August 2020: Nora McInerny’s “No Happy Endings”

Want a sneak peek into the book club of your dreams? Then allow us to present: the Jen Hatmaker Book Club! From time to time, we’ll drop in with what we’re reading in hopes you’ll join us at jenhatmakerbookclub.com—because we *know* you’ll love it. This month’s book has been an over-the-top experience for all of us. We read No Happy Endings by Nora McInerny, and it’s resonated from top to bottom in our community. Nora makes a living talking to people about life’s hardest moments, and she speaks from experience. She lost her second baby, her father, and her young husband over the course of six weeks when she was 31 years old. Yet, she’s chosen to channel her grief into two bestselling memoirs and a stellar podcast called Terrible, Thanks for Asking. She’s a master storyteller who brings heart, transparency, and even levity to the most difficult and uncomfortable conversations that most of us spend our lives trying to avoid. And through it all, Nora’s a reliable, trustworthy guide as we journey along our own suffering and grief and loss. 

Episode Transcript

Jen: Guys, welcome back to the Jen Hatmaker Book Club Podcast. If you’re listening to this on our regular For the Love Podcast feed, welcome. This is a sneak peek into all the incredible fun we have behind the scenes at the Jen Hatmaker Book Club, which you can join at jenhatmakerbookclub.com, and you should. Like, oh my gosh, you should. It is my favorite thing.

This month’s book has been an over-the-top experience for all of us. We read No Happy Endings by Nora McInerny. It has just resonated from top to bottom in our community. Nora makes a living talking to people about life’s hardest moments. Right? And she speaks from experience. She lost her second baby, her father, and her young husband over the course of six weeks when she was thirty-one years old. So, over these years, she has built a really impressive body of work. She’s the bestselling author of two memoirs: No Happy Endings, which of course we devoured this month, and It’s Okay to Laugh: Crying Is Cool Too. Nora’s also the host of an award-winning podcast called Terrible, Thanks for Asking. It’s so good, you guys. Immediately download that podcast. She’s also the founder of a nonprofit called Still Kickin.

After reading this book, you’re not surprised to know that Nora writes for all kinds of outlets: Elle, Time, Slate, Vox. She’s such a good writer. She’s a writer’s writer. And she does what she does best. She writes about emotion and humor. She’s so funny, wicked funny, inside very complex topics. 

So, I know that you’ll agree that she is a master storyteller who brings heart and sincerity and transparency and even levity to the most difficult and uncomfortable conversations that most of us spend our lives trying to avoid. She is a leader. She is a mentor. She is a reliable and a trustworthy guide through our own suffering and grief and loss. You are going to love this conversation. This girl is—she is worth all her salt. I’m so pleased to share this conversation with author extraordinaire and my friend, Nora McInerny.

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Jen: Well, I am super happy to be looking at your face and talking to your voice and your mouth in your closet. I can see the clothes. And I’m so happy. Thank you for doing this.

Nora: Oh my gosh. I am so happy to be here on my dead husband’s birthday.

Jen: Today?

Nora: Yeah. Today.

Jen: It really is? Nora.

Nora: Today, today, today. Yeah. He’s forty-one, in a way. Actually, he’s forever thirty-five.

Jen: Wow.

Nora: Yeah.

Jen: How does that feel? How does that feel?

Nora: I always know this day is coming. Obviously I have a calendar, I’m not a total fool, but your body knows certain days are coming, too. So, this time of year and November I get a little emotionally congested. I had a nice conversation with some of my friends a week ago, and I sobbed hysterically over who knows what even. I’m just like, “I’ve got to get it out. I’ve got to get it out.”

Jen: Some low-hanging trigger point.

Nora: Right. Yes. They were like, “Yeah. You doing okay?” I was like, “Oh, obviously. Thank you. Thank you for checking in.”

Jen: Totally.

Nora: But I’ve shifted from reserving all of these days for sadness into reserving these days for a celebration. And Aaron loved his birthday. He called it AaronFest. He made T-shirts.

Jen: Wow. Whoa.

Nora: He threw these giant parties up at his grandfather’s land in the middle of nowhere Minnesota and would throw these parties for days for his friends. For his friends.

Jen: Are you serious? I love that.

Nora: I went to one that was before he got brain cancer, and it was too much for me. I literally sat inside the cabin and read books, because I was like, “I’m not used to whatever this is, and it’s too much for me.”

Jen: Just the sensory overload, the constant bro time.

Nora: It was like constant music. They were like, “We found these old tools in the shed. Let’s go!” Just bizarre stuff. “We found a four wheeler. Let’s go ride it!” I’m like, “We are drunk. No, we are not doing that.”

Jen: That’s right.

Nora: It’s just a lot, a lot of stuff happening all at once.

Jen: Oh my gosh.

Nora: So, our AaronFest this year is all the kids, all my kids from my two marriages, my niece and nephew, Aaron’s sister. We finally live near her.

Jen: Nice.

Nora: They’re coming over. We’re getting Taco Bell, which is Aaron’s…

Jen: Yes, lady!

Nora: And Taco Bell has a new treat. He loved Mountain Dew. They have a Mountain Dew slushie now.

Jen: Okay. Well.

