M.:                            We got married one month after his brain surgery, and two weeks after we found out what was the result of that brain surgery. You don’t know right away. And we let ourselves think all kinds of things during those two weeks, like, “Oh, it’s nothing. It’s taking them two weeks to really look at that tumor and tell us it’s actually just a ball of hair. You know, it was actually just a smudge on the screen. Wow. Huh? How embarrassing.”

K.B.:                             Yeah, totally.

N.M.:                            “We got in there, nothin’! Nothing. Crazy.”

K.B.:                             Time has this really shimmery quality to it when you are suspended in the present. And, I mean, the totalizing quality of it is really… it’s such an intense kind of love.

N.M.:                            Yeah, it really is. It really is. And, Aaron, he was a happy person. He was a happy person even when things were awful. We didn’t bright side it for each other.

K.B.:                             Yeah, yeah.

N.M.:                            We never said, like, “Everything’s gonna be, like, you’re gonna be okay. You’re gonna live through this.” Like, we didn’t say those things, but we also… We stayed in that place where it’s like, “You are living a normal life. We’re still contributing to a 401k that you may or may not use. We are still, um, saving our PTO for a vacation that we may or may not get to take. And we are also signing over power of attorney. We are also making a will. We are also making a trust. And I’m doing these things too, even though I know it’s not as urgent for me.”

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            And, we were both present in that way.

K.B.:                             Yeah. Yeah. That’s a certain kind of bravery that asks that you live in both places simultaneously, like the terrible possible and the present.

N.M.:                            And the present! Aaron, he was just always so present. That’s what made him so magnetic. That’s why people loved him. Like, he would walk into a room and he would see you, and you would automatically be a part of what was happening. You know, he would make you a part of it, and you would feel like you belonged at this party, or you belonged in this, you know, in line at the coffee shop. Like you just felt like you belonged.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            And, I never felt that way. I always felt like I was doing an imitation of a person in the world and I avoided anything difficult. I would just stay with a boyfriend until he broke up with me, so that I wouldn’t have to make him feel bad. That’s so bad. That’s so bad. But I remember the day that he went into the hospital. If you scroll way back, real deep, that was 2012. Instagram was just becoming a thing.

K.B.:                             Uh-huh.

N.M.:                            And our first Instagram pictures are like, him at the hospital, that first day. Being like, “Take a picture of me!” Like, “Take a picture of me in the ER. Take a picture of me going to get an MRI. Like, how funny is this? What a strange life.” And I remember them shutting the door to the MRI room and me knowing like, “Okay, so this is one of those moments in life, and I’m here and I can’t leave. And I have to keep my eyes open for all of this.” And, I wrote everything down, starting that day.

K.B.:                             Good for you. Good for you. Yeah.

N.M.:                            Like, I wrote everything down, like what I was seeing in the waiting rooms, and the way Aaron’s hands looked, and just everything. Something shifted that day, where I was like, “Oh, I’m gonna be here. I’m going to be here.” And I’m so glad I was. ‘Cause when I think about it, Aaron did the hard thing and Aaron stayed… He stayed present with me and he stayed present with Ralph. And he let me try to have another dumb baby, like at a point in time where it was obvious that I would be raising those kids without him, and he did that with me. To me, that was the generous thing, because I don’t know that I would have that in me. And um, and he chose that. He chose that. We had Ralph when he was sick. We had Ralph when he had stage four brain cancer, and he chose that. He did that with me.

K.B.:                             Oh man. That’s so… I don’t think, until you described that, that I’d seen it from the, like the desire to keep memory, that love makes you want to like, keep a record immediately.

N.M.:                            Of everything.

K.B.:                             ‘Cause I… Just recently, I discovered my mom had been keeping a diary, but like, she started the second I got sick.

N.M.:                            Yeah.

K.B.:                             That was like, how I smell and the funny things I said. And it was kind of a horrifying revelation, but like, it just bowled me over, because love is in these little details, right?

N.M.:                            Yes, and in like, these moments that you don’t even think have significance until they’re threatened…

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            In some way.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            But yeah, there’s something about wanting to remember it all. And also, I always wanted Aaron to know that I was going to remember him as a person and not as a sickness, and not as a death.

