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Navigating Losses: Going Through Grief Separate From The Pandemic

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Navigating grief is hard when there's not a global pandemic. And Nora McInerny knows that well. In 2014, she had a miscarriage, and she lost her father and her husband to cancer. And this all happened within several weeks. Since then, she's built a life and a career talking about and finding humor in the midst of grief. She's got a podcast called "Terrible, Thanks For Asking." She's also written a lot of books, and she started her own support system.

NORA MCINERNY: I have a grief group called the Hot Young Widows Club. It's just a name. It's - I made it up when I was 31. It felt funny. I don't know if it is anymore.

(LAUGHTER)

MCINERNY: But, you know, don't worry - my mom's in it.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MCINERNY: And she's in her 70s.

MARTIN: She might be hot. She's probably hot.

MCINERNY: My mom is a babe. She is single. We do want a new dad.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MCINERNY: But I've watched many, many widows join the Hot Young Widows Club. And grief is always so lonely.

MARTIN: All week, we've been hearing from people mourning personal losses that weren't directly connected to the pandemic, but it did shape the way they tried to move on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCASTS)

ERIKA POHLMAN: I think miscarriage is kind of a solitary loss to begin with.

SCOTT WILLIAMS: There's a reason why we have that gathering of people to mourn together - so that you can move along on the next step. And we haven't done that.

JOEL MCLEMORE: It's sort of like you're the last speaker of this language, you know, that no one knows anymore.

MARTIN: That was Erika Pohlman of Solon, Iowa, Scott Williams of Lebanon, Ind., and Joel McLemore of Portland, Ore. I asked Nora about that experience, grieving a loss that feels separate from the pain and drama of the pandemic.

MCINERNY: The pandemic is millions and millions of stories like those. It is my second-grader laying in bed at night, weeping that he doesn't get to go to school, doesn't get to make a friend, that he's lonely. It's all of these things that feel so personal, but those are the things that connect us even outside of a global pandemic. And grief always feels like it's happening just to you.

MARTIN: So many conversations I had over the course of the past year with friends or family - you would say, how's it going? And, you know, they would lay out the suffering, real suffering that they had been facing. And then always - it always finished with, but, of course, we're fine. Like we have much to be grateful for. We're fine. There's this - almost a diminishment of the thing they were going through because it's always comparative.

MCINERNY: Yeah, everybody - I mean, it does feel like there should be some sort of ranking system, doesn't there (laughter)?

MARTIN: Like, I'm only a four. It's OK.

MCINERNY: I'm only a four. I'm only a four. And one time I did go to the ER. I had fallen off my bike. And the nurse said, how does it feel on a scale of one to 10? And I said an eight. And she said, that's a gunshot wound.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MCINERNY: And I'd never been injured before. So I was like, why tell me a scale? This is an eight to me.

MARTIN: Right. It's my eight.

MCINERNY: And it is all - it's this scale that just does not translate. It just doesn't...

MARTIN: Right.

MCINERNY: ...Even if you're all grieving the same thing, too. My husband died. I was, as far as I know, his only wife. He was his mother's only son. He was his sister's only brother. We lost very different relationships, even though it was technically, you know, legally speaking, the same person. One death certificate - three very different brands of grief.

MARTIN: And, of course, so many people have been robbed of the ritual around grieving, right?

MCINERNY: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit about what that does to a person to not have - I hate the word closure, but to not have that that mark in time, that moment when people come together to celebrate a life.

MCINERNY: Oh, I didn't even know to be grateful for the fact that I got to do that until I watched other people lose that privilege. I mean, the people who have experienced a very - a primary loss like that, like a mother, a father, a partner, they're - the loneliness of grief is compounded by their inability to, I mean, have somebody sit on the couch and hold your hand. And what I have been telling everybody who is suffering right now is that if you are struggling, you need to tell the people who love you, the people who want to show up how to do that for you.

MARTIN: Yeah. Do you think we as a culture, as a society, after enduring so much loss collectively over the last year - do we come out wiser and better and more empathetic, perhaps?

MCINERNY: Some of us. Some of us. But America is addicted to positivity and to our own sense that everything is fine. We're going to - you know, we're doing a good job - to the harm and detriment of so many people.

MARTIN: There's a tendency in conversations like these to always find some kind of grace note to end on, right?

MCINERNY: I know. I'm so sorry. You should not have interviewed me (laughter).

MARTIN: No, this is - but the whole point is that we can't rely on other people to articulate that for us. It's OK to sit in the sad.

MCINERNY: Yeah. And honestly, like, we're just at the beginning of it. We're just at the beginning of it. And what this whole, like, coming up with a vaccine and this - which is an amazing accomplishment. Thank you so much for doing that, science. Like, we - that to me feels like the funeral. The funeral is a marker. But your grief isn't done at the funeral.

MARTIN: Nora McInerny, it has been such a pleasure talking to you.

MCINERNY: A dream come true. I also promised myself I wouldn't say that. What a freaking nerd. I'm so sorry.

MARTIN: It was great. Nora - you should check out her podcast. It's called "Terrible, Thanks For Asking." Happy New Year, Nora.

MCINERNY: Oh, thank you. And you know what? 2021 might not be any better. And you know what? Honestly, it has taught me the joy of being OK. A good day is not a 10. A good day is a five. A 10 is exceptional.

MARTIN: Yeah.

MCINERNY: Like, just be happy with a five. Like what a great day. Nothing terrible happened? Wonderful. Sounds great. Also, I'm giving you the Minnesota goodbye, which is, like...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MCINERNY: That's my country of origin. Like, someone says goodbye to you, and you're like, one more thing. And now I will follow you to your car.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALUM GRAHAM'S "TABULA RASA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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