Nora: You’ve got to try it, folks. You’ve got to try it. So, that’s what we’re doing. 

Jen: Thank you so much for telling me that. I’m just learning. I have always, and I’m still in this current moment, learning a lot from you about how to live. How to live, and how grief is a part of the thing, not just to be put on a shelf and put a lid on, and that it can even be beautiful in a way that we didn’t ever have an imagination for. You don’t write this script that you have. You didn’t expect it.

Nora: No.

Jen: And here you are, living beautifully. It’s really something.

This has been the absolute through line this month in our book club, as we’ve all read your book, is this constant refrain from our community like, “Wow, I am, number one, learning so much about how to feel, how to grieve, how to name it, how to be kind and generous to my own self.” So, I bring with me a whole bucket, a million buckets of women that said, “Please tell Nora thank you so much,” just for your transparency. It feels like you didn’t leave anything out. 

Nora: Yeah.

Jen: I think it’s all in there.

Nora: It’s all in there. All the parts of the story that were mine to tell are in there. And some of it is not, and those are things that I will tell people when they ask me personally, but I think a lot of the transition between the first and the second book was also learning what parts of this experience were mine and what parts of the experience I had decided were mine that were not.

Jen: That’s a special wisdom right there.

Nora: And you’ll get that in time. You will get that in time, because the first part of grief, it lasts forever.  Grief is forever. Grieving is a period of time, and you will revisit it. Grief is just a little thing you carry around with you. It’s just a little bit of you. For a long time, it feels like it is going to be your story, period. That’s it. Like, I will be the girl whose husband died. And he died of brain cancer, and wasn’t that so sad, and isn’t that so sad about Aaron? And Aaron’s death is a part of his story; it is not his entire story. That grief, that experience, that is a part of my story. Forever, I will hold onto it. I will defend it with my life. No one will claw it from me. And there is so much more to that story and to my story in general. We are all still here. We are all still living it. And the process of figuring out what something means, we have this—sorry, and I’m just going in…

Jen: I want you to.

Nora: But if your listeners are on Instagram, and I have a feeling they might be, but you are inundated with this, everybody knows, toxic positivity. Google it. Psychology Today has a great article about it. We are conditioning one another to believe that the silver lining is the first part you should see, when really you’ve got to stand in it for a while. Okay? Everybody wants to tell you to have some perspective. By that, they mean “Please have my perspective.”

Jen: Totally.

Nora: “Where I can look around the world and see like, well, yeah, this bad thing happened to you, but at least, or just those…” Nothing good ever came after the words “at least.” Nothing. Nothing, nothing.

Jen: Totally.

Nora: No one was ever comforted by a sentence that started with “at least.”

Jen: At least.

Nora: “At least you know you can get pregnant.” Oh, great. Thank you. That’s so helpful as I bury my baby. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Jen: God. Right.

Nora: Just these things. People want to get to that positive side. They want you to get to that positive side, because they’re so uncomfortable with your discomfort, and it’s so dehumanizing. And all we need is for somebody to be like, “Hey, Jen, this is as bad as you think it is.”

Jen: Totally. Yep. Yep.

Nora: “Maybe even worse.”

Jen: “And you deserve every single ounce of the feelings that you are feeling for as long as you want to feel them.”

Nora: “For as long as you want to feel them. It will not always feel like this hot of a knife wedged in between your ribs, but right now it does.”

Jen: It does.

Nora: “Right now it does.” So, you are welcome, to everybody. Thank you to everybody who read this book, frankly. I think sometimes people see a book and they’re like, “Well, but my husband’s not dead.” It’s like, yeah, but everybody in the world knows what it is like—or you will know eventually, because I’m fun—what it’s like for your entire life to fall apart.

Jen: Yep. Totally. Right. I told you. I told you yesterday, I’m like, “I can deeply identify with your story, not in the same ways. I’m not a carbon copy of your story. But the threads of grief, loss, catastrophe, a narrative that unravels without your permission, all of it.” I’m like, “Hell, I don’t know a woman at my age that has not already crossed this bridge in some way, big or small.” And I always just tell people, “If you’ve never experienced loss that cut your heart out, just live longer. You will. You will.”

So, No Happy Endings is not just a roadmap through losing your young husband to cancer. I mean, those are the details around your story, but all this incredible wisdom that you embedded is serving everybody that has read it. It’s interesting how you sat down and started the thing. You opened the book, and you slipped this right away. I mean, we just don’t even get a second. We’re not going to warm up the engine. Right at the beginning, you are like, “Happiness doesn’t negate sadness, and we’re allowed to be happy, even in the middle of literally unthinkable grief.” So, you’re holding this paradox from the first page essentially.

I’m trying to put myself in your shoes, Nora. When you sat down to your laptop and you were like, “This is a big and hard story to talk about and tell.” How did you start there? How did you know where to start?

Nora: I always, for some reason, before I start a project, I can always tell you where it’s going to begin, and I can always tell you where it’s going to end. But this is why I’m terrible in pitch meetings: I can’t tell you what the book will be about.

Jen: “Here the book is. Use your imagination.”

