How to live happily when there are no happy endings

By Sarah Buttenwieser

Chances are, if you’re familiar with Nora McInerny, and her podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking, you’re well aware of her story. In the space of just six weeks, at age 31, McInerny had a miscarriage, and then experienced two more profound losses: that of her father to cancer followed by her husband, Aaron, to glioblastoma. Afterwards, she quit her job and spent a number of months in vagabond mode with her toddler son, Ralph, now six. She’d blogged about Aaron’s illness and together they wrote his obituary, which went viral. McInerny published It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too) in 2016. This spring, she published No Happy Endings as well as The Hot Young Widows’ ClubHer TED talk is about carrying grief forward rather than getting over it.

McInerny’s books are eminently engaging, and they will—I guarantee—make you laugh and cry. In No Happy Endings, the story of moving from being a widowed mom with a toddler to creating a blended family without all leaving her grief behind, makes for a compelling and relatable read.

I was fortunate enough to speak to Nora McInerny and ask her some of my burning questions.

Sarah Buttenwieser: I’m curious whether the process of writing your first book differed from writing No Happy Endings.

Nora McInerny: I wrote my first book in a four-month period. I was in a different kind of pain then. It was very raw. The book reflects chaos: I was living on the road, with one kid. I wrote at two in the morning, I wrote in coffee shops, on different people’s couches, including mine.

By the time I wrote No Happy Endings, which is a reprocessing of my grief, I had a husband, four kids, a daily routine. I had a person. Every single day, I wrote for two hours before work, and then I went to my job. The book was part of my daily life.

SB: Did you worry about what the big kids would think of your writing including them?

NM: Luckily, my kids don’t read any of my writing. My stepdaughter, Sophie, is 12, and she was friends with my niece before I met Matthew, my current husband. My niece read the book. Sophie only read the chapter about her. Of me, Sophie says, “she isn’t that interesting to me.”

SB: I love what you write and say about carrying grief forward rather than getting over it. How often do you forget this and struggle against your grief? Or are you at this point just really, really comfortable with it?

NM: Now that I have accepted grief as part of my life, there are days when it feels extremely fresh or extremely raw. Days when I am crying at the grocery store and can’t explain it. And there are days when it’s bearable.

SB: You’ve told your own story many times over. Do you feel comfortable sharing it, having done so often or does it remain a vulnerable experience?

NM: It’s a vulnerable story no matter what. Anybody knows how to tell their own story. Some days, though, I just can’t. Doing it onstage, it’s different than going to therapy, different from talking to friends about it, but sometimes it feels the same.

SB: It’s a unique story.

NM: I did meet one person who had all those same events—miscarriage, lost dad, lost husband—in the same order, and same timeline. It did feel cool, to be honest.

SB: How do you refuel?

NM: People sometimes tell me they are surprised I’m actually a very funny person.

SB: I’m surprised anyone’s surprised. It seems to me like Aaron was so funny it would have been impossible for him to marry an unfunny person.

NM: Yes! All I do is watch funny stuff. All my Netflix recs are comedy and I use humor as a coping mechanism. I couldn’t do this work if I wasn’t funny.

When I am with the kids, I try to be very, very present with them. I’m also better able to stop now. I have specific routines, but when it’s time to stop, I stop. I definitely work a lot less than a lot of people I know.

Some days, I don’t want to leave them to be on the road. But you know, it’s impossible to be a mom. I missed the kindergarten talent show because of this work trip, which I rescheduled so I wouldn’t miss the kindergarten graduation. I didn’t know about the kindergarten talent show. At the same time, I don’t want to leave, I do want our kids to know we work for the things we have. I want them to know I like the work I do. We write everything on a big calendar that’s kind of like a whiteboard but it’s glass, and that way Ralphie, my six-year-old, knows when I’ll be gone, both in the month we’re in and I have a place to write upcoming trips, too, so he’s never surprised. The toddler doesn’t care at all. He’s his dad’s kid and asks for his dad when I walk in to get him in the morning. I was just a vessel, as far as he’s concerned.

SB: Now that No Happy Endings has been out for a couple of months and you’ve been on tour with it, how do you feel about it? I heard you speak about disappointment over it’s not being a bestseller when you filled in as cohost on the Forever 35 podcast and am curious about the standards you hold yourself to, because clearly you are an ambitious person.

NM: My feelings about the book change. First off, if anyone had told me I’d have written a book, let alone three, I would have thought I’d be so happy about that. So, yes, I wanted that externally validating label of bestseller. Until I’m out on tour and I meet a person, many people, really, who has interacted with the book and it’s meant a lot to them and they want to tell me about it. Well, it’s hard not to feel pride about that. It’s a pretty cool feeling. I know when I’m in a bad place because I’m too focused on the bad things, the more I’m focused on external validation, the less happy I am. I know if the book had been a bestseller, I would’ve felt happy about it for like, six minutes, and then I’d have begun to want the next thing. It is extremely moving to know how deeply the book and the podcast touch people, that they come out, stand in line to meet me, have me sign the book, and just spend a few moments telling me about their experiences of these things I have made.

SB: You have done so much in a very condensed period of time: nonprofit, new baby, blended family, podcast and three books—what will you do next?

NM: Well, first off, I don’t do everything myself. Terrible, Thanks for Asking has a team, an actual staff that does so much of the work. Still Kickin, the nonprofit I founded with Aaron, it has a staff. The Hot Young Widows’ Club has someone helping. My kids are definitely more self-sufficient. Three out of four wipe their own butts. But I have done many things in a short period and the podcast, my job, that’s ongoing. We’re still making a podcast. I have some ideas but I’m not rushing off to figure out what’s next. I’m trying for the first time to metabolize my accomplishments.

Sarah Buttenwieser is a writer (and avid podcast listener) whose work has appeared on Motherwell, Washington Post on Parenting, Paste Magazine and the New York Times, amongst others. 

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