K.B.:                             Yes, that’s right.

N.M.:                            Like…

K.B.:                             “Our love is not eclipsed by this.”

N.M.:                            No! And it’s not just, it’s not defined by this.

K.B.:                             No.

N.M.:                            It isn’t. This is a thing that happened, but Aaron isn’t his death. He was never a sad story. He is not a sad story.

K.B.:                             Yeah, that’s right.

N.M.:                            Yeah!

K.B.:                             That’s exactly right. I like that.

N.M.:                            Yeah.

K.B.:                             Yeah. You’re summing up a lot of thoughts I have. And this is just my like, loving friendship aside, but I think that’s partly why talking about this stuff, it feels so important. And yet, like, the asterisk beside it always is, but we are always more than one thing. And that’s the whole point, is just to be able to be… It’s just hard because everyone wants the neat resolution.

N.M.:                            Oh my God. Everyone, everyone. They, I mean, “Can you be okay now?”

K.B.:                             Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.

N.M.:                            “But it’s over.”

K.B.:                             “But I’m done feeling sorry for you for sure.”

N.M.:                            Yeah. Like, “It was sad for a while, but also like…”

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            “Are you gonna RSVP to that brunch or not?” And also like, “Why not?” Like, “Go be normal, please.” You know? There’s a few words that I don’t enjoy, and one is closure, because I think it’s non-existent. I think that there are some things that just don’t close. And, that doesn’t mean that they stay like, you know, gaping, oozing wounds for the rest of your life, but…

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            You’re different.

K.B.:                             Yes.

N.M.:                            And that’s okay. It’s okay for life to change you, the same way that falling in love changes you, the same way that having a child changes you.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            Like, any momentous event is allowed to and will change you, even without your permission. And we don’t leave a lot of space for people to change, especially if it’s in uncomfortable ways, and I know that about myself too.

K.B.:                             I didn’t realize until you just said that, that I do feel guilty for the way it’s changed me in a way, ’cause I feel like I bring it with me, right? I bring it into conversations. And I think we get away with a lot because we’re both, may I say funny? But truly. But like, being funny about it is partly a coping strategy that I’ve adopted to deal with the fact that I feel tragic.

N.M.:                            Yeah. Yeah. You do have to find a way to, uh, you have to find a way to make it palatable for yourself.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            Truly. And also the fact is that your suffering, and your grief and your tragedy, they’re sort of like, um, an undercurrent to your life now.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            Like, that’s what it is. And that doesn’t mean that it’s every day, every waking moment, that I am like, grieving capital G, wearing black, wearing a veil, bawling my face off.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            It doesn’t. It means that it’s there, but it’s not always at the front. It’s not always the first thing that I present to other people, or even that I feel.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            But I do know that it’s there.

K.B.:                             Yeah. That makes sense to me. I think there is this overwhelming desire for people to follow the Lifescript model, and when people break it, it becomes very noticeable.

N.M.:                            Yeah.

K.B.:                             And…

N.M.:                            Like when people die when they’re 35 you’re like, “What?!”

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            No, no, no, no. When, when kids die, you’re like, “Whoa.”

K.B.:                             Yeah, that doesn’t happen.

N.M.:                            “Don’t do that.”

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            “Don’t do that.”

K.B.:                             Yeah. Your pregnancy in 2017 didn’t fit into a neat story. Can you tell me what happened?

N.M.:                            Oh God. I think about that all the time. I think about that every time I look at that baby. Oh God, I had a secret pregnancy. Okay? You haven’t seen one of those since like, movie stars in the ’20s wearing mumus. Like, just… No, actually, Kerry Washington in Scandal.

K.B.:                             Yeah yeah yeah.

N.M.:                            Always holding a strategic bag, a pillow, a giant glass of wine. I Kerry Washingtoned this pregnancy, um, ’cause I was pregnant and I didn’t know if I was allowed to be.

K.B.:                             Mm-hmm.

