Tell Me What to Do

Loss and Grief

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Most people are comfortable talking about death, but struggle with the aftermath – grief. As a society, we don’t give it the space, time, or messiness it deserves. As today’s guest says, people don’t want you to “get your sad on other people.” But talking about it is one way we can make it less awful. And if you can do the talking while laughing? Even better. This week Jaime is joined by Nora McInerny, author and host of the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking. They bond over their shared losses – both Jaime and Nora lost their fathers and experienced miscarriages – and offer advice to people who are in the thick of grieving someone or something. Plus, listener questions about staying in a marriage after the death of a child and grieving an incarcerated son.

FYI: Tell Me What To Do contains mature language and themes that may not be suitable for all listeners.

Please note, this show is hosted and produced by a team that does not have any clinical or other mental or physical health training. If you are having a health or mental health crisis or emergency, please contact 911. For non-emergency mental health and addiction needs, try for national and local resources. 

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[01:08] Jaime Primak Sullivan: Hey guys, you’re listening to Tell Me What To Do. I’m Jaime Primak Sullivan. So grateful that you guys are here with me. So much has gone on in the last couple of weeks. As you guys know, I lost my friend Naya, who drowned a few days after the Fourth of July. And watching a sort of legion of fans grieve her death, because Glee was such a mega show, but more importantly, because Santana, the role that she played on Glee was so profoundly impactful to a generation of kids who were LGBTQ like myself. And seeing representation, not only of an Afro-Latina, but a gay character who had these remarkable talents and was so forthcoming with her love for her girlfriend in the show. And seeing a relationship, a high school relationship, that felt really normal and sort of relatable, even though it wasn’t traditional. And she just did so much for people. I’m watching the fans and the way that they are choosing to remember her in such personal ways, like essays and spoken word and song and interpretive dance, and obviously, Glee tributes and photos. Naya was the kind of woman who knew that Glee, her role as Santana, was so much more than just a role. She had profound understanding. In fact, it’s one of the last things we talked about, was that she had real understanding of what Santana meant to people that are at such an impressionable age. 


[02:57] Jaime Primak Sullivan: So her death at 33, although heroic and magical and godly, was just so unbelievably tragic. And John Lewis — you know, living in Alabama and understanding certainly the national effect and the national impact that John Lewis had. But living in Alabama, a state that was so profoundly impacted by the civil rights efforts of John Lewis and having him die and seeing that the work for him is still not done. And that you know how people are grieving in a time where our entire country is grieving economically, physically, mentally, emotionally. The pandemic, the economy, race relations, political divide, we are being tested. And I also believe that it is impacting us physically at a time where our physical health needs to be as strong as possible because we are also under attack by a virus. So it’s a lot to carry. And in talking about grief, I noticed with many of the messages you left and the emails you sent is how many of you say that just writing out about your grief made you feel so much better. So I encourage you to keep doing that. Write it out in an email and email it to yourself, or a friend you can trust. Write it down and burn it. Crinkle it, eat it. I don’t care. Do what feels right. But if there’s one thing that I did notice looking through all of your stories was the relief that many of you felt from that. 


[04:42] Jaime Primak Sullivan: OK. As they say, on with the show. This week, I am so excited because we have the host of the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking, Nora McInerny. She is here to help me answer your questions about grief. She is an amazing podcast host, and honestly the best person to talk to about grief. Within just a matter of weeks, she had a miscarriage, she lost her dad and then lost her husband. And while that is horrible and hard as fuck, it’s not what makes Nora amazing. She has an ability to talk about grief in such a relatable way and also makes you laugh all the time while talking about the hardest shit and unpacking the hardest shit that has ever happened to you. I want to play a quick part of this TED talk she has so you can get a sense of how amazing she is. 


[06:01] Nora McInerny: We call it the Hot Young Widows Club. And it’s real. We have membership cards and T-shirts. And when your person dies, your husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, literally don’t care if you were married. Your friends and your family are just going to sort of look around through friends of friends, of friends, of friends until they find someone who’s gone through something similar. And then they’ll push you towards each other so you can talk among yourselves and not get your sad on other people. So that’s what we do. It’s just a series of small groups where men, women, gay, straight, married, partnered, can talk about their dead person and say the things that the other people in their lives aren’t ready or willing to hear yet. Huge range of conversations. Like, “my husband died two weeks ago. I can’t stop thinking about sex. Is that normal? What if it’s one of the Property Brothers?”


[07:04] Jaime Primak Sullivan: Nora, thank you so much for coming on Tell Me What To Do. 


[07:09] Nora McInerny: Thank you for having me, Jaime.


[07:11] Jaime Primak Sullivan: I’m really so grateful. 


[07:12] Nora McInerny: Listening to you talk about your friend. I’m so sorry about that. I always think whenever things like that happen, how absolutely just odd it must be to feel something so personal. Like you have that personal connection with somebody. And then to watch it unfold in the news and then also watch their impact truly rise up in a way that — I mean, I hope that she knew all of those things before she died. I hope that she knew that impact. It always makes me think it’s such a shame we don’t get to go to our own funerals and hear all the nice things that people have to say to us. And how can I make everybody I care about know how much I care about them? And also, your friend is a wonderful, wonderful hero. 


[08:25] Jaime Primak Sullivan: A little bit about me. Just so you know, I lost my father 10 days after my 17th birthday. He died at home from lung cancer. And I say, you know, watching your parent come down the steps in a body bag is impactful and devastating. It changes you because you don’t have faith anymore in longevity. So, like you I imagine, getting married and then losing your husband, you go, well, fuck. What the fuck is that? You know, like till death do us part, sure. But like not in a couple of years. 