Nora: Yeah. I’m like, “We’re here and we’re there, and in the middle we’ve got to live it, but I’m pretty sure this is what it’s about.” And all of my best writing comes from a place of anger. It always comes from anger. I know that is not inspiring to most people, and it’s always a reaction to something. So, my TED Talk, that is an act of passive aggression. I’m from Minnesota. That TED Talk was…

Jen: Sure. It’s a subtweet.

Nora: It is a subtweet to the masses, to everybody in the Western world who watches somebody go through something difficult, go through grief, and then is like, “Okay, but,” taps watch, “can we be done with this? Why is this still a thing?” I watched myself go through that, and more importantly I watched other people come to me and say, “Well, I wish after I’d published my first book—I’m just not doing as well as you are.” And I thought, Why do you think I’m doing well? Then I realized, Oh, it’s because you see that I’ve met somebody, and you see that we each had children and we are one of those lucky few people whose family didn’t even need to blend; it just was. It just was a thing right away. So, you think that it must be over for me. 

And I have some secret to tell you, and all I can tell you is that the first part of me falling in love with Matthew was me falling apart for the first time, was me having a place where I could be at rest emotionally, which I had not had for a very, very long time. At the time that I wrote this book, I think I had maybe 50,000 Instagram followers. The podcast had started, was taking off, but I had started to get some nastiness that I knew was underlying a larger attitude that I saw coming through in our group, the Hot Young Widows Club with a lot of widows, where people will be like, “Oh, everybody is telling me that either I should,” no, “have moved on,” false, “Or everybody is telling me that when my grief is expressed that I’m faking it, because look at all the other things that are good in my life.”

Jen: Whoa. That’s cruel.

Nora: It’s so cruel. People are so cruel. But I’ve seen it. I’ve seen this same resistance as an observer on the internet where there’s some—I don’t know her name—influencer and her child died, and then she’s doing something, and people are like, “Well, why are you doing this? I thought you were sad about your baby dying.” It’s like, well, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I guarantee you she is. Okay? You don’t need her grief passport to know that she is still very much aching over that. And the world keeps spinning. She’s still got to live for these other children. She’s still got to do her job. And also, she wants to. She wants to be a part of the living world.

I had resisted falling in love with Matthew. Not well, I’m not that strong. But I had resisted people knowing about it, and I had spent that first book tour pregnant, secretly, not just out of shame but out of fear that I could not possibly have another good thing happen to me, because it would be taken. So, the best way to live life would be like, “Oh, I’ll just stay at a three  excitement level at all times,” and therefore, when you hit a one or a negative one, that’s not that far to fall. You get to a ten? High risk.

Jen: I see what you’re saying. Yeah.

Nora: Risk of spinal cord injury. You don’t want to do that, okay?

Jen: Sure.

Nora: So, I knew that the thread of the book was going to be about the fact that things are as good as they look; they really are. Matthew’s extremely handsome. He’s so kind. The children he brought to this marriage: beautiful, loving humans. This other baby we have, TBD. Honestly, he’s four.

Jen: We’ll see. The jury’s out on him.

Nora: The jury’s out. He’s got that youngest child syndrome where you’re like, “You could be great, or you could be borderline evil because you are too adored, you are too adored.”

Jen: Totally. “You are over-loved. Okay?”

Nora: “You are over-loved.”

Jen: It’s going to create a monster.

Nora: And it is also all of our children—minus that baby, maybe that’s his problem—come from a traumatic environment. The older kids, they lost a family. They lost a life that they were not comfortable in, but that was very normal to them.

Jen: Totally.

Nora: Ralph lost a dad that he didn’t even get to know. Matthew lost his entire life, everything that he thought was his, gone, gone. And same with me. So, those are not things that are erased by the fact that we found each other.

Jen: Totally.

Nora: Those are things that they show up in our marriage, they show up in raising these kids. And you’re so good at this in your own writing. We have to make sure this is clear, because our kids are watching. Our kids are watching. And I never saw my mom fall apart, because honestly she didn’t have the time, and it was the go, go eighties. 

It’s like, her brother died when I was in eighth grade. I saw her cry at the funeral, and then she held it together. That’s how she was raised, by the Greatest Generation, which I have a bone to pick with that name. Okay? They were a generation. They were fine. Okay?

Jen: They were okay.

Nora: They were okay. Did they raise emotionally competent children?

Jen: They did not.

Nora: Heavens no.

Jen: Yeah, good point.

Nora: No, no, no, no, no. So, that’s where I sat down. I sat down, and in a place of reactiveness I wrote that whole chapter.

Jen: I love it, because I find grief and loss and suffering and recovery poorly discussed in general, poorly managed. You mentioned earlier we’re just not good—we have no home training on how to sit with other people’s pain. We’re just terrible at it. We just want to hustle everybody through. I feel that instinct in my own self, and I know better. So, the honesty is both breathtaking and refreshing. 

You said a minute ago a word that I want to hear you talk about a little bit, from the Young, Hot—oh, let me…

Nora: Hot Young Widows Club.

Jen: There it is. Hot Young Widows Club. Hot Young—What was that word? That some of the women kept reporting what they should be doing or feeling or saying? I want to talk about that. I want to talk about the shoulds. And I’m an achiever. I’m an Enneagram 3.

Nora: Same. Yeah.