N.M.:                            Um, I… Oh God, and that just feels so ungrateful. There’s so much mixed in here, which is, I was pregnant unexpectedly.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            I was pregnant, uh, by a man who was not Aaron, um, a man that I loved and that I’d fallen in love with. And it was not an unplanned baby. It was not a planned baby. It was a, “Should we have a baby someday?” And then, someday happened very rapidly, like extremely, extremely quickly. And, I… We don’t know anything about grief. We don’t know what it’s supposed to look like, but we do know when it deviates…

K.B.:                             Yeah, that’s right.

N.M.:                            From what we think it should look like, right, and should a woman who is grieving the death of her husband, which has happened about 18 months before, should she be happy again? Should she be with another person? Should she be pregnant?

K.B.:                             Should she be?

N.M.:                            I don’t know.

K.B.:                             I love your snarfly nose right now.

N.M.:                            I don’t know. I don’t know. I went on my first book tour pregnant and wearing big dresses and pretending that I wasn’t, and part of it was trauma and being certain that this baby was going to die at any minute.

K.B.:                             Sure.

N.M.:                            Um, I did not trust that the baby was okay until… until he was out of me.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            And I looked in his eyes and even then I was like, “I don’t know. Are we here?”

K.B.:                             Shake him…

N.M.:                            “Are you here?”

K.B.:                             Shake ’em a little.

N.M.:                            Yeah, let’s just… Um, and, they did the little APGAR test and I was like, “How’d he do? Is he staying? Okay.”

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            Um, yeah I feel bad not being grateful for that pregnancy. I feel bad that I spent an entire pregnancy afraid and ashamed and I just will always feel bad about that. I’ll always feel bad about that.

K.B.:                             Well, it sounds like there’s a lot of pressure to fit the category of moving on. Like, you either turn the page and then you have this thing and then now you have the new baby and the new life and congratulations.

N.M.:                            Right. And the truth is it’s both, right? That is also why I don’t say moving on…

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            Because moving on does mean like, okay, so the Aaron thing is over right now, all right? So like, you can’t write a book about that. And like, maybe you shouldn’t be calling yourself a widow anymore and now you have this new family and that is exactly that perfect conclusion. Can you think of a better conclusion, a better happy ending to any story than, “Divorced dad of two meets widowed mom of one and they have a baby together and move to the suburbs and buy a minivan and rescue a dog”? Like, think of a better, neater conclusion than that. You. Can. Not. It’s so good. And also, I had spent that first year after Aaron died in shock, and then also trying to just dodge grief.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            Trying to just outwork and outrun it. That’s what writing a book was. That’s what starting a podcast was. That’s what starting a nonprofit was. It was just me trying to earn my way onto this planet.

K.B.:                             Aw.

N.M.:                            I know, like prove like … Aaron deserved to be here. Like, I don’t, so I better earn my keep and I better make this mean something and I better be good. I better be good at this. And what is a good widow? A good widow is strong and doesn’t need anybody and, uh, is just a fount of inspiration.

K.B.:                             Oh, so inspiring.

N.M.:                            So inspiring. Hashtag inspiration, hashtag uh, like, independent woman.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            And, when I met Matthew, all of that hit me.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            Like, I had to stop. Being in love requires presence. Falling in love requires being present with someone. And once I sat still, all of it hit me.

K.B.:                             Oh man.

N.M.:                            Like, the enormity of what Aaron was to me hit me. The enormity of what I had lost, like not just the presence I had lost with him, but the future I had lost with him, like being with this person who was alive and who loved me like, made me so sad.

K.B.:                             Yes, totally.

N.M.:                            Made me so sad.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            And I did not know how to be all those things at once.

K.B.:                             Yeah, yeah.

N.M.:                            I didn’t know. And, like, who does know what grief is supposed to be? Like, we have such a limited scope of it.

K.B.:                             That’s right.

N.M.:                            But yeah, I mean, I don’t know. You’re supposed to be happy when you have a baby, right? Like, and you’re supposed to have a baby shower and you’re supposed to post pictures of your stomach on Instagram, and you’re supposed to feel anything.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            And I didn’t feel anything. And that was antepartum depression and anxiety, and it was also regular old depression and it was grief and it was trauma.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            Like, all of these things that I had experienced, I’d tried to be like, “Oh, they’re fine. They’re fine. Everything’s fine. I did a good job. I got through it,” and I did not.

