The messy, complicated truth about grief
IDEAS TED TALKS
May 1, 2019 / Nora McInerny
Mourning the loss of a loved one isn’t efficient, compact or logical, and it changes us forever, says writer Nora McInerny. She explains why.
I quit my job shortly after my husband Aaron died in 2014 following three years with brain cancer. It made sense in the moment, but I needed money to keep my son and myself alive so I went to a networking event to hopefully make connections. I was introduced to a successful woman in her early 70s who everyone referred to as a “legend.” She wanted to meet me for coffee and I thought, “What could she possibly see in me?”
What she saw in me was herself. She had been 16 when her boyfriend died. He was her first love and they were teenagers in a different era, when it was perfectly plausible that you would be married after high school. Instead, he went to the hospital one day and never came back. She learned later that he’d died of cancer, which his parents had kept secret from him and from his friends. They didn’t know how to talk about it, and they didn’t want him or his friends to worry.
This boy had died decades ago. She was married, a mother and a grandmother. And she told me about his death as if it had happened weeks ago, as if she were still 16, still shocked and confused that her beloved was gone and she’d not had a chance to say goodbye. Her grief felt fresher than mine did, because I didn’t feel anything yet.
The only guarantee about grief is that however you feel right now, you will not always feel this way.
Time is irrelevant to grief. I cannot tell you that it will feel better or worse as time goes by; I can just tell you that it feels better and worse as time goes by. The only guarantee is that however you feel right now, you will not always feel this way.
There are days when Aaron’s death feels so fresh that I cannot believe it. How can he be gone? How can it be that he will forever be 35 years old? Likewise, there are days when his death feels like such a fact of my life I can hardly believe that he was ever not dead. I thought I would be able to control the faucets of my emotions — that certain days (his birthday, his deathiversary) would be drenched in meaning, and most days would not.
I wish that were the case; I wish we could relegate all our heaviest grieving to specific days of the year. It would certainly be more efficient. Instead, I know that I have some friends who will understand perfectly when I call them to say that the entire world feels heavy, that I’ve been crying for reasons I can’t quite explain other than that I am alive and Aaron is not, and the reality of that happened to hit me in the deodorant aisle, when I spotted Aaron’s favorite antiperspirant. I bought a stick for myself, so that my armpits and his armpits would be forever connected.
In 2017, Lady Gaga released her Joanne album, named for an aunt who died before she was even born. The titular song is 100 percent guaranteed to make you cry, and it’s written about someone Lady Gaga never even met. In her Netflix documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two, she plays the song for her grandmother and bawls uncontrollably. Her grandmother listens to the song, watches Gaga weep, and thanks her for the song. She does not shed a tear. Their grief — even for the same person — is different. The roots of grief are boundless. They can reach back through generations. They are undeterred by time, space or any other law you try to apply to them.
The woman I met had lived far more of her life without that boyfriend than with him. Time had not healed that wound, and it never will.
A common adage is “time heals all wounds.” It is true physically, which I am grateful for because I am typing this while hoping the tip of my thumb fuses back together after an unfortunate kitchen accident involving me attempting to cook a potato. But it is not true mentally or emotionally. Time is cruel. Time reminds me of how long Aaron has been gone, which isn’t a comfort to me.
The woman I met for coffee had lived far more of her life without that boyfriend than she had with him. Her grandchildren were now the same age she’d been when she lost him. Time had not healed that wound, and it never will. If you’re still sad, that’s because it’s still real. They are still real. Time can change you, and it will. But it can’t change them, and it won’t.
And here’s some advice for the grief adjacent. For you, time marches on, steadily and reliably. A year is just a year. A day is just a day. You are not aware of the number of days it’s been since they took their last breath or said their last word. You’re not mentally calculating when the scales of time tip, and more of your life has been lived without them than was lived with them.
We do not move on from the dead people we love or the difficult situations we’ve lived through. We move forward, but we carry it all with us.
You may be tempted to tell the grieving to move on. After all, it’s been weeks. Years. Decades. Surely this cannot still be the topic of conversation. Surely, at this point, they must have moved on? Nope.
But, you may be thinking, “This person has gotten married again or had another baby! They have so many good things in their life, this one awful thing can’t possibly still be relevant … can it?”
We do not move on from the dead people we love or the difficult situations we’ve lived through. We move forward, but we carry it all with us. Some of it gets easier to bear, some of it will always feel Sisyphean. We live on, but we are not the same as we once were. This is not macabre or depressing or abnormal. We are shaped by the people we love, and we are shaped by their loss.
“Why are they still sad?” you may think. Because this is a sad thing, and always will be.
Excerpted from the new book The Hot Young Widows Club: Lessons on Survival from the Front Lines of Grief by Nora McInerny. Reprinted with permission from TED Books/Simon & Schuster. © 2019 Nora McInerny.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nora McInerny has a lot of jobs. She is the reluctant cofounder of the Hot Young Widows Club (a program of her nonprofit, Still Kickin), the bestselling author of the memoirs “It’s Okay To Laugh”, “Crying Is Cool Too”, and “No Happy Endings” and the host of the award-winning podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” McInerny is a master storyteller known for her dedication to bringing heart and levity to the difficult and uncomfortable conversations most of us try to avoid, and also for being very tall.