Jen: I’m capable, and I’m smart. So, should plays a pretty prominent role in my life, and it’s an enemy of mine. That’s just not how life works. It’s not real. It’s a fake construct. It’s like what your dad said. Your dad said, “It’s like we expect the world to care about our own timing.” Because things don’t ever work into the should

So, can you talk about what role should—or should not, for that matter, other side of the coin—has played in your life, what you’ve learned about that, and how you fight that demon?

Nora: Yeah. I’m also a 3, also an achiever, also a person who loved to get a gold star growing up, loved to see the syllabus and be like, “Okay, great. This is just a roadmap to my personal success.”

Jen: 100%.

Nora: And not just success but approval. Sweet, sweet approval.

Jen: Bless it all. May we get it all at the city gates.

Nora: Yes.

Jen: Yes.

Nora: It’s from a person that I don’t even like or respect? Even better. I’ll take it. I’ll take it, and I’ll treasure that even more, frankly.

Jen: That’s my favorite. Yes.

Nora: That seems even more important to me. And raised in the Midwest, my parents were married when they were twenty-two. Look, they were parents. They had two kids by the time they were twenty-five. That’s all I know. I can’t do that math. I was a twenty-seven year old with no savings account when I left New York City and moved home with them, which I thought was kind of a mutual decision. They disagreed. That was not their plan. But I felt like I was getting off the plan, right? I was already supposed to be married. You have to be a mom before you’re thirty. There are all these things that you should do…

Jen: Should do. Yeah.

Nora: …to live a life based on what—should is an automatic comparison. So, when you are saying that, one, who says you should? And if you say you should, what are you comparing yourself to? Because you’re either comparing yourself to somebody else and you’re looking over at their paper, which is impossible not to do, because you go on Instagram and people are renovating their kitchens. And you’re like, “Where did we get that money? Am I supposed to have kitchen money? Is that what I’m supposed to have?  Should I have kitchen money right now?” Their kids are going to a private school. Yeah, you looked it up. You looked up the tuition. It’s $20,000. “Is that what we’re supposed to be doing?” Or they’re working fifty hours a week, but they are also making cupcakes that actually look like Minions.

Jen: It’s confusing.

Nora: “I’ve never once done that.” It’s confusing. It’s confusing. 

So, even before the internet, we knew what we should do, because we would look around, we’d see how everybody else was living, or our parents imbued that expectation upon us, and then we took that on. We took that on. And most of our shoulds come from—my shoulds, at least—come from myself. They come from my inability to focus on staying in my own lane, on accepting my own reality, especially in times of crisis when we say, “Well, I guess I should,” or “Hmm, it’s not really that bad.” I mean, when you look at this person, really what am I going through? It robs us of empathy for ourselves.

Jen: That’s it.

Nora: Brené Brown has done a beautiful job of drilling into us the need for empathy for other people, and somehow in that whole message, we were like, “Oh, just for other people.”

Jen: Right. Yes.

Nora: Even as I’m pretty sure she’s screaming, “Give it to yourself too!” We’re like, “Right, right. Other people. Other people.” Especially women. We’re like, “But forget about me. I’m a piece of trash.” So, that’s how I treat myself. That’s how I treat myself every time I use should, every time I use it on somebody else. What I am doing is saying, “I already have an expectation of where I think you ought to be, and you are disappointing me. You are not meeting that expectation.” 

Let’s say you still lived a very, very blessed life, but, hi, we’re in a pandemic, and right now we are all comparing ourselves against the person we were last year at this time, the person we thought we would be at this time, what we thought we would be doing, what we thought we would have. And now we’re like, “I don’t know. Will I get another paycheck? Are the children going to school?”

Jen: Right. God.

Nora: So, wiping that from my vocabulary is truly a daily, daily process, and to maintain that in myself I have to—behind this computer are reminders of who I actually am and where I actually am. 

I have all of these things to remind me this is who I am and where I am, and it’s good. It’s good. It is good. And it does not look like what I thought my life would look like at all. I did not anticipate being a thirty—I don’t remember how old I am—thirty-seven year old stepmom on her second marriage, working in a closet because the world fell apart. And holy crap, that was not good for the old single-family income. Also, it’s really good. I don’t need a new kitchen. We have a functional kitchen. Our water runs.

Jen: That’s right. It’s fine.

Nora: We’re good. We’re good. If I never saw anyone else’s kitchen, I’d be like, “This is a great kitchen! It’s a great kitchen, great kitchen.” Sometimes should sneaks in on the diet that you feed yourself.

Jen: You’re right. I’m kind of working on that practice right now, that sort of mindfulness embodiment, which is not something that’s easy for me at all. I live in productivity and externally largely. So, having to learn to just be like, “Where am I right this second, right this minute? Okay. Let me just feel. I’m inside this body. I’m breathing. The heart is beating. Bravo, heart.” And, yes, staying kind of present in the moment instead of helicoptering into everybody else’s lives. That’s really easy to do. But I appreciate you saying that most of our shoulds come from within. That’s my experience, too. 

What am I willing to entertain? What is my mental digestion? What thoughts am I circling the drain around? And you’re right. That’s our own work to do, which sucks, because I wish we could just put that on somebody else, “Stop doing this to me,” and then I will be grounded in my own life. But really it’s worse than that. That’s our own work.

