Nora McInerny on the Complicated Trajectory of Grief
The author of ‘No Happy Endings’ and host of the podcast ‘Terrible, Thanks for Asking’ shares a day in her life
There are many ways to live a healthy life. The Health Diaries is a weekly series about the habits that keep notable people living well.
Nora McInerny’s life took a drastic turn when she was 31: In the space of a year, she had a miscarriage, her dad died of cancer, and her first husband, Aaron, died from a brain tumor.
McInerny’s openness about her grief — shared with a touch of humor, a lot of grace, and a massive dose of real talk about how broken she felt — eventually brought her onto the global stage, first in a viral obituary she wrote with her husband before he died, then in her three published books (her most recent memoir, No Happy Endings, was released this year), and later on at stage at TEDWomen 2018 and on her Podcast, Terrible Thanks for Asking. McInerny also runs a nonprofit called Still Kickin’ and writes for a number of different websites.
This week, the bubbly entrepreneur shares with Elemental her love of food freedom, how she finally got her kids to put down their phones, and finding routine in a life she never could’ve predicted.
I love a routine but it took me a long time to embrace that. I used to be like, I’m the only person who doesn’t need a routine! Goofus, yes you do. Children love routines and grown-ups are basically just large children. So now I love a routine. I have a Phillips wake-up light which basically mimics the sunrise so you’re not jolted awake. I use that as my alarm. In Minnesota, where we don’t see the sun for a million years, I need it. I have it set for 5:38 a.m. every morning because I like to wake up at a weird time. The light brightens slowly, then “Morning Edition” starts playing from my local public radio station. I sneak out of bed, get dressed, grab a bottle of water, and go to the gym.
At the gym, I do functional fitness. It’s a program called Alpha and it’s basically olympic weightlifting moves mixed in with some metabolic conditioning. I haven’t owned a scale in 10 years; I don’t care about that. But I love the feeling of being strong and I love doing something really physically demanding before I start my day, before I get sucked into a device.
Then I come home and my husband Matthew is usually awake with the kids. My entire life right now is made possible by the fact that I have this fantastic husband who stepped out of his very successful career in architectural design to support our family. We were burning it at both ends and we were like, what is the point of both of us working this hard? So we can high five at night for the two minutes before we pass out and then wake up and do it all over again? He stepped out of the game a few weeks ago, maybe for the summer, maybe for a year, or maybe for a long time. He’s going to be home with our kids and keep our lives together. He’s so suited for that role in a way that I am frankly not; my children will tell you the same thing!
I have breakfast, which my husband has made. He scrambles me three eggs with Everything But the Bagel seasoning from Trader Joe’s, which is really the only seasoning you need in life, plus some avocado. I drink a cup of coffee. (My husband makes the best coffee. When I’m traveling I’m like, is it even worth it to drink coffee if it’s not his?) We all sit in the same seats at the breakfast table every morning.
Then I go into the dining room, shut the door, put on headphones and write for two hours. It could be a podcast episode or something else; I just have to write. After this, I get ready for the day. I either go to the studio where I work with the rest of my team on the podcast or I go to the office where my nonprofit, Still Kicking, is located. I check my email just twice every day, once in the morning after I write and once in the afternoon. I don’t keep my email open or I will spend my entire day just replying to people and shifting my priorities.
Overall I subscribe to the concept of food freedom. I was a very disordered eater for most of my life; either I only ate things that were extremely healthy, or I wasn’t eating enough, or I was eating anything I wanted like a human dumpster. Food freedom basically says: Do you really want to eat a peanut butter cup? If so, have a peanut butter cup! But if after three bites it doesn’t taste good anymore, you can put it down because there will be another peanut butter cup in your future. You don’t have to stand at the kitchen counter shoving them into your mouth without tasting them, which is what I tend to do. It’s all about not looking at food and saying, “That’s a bad food that I can never have.” There’s a healthy mental balance to it.
Eventually I’m going to be packing a lunch but we haven’t gotten that good yet, so I go to a little plant-based place in the Saint Paul Skyway for lunch. I usually get something gluten-free and vegetarian but it has to be hearty because I like a lot of food. I’m 6 feet tall and I’m strong; I can’t eat like a bird. Also, I always get myself a treat because I like an afternoon treat. And I drink a ton of water even though I don’t enjoy it.
When I come home from work in the summer, we almost always have something grilled for dinner, like vegetables and meat and a salad. My husband also makes really good specialty popcorn on the stove and I eat it absolutely drenched in butter and salt many nights of the week.
We’ve really minimized the amount of phone use in our house. I think we’ve given children — who, by the way, do not have developed prefrontal cortexes — unmitigated access to entertainment, information, and each other. Think about when you were in middle school: If one of your friends wanted to talk to you, they called your home phone and usually your parents picked up. Sometimes they would say, “Nora can’t talk right now, she’s having dinner.” But now they have instant lines to each other!
Children have a very internal emotional life and technology was deeply affecting our kids in a way I didn’t like. So I said: “We’re done. We’re rolling back all these privileges because we truly did not think about any of this as deeply as we should have.” Now I have an app that can shut down their phones at any point in time, which I love. And it’s really made them more thoughtful about the time that they spend on their phones, too. At first there was resistance but now our 13 year old is like, “I want you to take everything off my phone. I just want my phone to be a phone.”
We have a docking station in our kitchen and everybody’s phones are on it at night. We also have a couple shows that are fun for all of us to watch in the evenings. But I’m usually in bed and the TV is off by 9:30 p.m. latest.
Ten years ago if you would’ve told me this would be my life, I wouldn’t have believed you. I would have said: I’m just going to have one job and I’m going to work there until I die. But then my first husband died when I was 31 and he was 35. He was this beautiful, incredible spirit, and the most creative, humble, fantastic person I know. (Everyone says that about a dead person but in my case, it was true.) He had all this potential. I thought, “I’m just going to go back and sit at a cubicle and do something that I don’t really care about now?” I was also deeply, deeply shattered and I could not function. I could not sit at a job and sustain my energy for any amount of time. So I quit.
I always thought either you could be happy or you could be unhappy. Then I met Matthew, my current husband, a year after Aaron died. It was so unexpected. I was not looking for Matthew because I would not have been looking for a man who was one inch shorter than me and divorced with two kids. But I found him and I also found myself better able to be taken care of. I could slow down and actually grieve everything I had lost when Aaron died. But it all felt so wrong. Like, how can you be so sad when you are the luckiest woman in the world? I would think, ‘Look at you. You get to get two big loves.’
But I think most people who’ve lived through something sad know that it’s never just a sad story. There is no such thing as a happy ending. Life continues to delight you and it continues to devastate you. I’m living a life that includes loss but that life also includes great, great happiness.