How Are You? On This Podcast, The Answer Is: 'Terrible, Thanks For Asking'

Mar 2, 2017
Originally published on March 8, 2017 11:30 am

Nora McInerny is tired of small talk. "I don't want small talk ..." she says on her podcast. "I want the big talk."

McInerny's show is called Terrible, Thanks for Asking, and she begins each interview with the same question: How are you? The responses she gets go way beyond the typical "I'm fine."

McInerny deals with death, loss and coming through trauma. But her approach to these tough subjects is saturated with love and humor.

She shares (or, as she puts it — overshares) some of her stories with NPR's Ari Shapiro.


Interview Highlights

On experiencing loss in her own life

Up until 2014 I had the most charmed, uneventful life that a person could possibly hope for. I think that if you looked up "privilege" in the dictionary you would have seen my senior photo from high school. ...

In 2014 my husband died of brain cancer on November 25th. And six weeks before that, my father had died of all kinds of cancer. And five days before that, I had miscarried the second child that my husband and I were expecting and had conceived knowing that he had stage four brain cancer.

It's hard to just list those things off without sounding as if I'm minimizing it, but at some point in time, that just becomes your story.

On how people react to someone who has experienced a loss

[People ask], "Oh, how are you?" And nobody actually wants to hear: "Well, I frankly have been staying up all night watching Gilmore Girls and drinking a box of white wine that is almost gone." ...

But now I know that ... it's almost impossible to know the right thing to say, and that even if people say the wrong thing it is a sign that they're trying. The worst thing — and it doesn't matter if you're dealing with death, or if you're dealing with all of these other things that we've talked to people about — silence is the worst thing you can hear from people.

On her instinct to find humor even in sad times

I think part of it is how I was raised. My father was very funny and very dry. And so he was in the ICU and the nurse walked in and said, "Steve how are you doing?" And he was on a respirator. But he said slowly, "I'm kind of dying here" — because he was. ... She was so horrified. And all my brothers and sister and I were laughing ... because of course that was my dad — and that's how Aaron was, too.

He was definitely a favorite on the oncology floor and in the radiation department because he was always so funny ... that's how we got through. ... In the E.R. after he had had a lot of seizures and we had yet to see an extremely attractive doctor à la Grey's Anatomy and we were commenting on that. And the doctor walked in and he looked like a Ken doll. Aaron kept saying, "I think that they hire him just to deliver bad news because it's hard to feel really bad when it comes from an incredibly handsome person."

I found out later that he is a doctor.

On whether laughter can be perceived as inappropriate in the context of loss

It's not as if I sit down trying to think, gosh how could we make this awful thing really funny? I think that those kinds of moments just happen naturally. ... When it is your story you can find those little points of humor even in the worst things. I think that's really common. Anyone who's been through something really traumatic has probably also laughed at it. ...

We had this woman come in — it was literally the day after her husband had died. ... She sat right down and she talked to us about her husband having died and we laughed together and she stopped herself and said, "I'm afraid people will think I'm terrible for laughing right now." And of course not — you are allowed to feel all of the things all at once. I think her fear was being judged for that.

On the way painful experiences can connect us

I am reminded every day — because I sort of choose to surround myself with these stories — that I'm not special. The experiences, the pain that I have, it's obviously unique to me. We all have our own. But it doesn't make me and it doesn't make me different from other people.

I had sort of wrapped Aaron's death and my dad's death around me like armor — like it was something that made me different from other people, that made me harder to understand. And the fact is that everybody has these kinds of pain — it's different brands for all of us, but that is a way of connecting. It has helped me look more tenderly on the people around me. I now am sort of more intentional about reminding myself that we all carry something, and that we are, for the most part, all doing our best.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And, Ari, before we get on with the show, how are you?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Oh, I'm really good. About a week ago, I was terrible. I had a very bad cold, and you're going to hear it in this next interview which we recorded back then. Is that a little too honest?

CORNISH: Yeah, that's too much actually (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Well, that is actually the kind of honesty that our next guest wants. Her name is Nora McInerny, and she created a podcast called "Terrible, Thanks for Asking." So, like, in one of the first episodes, she talks to a young widow named Moe Richardson.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "TERRIBLE, THANKS FOR ASKING")

NORA MCINERNY: What was Andy (ph) like as a dad?

MOE RICHARDSON: (Laughter) Hilarious. He did some funny things like fall asleep while feeding him in the middle of the night. And I'd come out, and there's a baby on the floor.

MCINERNY: (Laughter) Oh, God.

SHAPIRO: And then later in the episode, we learn that Andy, her husband, hanged himself. So that's the kind of stuff we're talking about.

CORNISH: Yikes.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Nora McInerny is uniquely qualified to talk about terrible life experiences because of what she lived through. Here's how she describes her own story in the podcast. It's interspersed with bits of a voicemail that she saved from her husband, Aaron.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "TERRIBLE, THANKS FOR ASKING")

MCINERNY: The brain tumor kept growing back.

AARON PURMORT: This is Aaron.

MCINERNY: I miscarried our second baby.

PURMORT: Love you guys.

MCINERNY: My dad died.

PURMORT: Talk to you soon.

MCINERNY: And a few weeks later...

PURMORT: Bye, bye.

MCINERNY: ...So did Aaron.

SHAPIRO: So to recap, she lost her father and her husband and the child she was expecting all like a series of dominoes. And she does not shy away from that story, as she told me when we sat down to talk.

