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Love, Loss and the Power of Laughter: An Interview with Nora McInerny Purmort

Tara Mandarano By Tara Mandarano Published on October 16, 2017

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I’ve exchanged numbers with grief. The older I get, the harder it is to avoid. Five years ago, we had a strange cluster of deaths in our extended family. Sometimes it felt like I didn’t even know who I was grieving for, but it was impossible to escape the deep sense of distress that settled over our little corner of the universe.

When I picked up It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too), I had no idea it was about a thirty-one-year-old widow who’d lost her husband to a rare form of brain cancer. It was the humorous, relatable title and eye-catching cover that snagged my attention initially.

“You are holding a book by another youngish white woman who had a pretty charmed life until her father and husband died of cancer a few weeks after she miscarried her second baby. That’s just the truth: 2014 sucked pretty hard, but for most of my life, things were easy. I have three siblings and we are all (currently) speaking to each other. I was voted Most Likely to Have a Talk Show in high school. My parents mostly loved and respected each other, even if my dad referred to my beautiful, thin mother as Large Marge."

I was expecting to devour all sorts of powerful and poignant writing when I began reading Nora’s story, but the laugh-out-loud humor and absurd moments she injects into her individual essays are what made the book shine for me. (“A Letter to the Recruiter Who Emailed My Husband a Month After His Death” and “Cool Widow Kind of Wants to Kiss Someone” were particular favorites.)

For me, reading this book is like examining your grief from all angles, as if it were a heartbreakingly beautiful prism. It’s sitting at the intersection of all your complicated feelings and memories, and just letting them all blow through you, one at a time. It’s putting on your best red lipstick, half dreading the day ahead, but determined to walk through it with your head held high all the same. It’s about keeping memories close and letting ghosts go, giving yourself permission sit in your sadness, and shedding your grief skin in your own damn time.

There is no syllabus for life that outlines the steps you need to take to graduate to the next event… There is just the sum of your relationships and your actions, measured by how you feel when you lie down to sleep at night, and how many people your heart tweets.

Nora kindly spoke with Bookwitty about her experiences with writing and the process of grieving.

In producing It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too) you transitioned from writing a blog to writing a full-blown book. How was this experience?

It was the worst. I had complete initiation anxiety. The difficult part was just starting, because you write a blog post and you’re like, ugh, who cares? It’s just a blog post. And I wanted to be good at writing a book, despite never having done it before. So the first draft of this book was embarrassingly bad.

I have a very good editor in Julia Cheiffetz, though. She very kindly but firmly told me that I had not written a book that was true to me. I remember her saying, “Why don’t you stop trying to write what you think people believe this is like, and just write it as you’re actually living it?”

Looking back, that was a very powerful moment in my life. To be told to do something my way, and to not feel beholden to the expectations of others, because that was so much a part of my experience.

Were there any books that helped you through your grief?

I actually read anything but sad books while I was going through this. After the book was done, I read every single word that Anne Lamott had ever written, along with Joan Didion. Now I basically buy Anne’s books in bulk, and hand them out to people who I know are going through tough things.

When did your sense of humor show up and help you deal with everything going on around you?

My husband Aaron was humor. I remember being with him in the room before he had brain surgery, and we were just waiting and laughing so hard. That’s just what being with him was like, always finding humor in every situation. It didn’t matter what we were doing together; we were going to have a good time. And my dad had such a good sense of humor, too. Literally, as he was dying, he was making jokes that were completely characteristic of him and our relationship.

When something sad happens to you, you’re not just a sad story. You’re still fully capable of experiencing all the same emotions—they’re just somewhat heightened. After my dad died, my siblings and I all went to the Mall of America before his funeral. That was because my brothers didn’t have anything to wear—which, are you kidding me?—you’re both adults, and you don’t have something to wear to a funeral?

So we’re all in the car together, and we’re laughing so hard, because this is the exact situation that my dad would have been very irritated by, and he definitely would have made jokes at my brothers’ expense, so we just did that for each other. I’ll always remember that day, going shopping and making my dad’s funeral arrangements.

Would we have always thought that it was so funny that my brother couldn’t come up with the word for coffin, and was calling it a Dracula box? Maybe not, but the whole situation was so sad and so funny, and we were laughing and then we were crying, and that’s our family. It’s just a part of the story of our dad’s death now.

Do you feel like you were able to grieve your dad, husband and unborn baby individually at all?

Hell, no! I’m still going through it. It all happened so quickly. I think I grieved that baby hardest when I got pregnant with the baby I had almost a year ago. That’s when it really sunk in how much that had affected me, and how terrified I was to be pregnant again.

What I love about the book is that I wrote it in the six months after Aaron died. That is a true moment in time, and I wanted to write it that quickly, because being close to something—being in something—that is also a perspective.

It took therapy, Lexapro and time for me to even realize how sad I was about each of these things on their own. They’re all linked together because they’re all part of this huge experience. I had five days between the miscarriage and my dad dying. Aaron and my dad were in different hospitals at opposite ends of the city. It felt like grief ping-pong.

How has your grief changed over the years?

Grief is like having a stalker, and I don’t know when it’s going to show up. I will be doing something innocuous, and all of a sudden it chloroforms me, and I’m five years in the past, on my first date with Aaron. The best years of my life were the hardest years of my life, but his love was the best thing. It was like standing in warm sunlight.

I also rail against the notion that there is ever closure, or moving on. I think we just carry this with us forever. There’s something about the passage of time, though, and now I’m sad that the people I’ve lost feel further away. They become harder to access, but I have a son with Aaron, so there’s never a day when I don’t see him in front of me.

Was it hard to share your recent marriage and all the new happiness in your life with your readers and followers on social media after sharing so much sadness?

One hundred percent yes! I completely hid my pregnancy, and that was even from people I knew! I just felt so shitty all the time for being happy, but Aaron and my dad wouldn’t want that. Honoring them is not sitting wrapped up in my sorrows. It’s living my life, as fully as possible.

Image via Twin Cities.


Tara Mandarano is a Best of the Net–nominated writer, editor and poet based in Canada. She balances life with a tyrannical toddler by consistently reading past her bedtime. Her essays have also ... Show More

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