The pressure to wear a smile and a veil of optimism — no matter how it feels inside — pervades culture. Nora McInerny has spent the last decade bucking that system.
The writer, speaker and host of the popular podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” says her work is about creating spaces filled with emotional honesty without “bumming everybody out.”
Take answering the question “How are you?” for example.
“Nobody actually wants to say they’re ‘Terrible, thanks for asking,’” McInerny says with a chuckle but changes it up by adding some people might actually want to respond that way. “I’m trying to make more opportunities, more spaces where you can say that … without ruining the vibe at the baby shower.”
McInerny is known worldwide as a grief expert, albeit a reluctant one, at least in the beginning. In 2014, McInerny lost her second pregnancy through miscarriage, and both her husband and father died of cancer — all within a matter of weeks — just before the holidays. Immersed in sadness and trauma and with the responsibility of parenting a toddler, the then-31-year-old widow couldn’t envision a future without pain.
“I could not even see the end of the week. I couldn’t see the end of the day. I couldn’t see anything at all,” McInerny says. “I thought, ‘If I can get through today. Great.’ And then every day I would wake up and think, ‘Oh shit. Again, still? Oh boy.’”
The obituary that McInerny and her now-late husband had penned together went viral, and people all over the world reached out to McInerny with stories of their own heartbreak and loss. McInerny forged companionship with them. She founded a support group (the Hot Young Widows Club) and a nonprofit organization called Still Kickin that helped “awesome people get through awful things.”
With a background in advertising, she’s also shared her grief very publicly in the form of articles, essays, speaking engagements, five books, social media posts, a website, and her popular podcast (often referred to as TTFA by its fans, the Terribles). At times, McInerny has questioned whether she’s shared too much.
Throughout her work, McInerny bravely and consistently welcomes raw feelings and all the hard stuff while exuding a gentleness sprinkled with empathy and humor, especially the self-deprecating kind. She has a gift for genuine listening without dispensing unwanted advice.
Her 2018 TED Talk on grief has nearly 7 million views. She tells audience members that happy endings might bring comfort to those living “grief-adjacent” but they aren’t a realistic endpoint for those who are “grief-stricken.”
“We need to remember that a grieving person is going to laugh again and smile again,” McInerny tells the audience. “If they’re lucky, they’ll even find love again. But yes, absolutely, they’re going to move forward. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve moved on.”
McInerny’s latest book, “Bad Vibes Only (and Other Things I Bring to the Table)” shares themes with the live TTFA show that is scheduled to make a stop Sunday, April 2 at Liberty Hall.
To clarify, McInerny noted the other things she brings to the table include a love of airport dropoffs and pickups; “zero detailed planning” — much to the chagrin of the man she lovingly refers to as her “current husband”; an element of surprise; and her tall stature. (McInerny stands 6 foot and a quarter-inch tall barefoot, and she measures 6 feet, 4 inches in clogs.)
“I can reach almost anything,” McInerny quips. “If you’re at Target and you can’t, I will get it for you. And often, if I’m at Target, I spend a significant amount of my time there reaching things for people.”
In the 19 essays packed into “Bad Vibes Only,” McInerny confronts toxic positivity, her own shortcomings within her relationships, mommy guilt, bad bosses, perfectionism, ageism, societal expectations, judgment in the era of social media, and much more.
McInerny says live audiences on the Bad Vibes Only Tour will experience a show similar to the “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” podcast; however, each unique production contains multimedia elements and won’t be recorded for broadcast. Audience members will leave feeling connected to themselves, the strangers with whom they saw the show, and the world around them, according to McInerny.
“This is an exploration into the phrase ‘Bad vibes only’ and as told through life’s stories, my own and some of our listeners, so it will be funny,” she says. “You will leave it feeling lighter, feeling comforted, feeling some form of catharsis. It will not bum you out.”
Now 40, McInerny says her life has evolved into something way beyond anything she could’ve ever imagined in 2014. She found love again, had a baby and remarried. She’s the matriarch of a blended family of six that relocated from Minneapolis to Phoenix, where the warm sunshine helps McInerny get through the days.
With the same candidness she’s cultivated with audiences during the last decade, McInerny addresses whether suicidal thoughts entered her mind during that dark period nine years ago.
“I used to say ‘no,’” McInerny said. “And then after speaking to a therapist, I realized that I had a lot of passive suicidal ideation. So I would just think, if I was on a plane with my son, ‘OK, well, hopefully if it crashes, we both die at the same time.’”
Somehow, at what McInerny calls the “intersection of the awful and the absurd,” her longtime desire to be a writer found its audience. In making that match, McInerny hopes her fans no longer feel alone in their grief; however, McInerny won’t apply the adage “Everything happens for a reason” to her own life.
Hearing the phrase causes McInerny to drop her head of pink hair within inches of her desktop. McInerny isn’t mad at those who stand by that maxim, but she won’t let the question pass without coupling her answer with a joke.
“If that comforts you, I am so glad that it does,” McInerny says. “I personally do not think that my husband died so I could have a podcast. I don’t think that … he laid down his life so I could have (this). Maybe if I had like an HBO show? Maybe that.”
After the joke lands, McInerny continues.
“The hardest thing, is that things that bring some people comfort are so painful for other people to hear. And there will never be a good enough reason why some people have better lives than others.”
McInerny thinks the ability to find funny and absurd things during sad moments while simultaneously acknowledging the gravity of a tough situation has served her well as a self-described sensitive or “soft person in a hard world.”
“But the thing about grieving … there’s so much anger,” McInerny says. “And sometimes that can calcify around people, and you meet people like that. And I don’t blame them either. I really don’t. But I have a lot of softness, and I’m proud of that.”
McInerny will take the stage at 7 p.m. Sunday, April 2 at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St. General admission tickets range from $25 to $40, plus fees. Find tickets and more information about “Terrible, Thanks for Asking Live” at this link.
Get mental health help in Lawrence
These resources are available 24/7 if you or someone you know needs immediate mental health help:
• Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center: 785-843-9192
• Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ (formerly Headquarters): 785-841-2345
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Dial 988; veterans, press 1
• SAMHSA Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator and Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
If our local journalism matters to you, please help us keep doing this work.
Don’t miss a beat … Click here to sign up for our email newsletters
Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.