Nora: Yes. This happens not just with what people have physically, not just with their physical possessions, but with the way they appear to be living their life. And some, “Well, I guess I should be more open. I guess I should be meditating sixty minutes every morning. I guess I should be …” And, no. Or maybe, but everybody’s life recipe is so, so, so different, and what you are seeing is a small part of what they are choosing to show you.

Jen: That’s real.

Nora: And you have no idea what their reality is. So, it’s all smoke and mirrors, a shell game, and you are doing the best you can with what you have. And also, lower your expectations. Lower them.

Jen: That’s good.

Nora: Not for what you want to have, but what you think you are supposed to be doing.

Jen: That’s good.

Nora: And how you think you are supposed to be performing in this world. 

Jen: So, one thing that you’ve talked about a little bit here, but I want you to talk about more, is that your experience of loss and suffering, of course, is its own entity, and then you are then contending with what everybody else’s emotions are around you and their response to you. So, you talked about how most people—maybe that’s a little bit mean, but I think that’s true—do not know how to respond to your particular tragedy, or they just disappeared altogether like maybe you were contagious, maybe your brand of life was just going to be catching, like the flu, or they helped badly, the shoulds and the silver linings and the “How much longer?”

Nora: “It’s over now, right?”

Jen: Right. Like, “it’s been a minute, so,” or, “You have a new boyfriend.”

Nora: Yeah. So, who cares?

Jen: So, I wonder what that has done to your BS meter. What has that done longterm for you in terms of your tolerance for people with the shiny veneer, or your tolerance for inauthenticity, or your tolerance for tidy narratives? How has that carried through to where you are even right now?

Nora: Yeah. I distrust a tidy story. I distrust anybody who encourages other people to hustle their way through something, or “It’s all about your mindset.” It’s not your mindset ninety percent of the time. 

We live in America, which is a very difficult place for most people, where there are stark socioeconomic and racial inequities that actually affect people’s lives, that affect your ability to be able to grieve.

Jen: That’s right.

Nora: Grief is the feeling everybody cannot escape. To grieve is still a privilege. To have access to mental health care, huge privilege. So, your level of okayness is impacted—not dependent on, but is impacted—by where you fall on that spectrum of different kinds of privileges.

Jen: You’re right.

Nora: That was a hard thing even for me to—if you would have told me that like, “Well, but think of all your privileges,” when Aaron died, I would have been like, “Please F off forever.”

Jen: Forever.

Nora: And now I’m like, “Oh my god. Of course. Of course.

Jen: Totally. Right. Same.

Nora: So, I can even look back on some sort of Instagram post that I had made where I was like, “Oh, look, it’s all going to be great,” and that was a lie that I was telling myself. It was also a lie that I thought that was most palatable to other people, because I did not want them to pity me.

Jen: You were probably right on both counts.

Nora: I was right, and what I was doing was I was contributing to that digital pollution where women were seeing me and being like, “Oh, well, you ran a half marathon after your husband died. You must be doing great.” And it’s like, I was running, literally running from my feelings. Literally running from my feelings in that process, and, again, doing horribly, drinking quite a lot. So, no. No. But I am most genuinely connected with—I don’t believe that you have this responsibility to walk around, bleeding out for everybody that you meet. That is not true.

Jen: That’s a really good intention to hold.

Nora: Yes. You do not need to do that. Your pain, by the way, is also yours, and you get to choose who is a safe place to hold it. 

So, when I talk about—Terrible, Thanks for Asking is an aspirational response, by the way. What I had done in that first year is tell everybody that I was fine, and every time I told them that, I built a nice little cage for myself.

And who did I keep out? I kept out my sister who loves me, who knows me, who wanted to be there, and also I was kept out of her life where she was going through her own stuff. She had lost Aaron, too. She loves him. And, she was going through her own marriage stuff that I had no idea, because I was like, “I’m fine.” Tha-dunk. Done. 

I kept out my brothers who also wanted to be there, who dressed Aaron’s dead body, who put socks on him, because I’d forgotten socks. I’d forgotten to lay out socks, and they picked out the right socks. 

I kept out friends who truly did want to be there, lifelong friends, because it was so painful for me to see their husbands holding their kids. And I didn’t know how to say that. I didn’t know how to say that.

Jen: Wow. That’s so honest.

Nora: I thought it would break everything. I thought, If I let myself feel it, everyone else will feel it, and it will be too much. 

“Fine,” is a fine thing to say to the checkout boy at Target, and I apologize for weeping to only inappropriate people, by the way.

Jen: Totally. Right.

Nora: My mail carrier? Deep apologies.

Jen: So sorry. Wrong guy at the wrong time.

Nora: Wrong guy at the wrong time. Handing him a stack of letters that say “return to sender.” “He’s dead!” and then he’s like, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” I’m like, “You know, it’s not you. It’s not you. It’s just the whole …” He’s like, “I do need to leave. This interaction does need to be over. I regret standing here for any longer.”

Jen: I just love what you’re saying right now. Fine is right for a category of people; it is not right for another category of people.

