A Funny Woman’s Guide to Grieving

Author Nora McInerny explains the futility of buried emotions and why ‘fine’ is a curse word in her house

Going viral is every writer’s dream. But in 2014, author Nora McInerny shot to fame for a terrible reason: a hilarious obituary that she wrote with her husband, creative director Aaron Purmort, who died of glioblastoma a year into their marriage, leaving behind a young son. They wrote the piece—in which he called singer Gwen Stefani his first wife and referenced a career as Spider-Man—from his hospice bed. 

Weeks before her husband’s death, McInerny had lost both a pregnancy and her father. She talked about the surreal unfairness of it all with a blend of humor and irony.

“The worst thing about going through anything difficult is that you’re at the center of your own experience, but why should you be the captain of your own sinking canoe?” she asked.

Now McInerny is best-known for a cathartic podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking, a space for people to talk about grief and other thorny feelings. She also takes on toxic positivity culture in books such as Bad Vibes Only and No Happy Endings. On a personal note, she’s remarried and part of a blended family.

McInerny spoke at Tufts’ Distler Performance Hall on March 13 as part of the Tisch College Solomont Speaker Series, making the crowd laugh (and cry a bit) with takeaways on honesty, unvarnished truth, and vulnerability.

You never know what’s going on behind the scenes in someone’s life.

McInerny talked about her husband’s funeral, where some tone-deaf mourners shared platitudes about how lucky she’d been to find love. This made her want to suppress her grief. 

“I was going to become the fastest, hottest, coolest griever since Jackie Kennedy,” she said.

On the surface, she pretended to be fine. In private, “I was not very fine. I wasn't sleeping. I had lost my job. I was drinking a lot while also watching old seasons of The Real Housewives,” she said. 

Nora McInerny in front of a projection screen

McInerny lost her father, a pregnancy, and her husband within seven weeks of each other. She talked about the surreal unfairness of it all with a blend of humor and irony. Photo: Alonso Nichols

We feign happiness to avoid pity.

 McInerny reflected on how so many friends ghosted her once her husband got diagnosed—the same friends she’d partied with just weeks prior. She’d see their photos on Instagram, having brunch just down the street from her house, and sense their whispers. 

“Pity is the cheapest emotion,” she said. “And it was so dehumanizing: I could not risk people looking at me like I was just a sad story.”

But false emotions only isolate you. 

“Every time I told somebody that I was fine, I was just placing a river between them and myself,” she said. “And it’s hard to be honest with other people if you haven’t been honest with yourself.” 

She asked the audience to text her in real time with their own buried emotions, reading many of them aloud: sadness over fading friendships, uncertainty about the future, sick pets.

“You are not alone,” she said.

Your support system might surprise you. 

People might stop asking how you’re doing. Close friends might evaporate. Others might shock you with their steadfastness. When it comes to grief, or any hard emotion, support should be measured by quality, not quantity.

“The people who show up are the right people. You don’t need a million [people.] You need one or two. And the people who love you might not be there,” she said. “Sometimes, we’re so afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing that we just don't do or say anything, and you let the silence sit there and grow until it feels like a chasm too wide for any of us to cross … but one stranger who understands your experience can do what all the friends and family in the world can’t do.” 

‘Do unto others’ is overrated, so say what you need. 

“The Golden Rule is one of the dumber things we’ve ever been taught,” she said. 

McInerny reflected on how she didn’t hear from anyone in her family on her husband’s death anniversary. She was hurt and fired off a group text. The phone immediately rang. Her siblings and mom assumed she’d want to be alone—because it’s what they would’ve wanted, and because McInerny wasn’t transparent about her grief. 

McInerny learned that she needed to be explicit about her needs and her loneliness, instead of glossing it over and pretending to be happy. 

“Now, in my household, there’s one [curse] word, and that’s ‘fine,’” she said. “You don’t need to alchemize your sorrow into something shiny and palatable for other people.”

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