K.B.:                             Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. People love to complain about other people’s baggage.

N.M.:                            Yeah.

K.B.:                             And I love that you approached your relationship with Matthew in a really different way. You didn’t mind that he was pre-owned, did you?

N.M.:                            Oh, I love that man’s miles, okay? This dude is, this dude is… I compared to him to a rescue dog before and I don’t know that he loves the comparison, but I do. And if you would’ve had me fill out like a dating profile, it wouldn’t have been like, “I want to date a guy who’s… One to two inches shorter than me, a divorced dad, a divorced dad of like a tween and a teen.”

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            Like, no thank you. I would have been like, “No, no, no, no, no, no. I’ll take somebody who’s like, never been married, has no kids.” Like, that would’ve never worked.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            It would’ve never worked.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            I needed somebody who had been through their own thing, somebody to whom I was never going to be everything. I’m never going to be his everything and he’ll never be mine. Like, we have all of these other… like we’ve been through too much.

K.B.:                             I kind of like that.

N.M.:                            Yeah!

K.B.:                             I love just taking the pressure off of saying like, “There’s so many things that are gonna form us…”

N.M.:                            Mm-hmm.

K.B.:                             “Including our love.”

N.M.:                            And re-form us.

K.B.:                             Yeah, and re-form us.

N.M.:                            Yeah. And I don’t need something big and shiny. I need something sturdy. And I want to build that with somebody.

K.B.:                             Yeah, yeah, yeah.

N.M.:                            And Aaron’s not baggage. Aaron is not this thing I have to hide away. And Matthew’s past is not something he needs to hide away. Like that gives you something to build from. In my case, I had a formative love. I had an amazing example of what it means to be married and what it means to be partnered with somebody and what it means to like, 100% love someone.

K.B.:                             Yeah, yeah, yeah.

N.M.:                            And that’s my standard.

K.B.:                             I like that.

N.M.:                            And Matthew had basically the opposite, which also means we both have another place to build from.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            And that makes you stronger.

K.B.:                             Yeah. Yeah. You match it up.

N.M.:                            Yeah.

K.B.:                             Like a really good Jenga.

N.M.:                            It is a Jenga. It’s a Jenga.

K.B.:                             I like the Jenga.

N.M.:                            Yeah!

K.B.:                             Tell me about the Hot Young Widows Club.

N.M.:                            Oh geez. Um, so the Hot Young Windows Club, a few things. I think you’re hot. No matter what, you’re in. People sometimes are like, “I mean, here’s a picture.” I don’t need a picture!

K.B.:                             Aw!

N.M.:                            It’s just a funny name. Um, you don’t have to be a certain age, you don’t have to be a woman, you don’t have to have even been married. You can lose your husband, wife, partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, in some cases like, your recent ex. And if you have experienced the loss of a deeply romantic partner, you’re in. You’re entered into this club that you didn’t want to join. And at first, this club was my friend Mo and I. Mo is, uh, another widow here in Minnesota. She looks like Jon Bon Jovi in the ’80s and I look like a J. Crew factory model, sale rack

And so Mo and I, if you saw us, you wouldn’t be like, “Oh, those are two people who should be lifelong friends.” And I didn’t want to be Mo’s friend. I didn’t. I didn’t want to go make friends with people who had lost their husbands. Just like when Aaron was sick, I didn’t go to any support groups. I was like, “I want to be a person.”

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            “I want to be a person.” But, uh, Mo and I went to the same coffee shop and then we met and I got to be a person with Mo.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            That was the thing. Because I was not a sad story to Mo and I wasn’t somebody to feel bad for. I was just a person and we talked about everything. We sat for hours and just talked and talked and talked and talked and then we were calling each other in the middle of the night and then we were spending our time together with our kids and it was brunch at our house and it was us gathering up. Anytime somebody heard of somebody who had lost a husband, a wife, a girlfriend, they would get in touch with someone who’d get in touch with someone who would get in touch with someone who get in touch with me or Mo and say, “Can I give them your number?” And we would say, “Yeah, do it.” And… we were just gathering up people who needed this. And then there were too many people to fit into a living room or at a restaurant, and so it’s a secret online clubhouse and it’s men and women of all kinds from all places, and they meet up in real life sometimes and they go on vacations with each other sometimes, and you get out of it whatever you need from it.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            And it is a place where you don’t “should” on other people and it’s a place where-

K.B.:                             Okay say that again, because I remember reading that and I wanted it forever.