Nora: Right. Also, it’s like you know when you’re talking to someone, Is this safe with you? Is this safe with you? Am I safe with you? I knew very quickly that there were some people that I was not safe with, but to guard against them I just put it up for everybody. So, I’m thinking about somebody coming over and literally looking down at my child on the floor and saying, “Heartbreaking.” 

And I was like, “I don’t want that for him. You can have your heart broken for him, but don’t do that right here in this moment.”

I have another theory. Aaron’s life to me was very much The Great Gatsby, only he wasn’t a faker and he wasn’t a bastard, but there were 1,000 people at our wedding online, because we couldn’t afford to have more than 200 people there. 

There were 1,000 people at his funeral. And in between, there were some people who showed up—Jamie Ericksen, I’m talking about you—and afterwards there were much, much fewer. Much, much fewer. I was keeping score in my mind, like “Who’s here and who isn’t?” 

I feel differently about that now. I had so much anger, and feel that anger. We do not let women feel angry, and you’re angry for a reason, and feel it. Rage out. Hit your mattress with a whiffle ball bat. Old therapy trick. Beat it with your fists.

Jen: Yeah. Totally. You told me that yesterday.

Nora: Rage until your body is—I hope you did it too. Double fist and let your body just hit it as hard as you can. I know now that them not showing up really had nothing to do with me, and it had everything to do with their own stuff that I’ll never know about, and also that hurt me too much for the relationship to repair.

Jen: Yep, I understand both of those.

Nora: It was too much. So, I can look at those people with compassion, and I can also say, “You were in my life for that part of it, and you did love Aaron, and you didn’t love me the way I needed you. So, here we are. Here we are. And I will wish you well, and I will also control my Instagram settings so that I don’t see you.”

Jen: That’s good.

Nora: “Because it hurts so bad to see your name. It hurts so bad to see your name on…”

Jen: I’m sorry.

Nora: “Aaron’s sister’s posts or on Aaron’s mom’s posts, but I know it’s not about …” And maybe it is about me, because I was also, by the way, when you are in pain, there’s a phrase: “Hurt people hurt people.” Hell yes you will. It’s like you will breathe fire all over.

Jen: Of course. Yep.

Nora: All over. And some earth will be scorched, and sometimes some earth needs that to regrow. And some, it just kills it forever.

Jen: That’s great. What a good analogy.

Nora: But I will say, this is my final piece of wisdom on this, okay? The people who show up are the right people.

Jen: That’s right. God.

Nora: Even if they aren’t the people you wanted there.

Jen: That’s so true.

Nora: The people who are there, they are the right people. I know we’re all like fourth grade girls looking around our birthday party, being like, “Why isn’t Kristen here?” And it’s like, no, no, no, no, because Emily’s here, and Emily was the right person.

Jen: That’s right. That’s right. That’s it. I’m experiencing that in my life right now. Okay. I’m going to ask you, our book club sent in a billion questions for you. Fortunately for you, I culled them. So, I picked a couple. Everybody had a lot. It’s just, you know this now, because you’ve put your story out into the world with such transparency and tenderness, it’s so easy to connect to. So, unfortunately we’re all like, “Same. Same. Me too. Same. Same.”

Nora: Whenever someone’s like, “I liked your book,” I’m like, “Oh, sorry.”

Jen: Oh, totally.

Nora: “I’m so sorry. Oh, why?”

Jen: “I wish it was confusing to you.” You’re like, “Wow, this feels real sad. I don’t even know about it.” 

Okay. Here’s a question from Karen White. She asked, “What was the best part about writing this book and what was the hardest part about writing it?”

Nora: Okay. The best part about writing this book was that I felt like—I’m going to quote Chanel Miller here. She wrote Know My Name, and she wrote this cartoon of her being on 60 Minutes, and them being like, “How did it feel to write this book?” and her thought bubble being like, “Like taking a giant emotional dump.”

Jen: Lovely. Lovely.

Nora: Yeah. It felt wonderful. But I felt like I had reorganized even my thoughts around this whole experience, which were so rooted in shame, which is something that I still feel, because I am alive and Aaron is not. And I have this career that people are like, “How do you get published?” 

And I’m like, “You write a viral obituary. I don’t know.” It’s like, So did I just cheat my way to the top? Did I cheat my way to the lower middle? Did I? Did I? I don’t know. But oh God, who deserves to get two big loves? Nobody gets what they deserve. Nobody gets what they deserve. You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. We say that to our kids when they get a weirdly shaped cookie. Well, guess what? We need to hear it ourselves, too.

So, I think personally it helped me work through a lot of the thoughts that felt too tangly to express to the people who cared about me, and all of my work is an act of either aggression or passive aggression. I felt like I was giving other people, and so you telling me it resonated with people does mean so much to me, because I felt like I was giving people who were going through something proof, like “You’re not nuts.”

Jen: Totally.

Nora: And I was hoping people who have had a perfect life would read it and be like, “Ohhh, okay. Okay. Maybe I need to think a little bit differently about the way that I’m interacting with a friend or a family member who’s suffering.”

Jen: That’s good. That’s good. That’s so great.

Nora: So, having children, I do struggle with what are the things that—because we all need to know. Everybody’s like, “How do I do a family? How do I do a family that doesn’t look exactly like what I thought a family looked like?” I don’t know. I don’t know. And we have these wonderful examples. We have Glennon and Abby, and they get along so well, and for most people it really sucks.

