Friday, September 18, 2020
Reluctant Grief Expert Tells How to Reach Out when Six Feet Apart
Friday, August 28, 2020


The Danish practice “pyt”—an “oh well” attitude for accepting a problem and resetting.

Nora McInerny, a reluctant grief expert, suggests the same attitude phrased differently would serve us during the COVID pandemic.

“We don’t move on from grief. We move forward with it,” she told listeners tuning into the 2020 Sun Valley Wellness Virtual this past weekend. Her talk and others are online through Sept. 7 at Scholarships are available.

Right now, McInerny said, everyone’s grieving as the world goes through a collective form of grief. She herself became a reluctant grief expert in 2014 when she miscarried her second child, lost her father to cancer and then her husband Aaron to a brain tumor—all within six weeks. She spent what would have been her third wedding anniversary at her husband’s funeral.

McInerny and her husband penned his obituary together while watching “Game of Thrones,” revealing how he was Spiderman doing battle with a nefarious criminal named Cancer who had plagued society for too long.

The obituary, which recounted how “he leaves a son who will grow up to avenge his father’s untimely death,” went viral. It helped him have a final say and it helped McInerny as readers sent emails describing how they knew how lonely she must be as they’d gone through their own grief.

“I found so much light in the darkness because of other people,” she said.

Eventually, McInerny distilled what she learned into the podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking,” in which she asks people to tell the truth about what it’s like to go through the darkest times in life. She also wrote “It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too),” “The Hot Young Widows Club: Lessons on Survival from the Front Lines of Grief” and her latest book, “No Happy Endings: A Memoir.”

Her TED Talk ranked among the top 10 in 2018.

As she tried to process all that had happened, she began hearing people tell her how resilient she was. She bristled, given that her definition of resilience was returning to your original shape and quickly.

“And you don’t,” she added. “So, I like to say there’s a terrible club and everyone’s in it.”

For the first time, everyone is in this terrible club at the same time, and it’s terrible, she added. There’s no competition. And you don’t compare yourself to others, saying they have it better or worse.

“What you’re going through is 100 percent uniquely yours--your own grief recipe. It’s about perspective. It’s 100 percent your own.”

McInerny presented a list of 20 reactions people might have experienced since the pandemic began impacting lives five months ago. It includes disbelief, numbness, despair, loneliness, empathy, guilt, exhaustion, tummy troubles, muscle aches, being disorganized and irritability.

All these experiences are symptoms of grief, she said. But, if you compared notes, our experiences would be different based on such things as the culture we were raised in, what our parents told us about how to approach things, the coping mechanisms we have in place and our socio-economic backgrounds.

“We’re all in this together, but we’re all experiencing it in different ways.”

We can be doing our best and still feel not good enough, McInerny said. And there is no finish line.

“The hard part of grief is it can last six to 12 months for people who can talk about it and process it. It doesn’t mean we will never feel it, but things will never feel this bad.”

McInerny recounted how a friend who lost his best friend said the aftermath felt like an individual sport. That’s easy to identify with now when we’re having to navigate working at home, teaching kids through distanced learning and care for elderly parents--all from a distance.

There’s no replacement for not being able to gather together—we being robbed of our very human need for connection. And this disconnect can be excruciating, she added. It’s compounded by the immense feeling of being lonely that many of us are feeling right now.

“I was with a thousand people at Aaron’s funeral but I felt lonely,” she said. “Everybody knows what it’s like to be in a roomful of people and feel lonely. There is nothing you can say to make it better. But you can make a phone call to a friend.”

The most important thing we can offer to ourselves—and others—is empathy, McInerny added.

“That means showing up and trying to feel with. It means the words we use matter. ‘It’s not that bad’ or ‘snap out of it’ is not empathy.”

Neither is the word “should,” she added.

“When you say ‘should,’ you’re judging yourself. Don’t should yourself. Should has never benefitted anyone.”

Suffering and stress have always been lonely, even when you can show up for one another, McInerny said.

“One of the things that made me most lonely was telling people, ‘I’m fine’ when they asked how I was doing. I didn’t want them to pity me. I didn’t want them thinking that after six months I should be better,” she said. “I didn’t have the ability to tell people, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ And everybody who wanted to be there for me couldn’t because I was too concerned with not telling them how I really felt.”

Nobody we know has gone through a global pandemic that’s affected every part of our life, McInerny said. The goal right now is not to try to live up to the definition of resilience and say, “How quickly can we get back to the old Nora?”

“We’re such amateurs in this—just a few months into a life changing experience. You are changing professionally, personally and spiritually. You will come out differently.”

McInerny said she will always resist the idea that we’re meant to return to our original shape. Instead, we need to learn to live comfortably in this new shape, even though it’s not something people want to hear.

“You’re just a few months in this new version of your reality. It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Life is hard.’ All the stories are still being written. But you won’t always feel this bad. Resilience is letting ourselves be changed by our experiences.”

McInerny noted that the Jewish have a mourning ritual called shiva, in which the bereaved discuss their loss and accept the comfort of others. The mourners are not there to try to fix anything but to allow the bereaved to express their sorrow.

“Ask people, ‘What do you need right now?’ ” she said. “It’s absolutely okay to take care of yourself and it’s okay to ask a friend, ‘Are you in a place where I can vent?’ Say, ‘I’m struggling now and I know you are, too. How can we help one another?’ ”







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