After a three-year battle with brain cancer, it was revealed in his obituary that Nora McInerny’s late husband, Aaron Purmort, was actually Spider-Man and was once married to Gwen Stefani.
The humorous and touching tribute she wrote with Purmort went viral three years ago. Mere weeks before watching him succumb to the disease (which she described in her blog My Husband’s Tumor), the author had a miscarriage and lost her father to cancer. She documented the roller coaster of emotions that come with such significant loss in her book, It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too). The perceptive memoir challenges preconceived notions of grief and loss.
In addition to raising her son Ralph, McInerny co-founded the Facebook support group Hot Young Widows Club and founded the nonprofit Still Kickin. Her family has changed, too. McInerny remarried, gave birth to another son, and became a step-mother. As she says in her book, this isn’t moving on but forward.
Last year, she became the host of the critically acclaimed public radio podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking, which asks people to be honest about their pain.
“We talk about heavy things but I’m not trying to be the number one podcast in the biggest bummer category,” she says. “I’m trying to make it a little less lonely to go through these things by creating a show where normal everyday people can be heard and seen.”
In anticipation of her appearance at Changing Hands Phoenix on June 29, McInerny talked with New Times about how she managed to become culturally aware despite growing up without Full House, how looking at the bright side can weigh us down, and life after death. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
New Times: I could relate to It's Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too) because I lost my mom in my 20s…
Nora McInerny: I’m sorry.
It’s okay. As you say in the book, the grief never goes away. There’s no closure. It never gets easier.
People just assume it does or they just stop asking about it, like it’s old news.
But I loved the book because you tell it with an eye toward pop culture. How did you acquire your taste when, as you mention throughout the book, your dad never even let you watch Full House?
When you deny a child something, they will binge on it whenever they have the opportunity. So I would go to friends’ houses and sit in front of their TVs like a zombie. My friends were probably like, “What is wrong with this girl? I thought we were going to play.” No, I am just here to watch TV in your basement.
My dad had the weirdest sense of humor, so when something was funny to him, we would watch it all the time. We would remember different lines from movies like Dumb and Dumber and Tommy Boy, which was also filled with inappropriate content but we’d watch together.
Aaron was an encyclopedia of pop culture. Just being with him, I learned so much more. He was so funny. The combination of being loved by two people for whom humor was a foundation in their personality helped shape me.
How would you describe your podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking?
I describe TTFA as a podcast that has honest and empathetic conversations about what everybody goes through eventually but has a hard time talking about. Everybody in the world suffers, will know loss, and will be touched by illness. These are experiences that seem so outlandish and only happen to other people until you are the other people.
You know this because you lost your mother. I said I was sorry your mom died and I meant it because it is so foundational. You told me it's fine but it isn’t really. You don't want to make me uncomfortable. Your friends have probably stopped asking about your mom even though she’s still your mom. She’s your dead mom, but she’s still your mom. We are so good at making things palatable for other people and that is to our detriment.
I was so lonely after Aaron died. It was because I kept telling everyone that I was fine. As a result, the people who loved me and really wanted to help me assumed I was telling the truth. I made myself unknowable to them. I made it impossible for them to help me in any real way.
You make a good point because listening to the third episode of your podcast—where the deaf gentleman tells about his mother passing away during the holidays—made me cry. My mom passed away on Christmas Eve. I cried because there was someone else out there who went through what I did.
The minute that Aaron died I was thinking, “Somewhere around the world someone is feeling this same thing.” Since then, I’ve met people who have lost their person on that same day that same year. It doesn’t mean your loss isn’t unique or doesn’t mean something. By talking about someone else’s experience, it does make things less lonely.
Even though we are discussing a book and podcast that deals with death and grief, it does feel weird talking about it so frankly with you. Why do you think these topics are so uncomfortable for people?
We all live in this world of oppressive optimism. The bad things that happen to you make you stronger and give you a deeper understanding of the world. You can find meaning in those things, but they are fucking hard and they fucking hurt. Nobody wants pity, but you want to feel understood and acknowledged.
We don’t know what grief looks like and assume it ends after the funeral. I didn’t know grief would stay with me. Death is not the opposite of life. It is a part of our lives and we are all going to die. Everyone we love will die. Pretending that it can all be contained in a five-day period between the death and the burial is stupid.
I know you grew up Catholic. Has any of this changed your thoughts about life after death?
I am not currently Catholic. I would say I am more of a liberal Lutheran. I never really thought that heaven is a location. Before my dad died, he was lying in his bed in the ICU talking about death. He said, “We never leave each other.” He said he dreamed he was a child at home. His mom was on the landing. He slid down the banister and into her arms. Then he woke up.
[Crying] To me, I feel like death is like coming home and we are everywhere and nowhere at once. I feel the presence of Aaron and my dad still. It’s not as good as having them alive, but that is the next best version.
I grew up so afraid of death. I am not afraid of death anymore. I think that being present with someone when they are dying is beautiful and valuable. I don’t regret being there and seeing it happen. Death is a beautiful transition.
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After going through an experience like you have, is it difficult to accept it when something good happens?
I think you can live thinking the good times won't last or maybe you don’t deserve them, or you can just accept them as the gifts that they are.
If I were dead, I would want Aaron to be so happy. I know that he would miss me and be grateful for the time he still had.
That is what I try to do. No one honors their loved ones by curling up around the loss. We honor them by being as alive as we can for as long as we can and doing as much good as we can in this world.
Nora McInerny is scheduled to appear on Thursday, June 29, at Changing Hands, 300 West Camelback Road. Admission is free. For more information, visit the Changing Hands website.