Jen: Oh yeah. You’re right.

Nora: They have this superhuman beautiful family, and I know it took work to get there, and I take so much inspiration from following them and from watching Abby be a stepmom who is also just a mom, just a mom. And, there are certain parts of the story that you can’t tell, because they aren’t yours. They just aren’t yours. So, there are additional complications that are just not mine to tell.

Jen: Of course there are.

Nora: And never will be, and that part is so hard, because I know that would be really helpful for people.

Jen: Totally.

Nora: It would be really helpful for people. And also, I can’t do it. I can’t do it.

Jen: Gosh.

Nora: Also I have to think about these kids. They will eventually read my writing. My daughter said, “It’s not for me,” but my niece read it and was like…

Jen: “Not for me.”

Nora: My niece read it and she actually was like, “Huh. Pretty good.”

Jen: “Look what you can do.”

Nora: Okay, fourteen-year-old goth? Pretty good?

Jen: Take it. Lady, take it.

Nora: Pretty good. Pretty good. So, that is the hard part. I know that there are more questions. I know that there’s more that people need to know, that they want to know.

Jen: Oh man.

Nora: It’s also like, it’s just not mine.

Jen: Oh man.

Nora: It’s just not mine.

Jen: Okay. Here’s another question. This is from Shelley Radcliffe. What’s your advice for people supporting a grieving friend? You mentioned this just a second ago.

Nora: Oh my God. Yes. Oh, bless. What a wonderful question. Thank you for asking this, because it requires so much humility from you. Because you are going to do something, and you won’t hear back. You’re going to do something, they won’t like it.

Jen: Oh my God. Right.

Nora: You’re going to do something, and you’re going to send a text that will never get a reply, and then you’re going to internalize and be like, “Well, they hate me now. They don’t need me.” They do need you. You just keep showing up.

Jen: Ugh, this is so good, Nora.

Nora: You just keep doing it. You keep doing things. And some of them are the wrong thing, and some of them are neutral, and one will be the right thing. And you just keep doing things. There’s a Venn diagram of whatever you can do and whatever you will do. In there, you just keep doing those things. So, you don’t rewire their electrical if that’s not something you can do. Okay?

Jen: Right. Right.

Nora: You don’t shovel if you’ve got a bad back. But if what you can do is every single day you send them a text that’s a reminder of a good thing about them that you admire, if every single day you send them a song that made you think of them, if every single week you send them a gift card to go buy something that they don’t need, you do that. Whatever is in your wheelhouse and that you will do without expectation, without expectation of acknowledgement, and truly that you would do with no one even knowing it was you, you do that.

Jen: I’ve never really heard anybody say that. Now that I’m sitting deeply in the pocket of this grief space, I spend so much time once every few days trying to dig out of my texts and be like, “I’m sorry for the delay. I’m sorry I didn’t respond.”

Nora: Oh God.

Jen: You know what I mean?

Nora: Yes. Yes.

Jen: Because that’s what I’m worried about, like they’re going to think, “Well, I did call,” or “I did text her, but she didn’t respond.” But I just can’t. I just can’t. I’ve literally never heard anybody say that. So, love them how you can without expectations. Well, that’s just…

Nora: Without expectations.

Jen: We’ll just end it right there. 

Okay. One more question, and then we’ll wrap. Debbie West said, “When you are tired and you’ve shoveled grace all day and just that’s the end of it, what’s your go-to dinner?”

Nora: Oh my God, I…

Jen: Food is a comfort, as we know.

Nora: I hate dinner so much. Okay. Dinner is like the most stressful. I want a snack. I want a snack dinner. That’s the answer.

Jen: I applaud this.

Nora: Okay. We do this thing called “summer sushi,” and by that I mean it’s just sliced up cheeses, it is sliced up fruits, sliced up hotdogs, cooked and uncooked, because our children are garbage. Hunks of bread, butter, dips. And then everybody just eats the snacks that they want to eat. Popcorn. Actually, I would take for dinner a giant, on the stove…

Jen: Oh, old fashioned.

Nora: …in a Whirly-Pop…

Jen: I hear you. We’re up on that.

Nora: …thing of popcorn with like a whole stick of butter melted over it. I basically want a stick of butter with some popcorn floating in it. That’s it. That’s it. I don’t want to eat a single vegetable. I don’t want the meal to be balanced in any way. In no way.

Jen: No. No lean proteins.

Nora: There will be no lean proteins. I have actually started to cook anything that you post on Instagram, because it’s very helpful. And guess what? Guess who’s pickling?

Jen: I’m so happy.

Nora: This lady. I’m a pickler, okay?

Jen: Look at you. Look at what you’re doing.

Nora: I’m pickling everything. I didn’t even know you could pickle carrots.

Jen: You can! 

Nora: I was like, “You can only pickle pickles.”

Jen: They belong on the summer sushi board.

Nora: I know.

Jen: Put your pickled carrots right there. Make a convert…

Nora: Put some pickled carrots. Yes.

Jen: …as young as you can, to the world of pickles.

Nora: The world of pickles. I didn’t even know you could pickle all these things. So wonderful. Yeah, we’ll add some pickles to the summer sushi. But I want snacks. I want hardcore snacks all the time.