MCINERNY: It's hard to just list those things off without sounding as if I'm minimizing it, but at some point in time, that just becomes your story.

SHAPIRO: I can imagine that with all the times you've told that story, you must have heard the phrase, I'm so sorry for what you've been through thousands of times.

MCINERNY: Oh, yes.

SHAPIRO: As you described in the podcast, people would always say it in their NPR voice.

MCINERNY: Yes, or they'd - oh, how are you? Oh, how are you? And nobody actually wants to hear well, I frankly have been staying up all night watching "Gilmore Girls" and drinking a box of white wine that is almost gone. You know, and it's, like, not a single-serving box. It's for sure...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MCINERNY: ...You know (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Right, one of those three-bottles-in-one-box size.

MCINERNY: Right. You're supposed to share it. But now I know that it's almost impossible to know the right thing to say, and that even if people say the wrong thing, it is a sign that they're trying and that the worst thing - and it doesn't matter if you're dealing with death or if you're dealing with all of these other things that we've talked to people about - that silence is the worst thing you can hear from people.

SHAPIRO: You and I had this Twitter exchange, Nora, where I said your podcast reminds me of the line in the movie "Steel Magnolias," my favorite emotion is laughter through tears.

MCINERNY: Right (laughter).

SHAPIRO: And you have always brought laughter to these stories. Why?

MCINERNY: I think part of it is how I was raised. My father was very funny and very dry. And so he was in the ICU and the nurse walked in and said, Steve, how are you doing? And he was on a respirator, but he said slowly, I'm kind of dying here...

(LAUGHTER)

MCINERNY: ...Because he was. And she was gutted. She was so horrified. And all my brothers and sister and I were laughing - I mean laughing in her face, laughing so hard because of course that was my dad. And that's how Aaron was, too. He was definitely a favorite on the oncology floor and in the radiation department because he made everything fun.

SHAPIRO: This podcast goes way beyond your life experience, way beyond the experience of having a loved one die to all kinds of terrible things that all kinds of people have been through, whether it's, you know, a case of journalistic malpractice or a medical accident or postpartum depression and anxiety. Your approach to these things is so saturated in kind of love and humor. Was there ever anybody you interviewed who was like, no, this is really serious; your laughter is not appreciated in this moment?

MCINERNY: Not to my face...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MCINERNY: ...At least (laughter). It's not as if I sit down trying to think, gosh, how could we make this awful thing really funny? I think those kinds of moments just happen naturally. And I think that it's because for each of these people, this is a huge, monumental thing that has happened in their life. And it is their story. And when it is your story, you can find those little points of humor even in the worst things. I think that's really common.

Anyone who's been through something really traumatic has probably also laughed at it. I think we had this woman come in. It was literally, Ari, the day after her husband had died, and she sat right down, and she talked to us about her husband having died. And we laughed together, and she stopped herself and said, I'm afraid people will think I'm terrible.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "TERRIBLE, THANKS FOR ASKING")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: See, like, right now in this moment, I sit here laughing, and I'm like, people are going to hear this, and they're going to judge. Like, why is she laughing? Why is she having happy feelings? Shouldn't she be crying? Shouldn't she be, you know - so that's kind of my hard thing right now. Like, I don't want somebody telling me how I should be feeling.

MCINERNY: And of course not. You are allowed to feel all of the things all at once. And I think her fear was being judged for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "TERRIBLE, THANKS FOR ASKING")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Exactly, oh gosh, it just drives me crazy...

MCINERNY: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...The advice that I get. And I know they do it because they mean well.

MCINERNY: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And they love me.

MCINERNY: Don't make a decision for a year.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Right.

MCINERNY: I mean, do you have any idea the amount of decisions I've been making?

SHAPIRO: So what have you learned by choosing to continually talk about these things that everybody goes through but most people choose not to talk about?

MCINERNY: I think that I am reminded every day that I'm not special and that the experiences, the pain that I have is - it doesn't make me different from other people. And I had sort of wrapped Aaron's death and my dad's death around me like armor, like it was something that made me different from other people, that made me harder to understand.

And the fact is that everybody has these kinds of pain. And it's different brands for all of us, but we are for the most part all doing our best even if somebody's best isn't as good as mine (laughter).

SHAPIRO: There's a moment in the podcast where you say, yes, death is sacred and holy and profound and all of those things, and dying is also boring and awkward and uncomfortable. And you might want snacks, or you might play games or do - like, it's the things that you're, at least in the popular culture, not allowed to acknowledge as the reality of going through this. And those mundane details of the reality are in a way almost revelatory.

MCINERNY: Thank you (laughter). I - for every moment that I was sitting contentedly, laying on Aaron, hearing his heart keep beating and holding his hand and playing him our favorite songs, I was also reading Twitter...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MCINERNY: ...Sometimes. Does that feel gross to say out loud...

SHAPIRO: No.

MCINERNY: ...'Cause it's the first time I've said it out loud. You know, I mean my - like, my mom brought her knitting. She's like, I'd better (laughter) bring something to do with my hands while I'm watching my son-in-law die. It made sense. We - you don't know what to do, so you just kind of do - you do what you do.

SHAPIRO: Nora McInerny, host of the podcast "Terrible, Thanks for Asking," thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

MCINERNY: (Laughter) Thank you for having me. I think you're probably going to end it by saying like thank you for oversharing...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MCINERNY: ...Your story with us (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF DUANE EUBANKS SONG, "AS IS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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