N.M.:                            Yeah. You don’t “should” on people. Nobody in this group is going to tell you how you should be grieving or what you should do, and you’re not going to do it to anybody else either.

K.B.:                             Yeah, yeah.

N.M.:                            Because we know that we have no idea. Like, we, it’s none of our business and anyone who’s been there won’t tell you what you should do. They won’t. There’ll be like, “I don’t know. Sounds like you got it figured out or you don’t.”

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            “Either way…”

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            “Go forth.” And it’s a place where we’re not going to compare. People won’t say, “Well, like, well, you know you only were married to your husband for three years. I was married for 40.”

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            “Obviously I’m sadder.”

K.B.:                             Yeah, yeah, yeah.

N.M.:                            That’s not. That’s not a thing-

K.B.:                             Yeah, the Olympics kick in.

N.M.:                            Oh God, the grief Olympics.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            Like weigh it, measure it, like does yours add up?

K.B.:                             I’m really curious about what you were like before, I guess because um… I’ve had a lot of questions about the kind of transformation that grief can bring. I wondered if you felt weirdly more yourself. I guess the other day I realized that maybe I was more, and that really bothered me because I really resist the idea that everyone tries to put on you that you’re supposed to be inspirational or that the perspective that you gain is supposed to equal what you lost.

N.M.:                            Oh or, “I mean, aren’t you better for it though?”

K.B.:                             Screw you.

N.M.:                            “Aren’t you better for it? I mean but aren’t you? Aren’t you? How’s that lemonade?”

K.B.:                             But do you think like, if there’s a range of human experience that having been through the terrible in a way, do you feel like, widened?

N.M.:                            I feel more attuned. Some days I feel like I have no skin and I’m so attuned to the suffering of every single person I see that I can’t bear it.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            I can’t stand it.

K.B.:                             I get that.

N.M.:                            I’ll like, make eye contact with someone and be like, it will all rush in and I’ll be like, “Oh my God, I can see.”

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            And maybe I’m projecting, and I might be. And then some days I can see so much good or I can be more present. But those are my best days. But I do think that I am tuned in…

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            To a wider range of experience because I absolutely would have not been. I would have continued to live on a pretty surface level without this experience, without loving Aaron, period.

K.B.:                             Mm-hmm. I do think in the wake of something like that, there’s the deep desire to remember, right? And then what you said about wanting to deserve it.

N.M.:                            Mm-hmm.

K.B.:                             But like, I really felt so similarly. I wanted to deserve what was left of my life and it made me really reevaluate what risk felt like.

N.M.:                            Oh!

K.B.:                             ‘Cause I was like, “Well, I mean, I think I know now-”

N.M.:                            Who gives a rip? Yeah!

K.B.:                             “What’s terrible.”

K.B.:                             I think I have a different evaluation of what horrible looks like.

N.M.:                            Yep.

K.B.:                             And so I was just like, “Screw it.” So I started the podcast almost immediately just to be like, to want to have conversations around the ambiguity of suffering.

N.M.:                            And also, like, what’s the worst that could happen?

K.B.:                             Well, yeah. If you fail, I mean, okay.

N.M.:                            Okay.

K.B.:                             So no one-

N.M.:                            Yeah!

K.B.:                             You know-

N.M.:                            Your obituary is not gonna be like, “Now remember, Kate Bowler once tried to make a podcast.” That’s not how it goes. And my dad was 64 when he died. I was 31 and so I felt like I was like kick-starting into a midlife or late life crisis ’cause Aaron was 35.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            I had a sense of urgency that was one, what is the worst that could happen?

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            And two, I do want to feel like I’m worthy.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            Of still being alive, of having this place here. And…

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            My friend wrote me a message and she said, “I believe we have a sacred duty to live fully in the face of our losses. It’s a bitch, though.” I was like, “Oh, God…”

K.B.:                             That gave me shivers.