Jen: That makes me happy.

Nora: And super fatty too. If anybody gives me like, “Oh, I made this dip with fat-free yogurt,” I want you to leave my home.

Jen: This is a friend deal-breaker. Bye.

Nora: Yeah. Why would you abuse me in this manner? Why would I want your low fat?  No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Jen: I haven’t bought anything that’s low fat in I don’t even— a decade?

Nora: Good. Good.

Jen: A decade?

Nora: It’s a scam.

Jen: We have Instacart. Do you have that up there? Where you can get a grocery shopper?

Nora: Oh yeah. Yeah.

Jen: So, when I get something like yogurt or ricotta or just whatever, I go into the little place where I can make a special note, and I’m like, “Be very careful not to get low fat or fat free. Please check it twice. because that’s just sad. Don’t make me sad today. Like, Linda, get me what I want here.” 

One time my coffee creamer, which is trash, it’s just chemicals that you drink every morning. But it came in fat free, and I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll just pour it down the drain.”

Nora: No. If I am adding a somewhat cancerous flavor to my coffee, I would like all the fat in it, please. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Jen: Please let it taste sincerely like coconut, okay? So, don’t mess with me.

Okay. Last here. Obviously writers are readers. You’re a reader. What are you reading right now? What do you love? What book are you enjoying? What author is your summer space?

Nora: Okay. Hold on. I’ve got a couple that I actually need your address [for], because I’m putting them in the mail for you.

Jen: Oh, goodie.

Nora: Okay. So, I’ve got a couple that are just go-tos. One is Felicity by Mary Oliver.

Jen: Oh, Mary Oliver.

Nora: This is a weeper. It is a weeper, a weeper. And I’ve also been reading sort of, it’s not historical fiction, but it’s historical nonfiction, okay? So, I just read Empty Mansions, because it’s about an eccentric billionaire from the twenties who died very recently at like age 103 in New York City, and who died with all of these empty mansions all over that she just bought and kept in this meticulous shape. It’s fascinating, fascinating.

Jen: Whoa.

Nora: Eccentric old lady. Yes, please.

Jen: Oh yeah. Okay. Love it.

Nora: Then I’m also buying books that are no longer necessarily—books that are out of print or books that are super, super old, just find something that you’re vaguely interested, and look if there’s a book about it. Because I got very interested in televangelism, and I got this book.

Jen: I didn’t see this coming.

Nora: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire. Fascinating. Then I went in, and I bought every book that Tammy Faye Bakker has ever written.

Jen: No, you did not. You did?

Nora: So, I’m on a deep, deep rabbit hole of Tammy Faye Bakker, who I did not know was from Minnesota. We don’t claim her, and I find that to be a travesty, because she did come from such crazy humble beginnings. And guess what? Her husband was the crook. She was just sort of along for the ride.

Jen: I’m going to look forward to hearing a future report on your Tammy Faye Bakker deep dive.

Nora: Yes, yes, yes. I will. I have a vaguely Christian podcast called Cafeteria Christian, where I’m going to do this deep dive, because…

Jen: Oh God, finally, finally.

Nora: Okay. This is a new one that I got at the bookstore. It’s called Self-Care. You will read it in one hour. It is light. So, you need to read this, because it is a light, and it’s a satire. It’s so funny, and it’s just sort of about obviously a female self-care hustle culture and being a girl boss and all of that.

Jen: Okay, yeah. Perfect.

Nora: It’s amazing.

Jen: Okay.

Nora: Next, this comes out next month, and I read this in two hours the other night. It’s called Sanctuary.

Jen: Great cover.

Nora: By Paola Mendoza. It takes place in the near future. It is I think technically a YA, but that’s the kinds of books we should all be writing. And it’s a political story about a country, the United States, where all immigrants are microchipped and have to prove their belongingness. It’s given me nightmares for two nights, but…

Jen: Highly recommend.

Nora: Highly recommend.

Jen: Yes, yes.

Nora: It’s such a good telling of the anxiety that so many people feel without—you can tell that it’s grounded in emotional reality, even though it is fiction, which I really love. 

This is the other book that I’m sending you, so don’t buy it. Okay?

Jen: Okay.

Nora: Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart. And I’m going to read this to everybody, because holy crap, everybody needs to hear this. Okay. Okay. Okay. So, three passages.

“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

Jen: Wow.

Nora: Oh, you think I’m done? I’m not done. Okay.

“When things fall apart and we’re on the verge of we know not what, the test for each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize. Life is a good teacher and a good friend.” 

I would like to just add that life is a touch-and-go friend. Okay?

Jen: She’s okay.

Nora: Okay?

Jen: She’s all right.

Nora: I’ve had better. Okay. 

“Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off center, in-between state is the ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. To stay with that shakiness, to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with a feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge, that is the path of true awakening.” 

Jen: Great. Thank you for those readings. Those are powerful. Okay. Well, listen, on behalf of the Jen Hatmaker Book Club, [we’re] big Nora fans up in here, huge, monumental.

Nora: Oh God. Thank you.

Jen: Thank you. Thank you for your time today. Happy birthday to Aaron.

Nora: All right. Bye.

Jen: Much love.

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