Wellness Wednesday: Nora McInerny on grief and gratitude

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Nora McInerny.
Nora McInerny. (courtesy photo)
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Here we are: the most wonderful time of the year! In the year 2020, though, is it the most wonderful time of the year?

Nora McInerny is the creator and host of the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking, and the founder of the Hot Young Widows Club, an online support group. She talked with Jill about grief...and gratitude. Listen to the interview above, and read a transcript of the complete conversation below.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health.

Nora, how are you?

Honestly, today I am doing pretty well. I remembered to take my Zoloft. I stopped myself at one-and-a-half cups of coffee instead of just finishing that second and reaching for a third, which would obviously just make my heart explode...and the sun is shining, so I'm pretty good.

You are in Phoenix, so you got the heck out of Minnesota.

I have defected. As evidenced in my accent, in the way that I present my vowels, do not worry: I shall always be a Minnesotan.

Nora, I was thinking of you recently. I listen to your podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking, and you recently had a guest who was talking about the subject of toxic positivity. I'd never heard that term before, and I was like, ooh, tell me more, because Nora, during this time of the year, the holiday season, I think I fall into emitting this toxic positivity. I'm kind of pressured to feel like this time of the year, I need to be joyful, I need to be happy, I need to be full of gratitude, but that can be a front.

The guest you're talking about is Susan David. She's amazing. She works at a place called Harvard Medical School, ever heard of it? She has this book called Emotional Agility, and she is kind of one of the people who's been at the forefront of studying emotion. One of the things that I've learned from her is, I've always been an emotional enthusiast. Always. Like, I feel a feeling, I feel it hard. Our emotions are signaling things to us. They are telling us what we value. They are telling us that something is aligned or misaligned, and when we try to force happiness — which is something that we've all done — it all comes out eventually. So as much as we would love to say, in 2020, let's just make this a really good holiday season...that's just not possible for everybody, and there's such immense value in acknowledging that, in being honest with ourselves. You can be honest with the people around you and just say, hey, are you guys really just not feeling it this year? We can't get together, so what if we just acknowledge how hard this was instead of trying to shoehorn this [year's] experience into what we believe the experience should be.

Nothing good ever came from the word "should." If you hear yourself saying that — like, well, we should be happy, we should — it's a form of gaslighting yourself.

Nora, when it comes to the word "grief"...I've heard the word "grief" a lot this year, and that we should grieve not just people, but the things and the traditions that maybe we need to let go of this year.

Yeah, grief...that is something that specifically, we tend to sort of use that word for special occasions, and a special occasion is typically someone dies. Grief has always been about more than death, and I'm not the only person who's felt a little bit of resistance to that.

My husband, Aaron, died in 2014. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2011, and I remember someone suggesting that I was experiencing grief. I was livid! How dare you say that? He's alive, and I would never grieve! I was not grieving him: I was grieving the lives that had been completely upended, the experience that I assumed we would have as young people who had just fallen in love. That was absolutely grief. I can look back at that time in my life and say oh yeah, that was grief. You are allowed and will grieve many, many things in a lifetime, and I love to see people acknowledging this [year's] experience as a grief experience. It is unquantifiable, and it is not a contest. Okay?

So, when we are all in this together, sure, yes, big asterisk, we are all experiencing this very, very differently — we don't need to compare our experiences against one another, because they don't compare. So it is entirely possible, and it is happening right now, that my seven-year-old is grieving. We moved to a new city, he got to go to second grade for like five minutes, he is experiencing grief right now. By the way, he does still carry grief for the dead dad that he barely got to know. Those two things can exist and they do not need to be compared to one another in terms of severity or weight.

I think there is a little bit of American emotionlessness that makes it very, very hard for us to acknowledge that we can all be experiencing different kinds of grief without making it a contest, without turning our experience into a yardstick to measure by. And by the way, even if there were a grief contest, who would want to win it?

You wrote a piece for the New York Times recently, and I'm so glad that you wrote this line here: "It's hard to accept a reality that you did not choose, but 'fake it 'til you make it' is not a healthy emotional coping strategy." Let me tell you, Nora, I used to buy into that whole thing of "fake it 'til you make it."

Mm-hmm. And where'd it get you?

It didn't work out great! It kind of came out sideways, to tell you the truth.

Yeah, it really does. I wrote that piece in the New York Times specifically about that first Thanksgiving after my husband died. It was three days after he died. Three days. What do you think we did?

You still had Thanksgiving, didn't you?

We had Thanksgiving. We tried to have a normal Thanksgiving during the most abnormal year, and our tradition as a family is rolling with it. So this year will absolutely not be the same, and we have eliminated any sort of pressure around it. So my kids know, well, we're not going to see anybody outside of our home on Christmas. You are going to pick out a gift and mail it to one cousin. They will also mail you one gift, because that's what's doable. In the year 2020, who has the money to be buying a gift for everybody in their family? Nobody. The adults in our family? We don't need gifts. Kids only. So, we faked it that first year. I will never fake it again.

You ended that piece by saying something to the effect of making space. We talked about the word grief, and also about the word "gratitude" as well, and really kind of making space for both of them this year.

They're not antonyms. Grief is not the opposite of gratitude, and for a lot of people, "gratitude" is used as sort of a cure for what ails you. Just write in your gratitude journal! Write three things that you're thankful for! Recognizing the things that you can be grateful for does have a positive effect, but not at the cost of recognizing what is truly hurting you.


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