N.M.:                            Right. And that does not mean live like there’s no tomorrow necessarily. It does not mean like, “Oh, live like everything’s going to be fine.” Like live fully. Live with all of these experiences. Live with this pain.

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            And experience the joy when it’s there and try things and be bad at them and laugh at them, cry about them. Like, feel it and do it. Live fully in the face of your losses, and um, it is a bitch. And I think that second part is important. Like…

K.B.:                             Oh, that’s the best part. Yeah, ’cause I think um, I felt humbled, I guess, because cancer made me feel like nothing. And then once I was sort of down there, I realized, well, like, maybe the best thing to do is figure out what gifts are left to give and then just do your best. So, you know I like, I wrote a book and I thought I was going to short circuit my laptop with water damage. I was, like I sat alone in a field. I cried my way through whatever it was. And then I thought, “Well”… You said something, um in your TED Talk, which I loved. I just loved it so much. And you said, “I’m not special.” And that really resonated with me too, because I think the point, right, is that it’s not the uniqueness of pain even though pain is so particular, it’s so specific. But then the goal is to open up that space that pain creates and say like, “Well, we all live here together.”

N.M.:                            Yeah. I remember the night that Aaron died, sitting there. I took a picture of myself in the mirror and I was like, “Tonight is my first night as a widow and somewhere someone is feeling this exact same thing.”

K.B.:                             Aw.

N.M.:                            “Like, someone is going to bed with this exact same feeling.” I think about that all the time when I am experiencing something sad. I think, “Somewhere someone feels this exact same way.”

K.B.:                             Yeah.

N.M.:                            “And somewhere somebody is having the best day ever.”

K.B.:                             Yeah. I think the great gift though that you, I mean, you’ve given me and I know you’ve given other people, is you have actually created more language for people to have simultaneous joy and pain. And when the history of pain is written, Nora McInerney, I think you’ll go down in the books as a real winner.

N.M.:                            That’s all I wanted.

K.B.:                             Would you mind reading that little bit at the end of your book?

N.M.:                            Yes. Okay. I’ll try not to cry, too. Okay.

N.M.:                            “Yes, I have a life I love and a life I miss. Yes, I’m filled with happiness and gratitude and with an eternal ache. Yes, Matthew is my husband and the love of my life, and so was Aaron. Yes, we have all been broken before and yes, we could break all over again. The years will roll on, more joy, more pain, more possibility, more yes, more and, more.”

K.B.:                             Aw. Thank you so much, friend.

N.M.:                            Kate Bowler, thank you.

K.B.:                            There are a lot of shoulds and supposed-tos when it comes to grieving. Society has rules and doesn’t like when we stray from the script. But maybe grief is messier and less linear than we think. Nora reminds me that grief can be both tragic and important. That losing someone you love doesn’t close a chapter because the love is never gone. 

And sometimes… even after everything falls apart.… there is good to be found. But it doesn’t mean that everyone gets a happy ending or give us permission to bright-side other people’s worst possible moments. 

Somehow, there is beauty left on this earth for all of us. That thought sometimes feels impossible. And then, out of the blue, we feel it. A moment. A stupid joke. A moment of rest. A flicker of hope that reminds you of the truth, that love is not done with you yet. 

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Gracious Funders

  • Hello Kate,
    I enjoy your podcast, especially your conversation with Nora McInerny. I have cancer and your book “Everything Happens for a Reason, and All the Other Lies I Have Told” has been my inspirational book in dealing with my grief and my illness. Kate you have given me strength to think about my future in relative terms of survival vs. death. You podcast with Nora has made me realize to celebrate both survival and grief and sometimes can be on any given day together. My cancer is a Stage II Breast Cancer, Grade III Triple Negative Receptor Cancer. I am working with a real good Oncology Team who is healing me. Thank you Kate, I love you.

    • Tammy,
      Thank you so much for sharing this piece of your story with us. We are grateful that the podcast and memoir have been so helpful. I love your thoughts on Nora’s episode! May you continue to discover helpful language, insightful companions, and healing of many kinds!
      Best,
      Kilpy, Team Everything Happens

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