[09:08] Nora McInerny: Yeah, not before we get to live. 


[09:11] Jaime Primak Sullivan: Not before the marriage. I didn’t sign up for just the wedding. And something that you and I share, besides the dead daddy card, we’re in that club together. We’re in another club together, and that is the miscarriage club. So I had what is called an ectopic pregnancy. So my baby was alive with arms and legs moving and was perfectly fine, but she was in the wrong place. So in my grief, I wrote a Yahoo! Parenting article about it. And I think what I was able to say in that is the night that I stayed in the hospital after the surgery, I looked out the window in the darkness, metaphorically, but also like actually it happened to be dark out. And I remember having the fear that the sun would never shine again. I knew it would rise, but I didn’t believe it would shine. I understood mentally that the sun would come up and it would go down and the days would go on. And the world would continue to turn. And I would eat again and poop again and have sex again and see my babies at home again. You know, all of the things would continue to happen. But in that moment, I feared that I would never experience the sun’s warmth again. The grief was so heavy. And someone said, you know, just be thankful for the kids you have at home. And I thought, well, that’s the dumbest fucking thing I ever heard in my life. 


[10:45] Nora McInerny: It’s also like this idea that when people tell you to be grateful, when people tell you to have perspective, what they’re saying is like have my perspective, which is like there’s certain things that are never going to be helpful. Saying “just,” like “just be grateful,” or saying “at least,” like, “at least you have these other kids,” which, yes. Grieving is not at odds with the fact that you are grateful for something. You can and are both things. You can, because the world demands it of you, raise the children you have while being very sad for the child you lost. It is not like this — I haven’t experienced it as a true pause in my life. I’ve experienced it like this undercurrent in my life that all the sudden is back at the top, like very suddenly at the top. And I couldn’t experience my miscarriage. Honestly, I did not experience it. I did not feel it for a year, maybe, probably a year, because my dad was dying. And he was across town in a different hospital. And so all I could think when the doctor was like and the baby is not alive was like, fuck, I’ve ruined my husband’s life. He’s about to die. Now, my dad’s going to feel sad. And now, like, I could not even let that in other than, oh, God, look at this thing I did to everybody.


[12:10] Jaime Primak Sullivan: Oh gosh, Nora. And I know we have a very human emotional connection to these things. But your body didn’t go like, well, Nora, you’re just not fucking cutting it today. So today we’re throwing this baby out. 


[16:35] Jaime Primak Sullivan: Let’s talk to the women who are where we were, Nora. Let’s talk to the women right now who are staring out the window in belief that the sun will never shine again. Not just the women who have lost children or fathers, but the women whose bodies are betraying them, whose minds are betraying them, women who can’t conceive or battling mental health. Women who have lost best friends, women whose husbands have committed financial infidelity. I would love to stop talking now And listen. Tell us really what to do. And please don’t say breathe, because honestly, I’m fucking breathing, OK? 


[17:29] Nora McInerny: Here’s things I hate: breathing and drinking water. I’m not gonna do either. I will not hydrate. I will not sit quietly. Two things I will not do.


[17:44] Jaime Primak Sullivan: I’m not being funny. I am funny as a person. I’m not being funny now. I need to know what to do because I am grieving and so many in my stratosphere are grieving. 


[18:07] Nora McInerny: Yeah. Here is the thing is that everybody wants to know what is the thing that they are supposed to be doing. And you’re not really supposed to be doing anything. There’s not like a series of meditations or of glasses of water or some sort of checklist that you can get through to somehow make this go away. The single most important thing that I think that you can do is to let yourself feel as bad as you feel. Everybody wants to, like, bounce back as fast as possible. And part of that is because as Americans, we have an absolute dearth of resources for a person who is experiencing any kind of grief, by the way. So one, the only grief that we recognize in any formal capacity is the grief that comes after a death. And even in that case, we get three to five business days on average of bereavement leave. Are you done being sad about Naya? 


[19:15] Jaime Primak Sullivan: No.


[19:16] Nora McInerny: Have you even really started? No. Because you are in shock. You are in shock. It is bananas. And guess what kind of leave you get if somebody betrays you financially, betrays you emotionally, betrays you sexually? If your lifelong friendship falls apart? If you are experiencing chronic pain? You get none. You get none. You get no recognition. That grief is and always has been about more than just somebody dying. It is.


[19:52] Jaime Primak Sullivan: So let me just say to you, Nora, that what you just said to me was so profound because what you did was you gave me permission to say, I’m not fucking doing this on your time period, OK? You’re not going to rush me through the seven stages of grief which are Sleepy, Happy, Crumby, Dopey, Sneezy, Bashful, Doc. I’m not there. I’m still in stage one, which is denial. And when I get to stage two, which is — 


[20:20] Nora McInerny: Rage. And the stages are not even meant to — the original stages written by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross were written for the dying, not for survivors. And I truly think like yes, there are many stages to grief and those five are amazing, and you will cycle through them for the rest of your life, but most researchers agree that like the first six to twelve months is when there is acute grief. Like true numbing, shocking, life-altering grief. And then after that, it’s not as if it expires, which is truly what I expected after a year. But that if you have allowed yourself to feel these things, to truly feel the absolute rage, the anger, the injustice of it all, then it will not go away, but it will feel different. So I’m ready. I’m ready for a specific listener question. Hit me. 


[21:20] Jaime Primak Sullivan: All right, so the first question is from Jacqueline. Let’s take a listen.


[21:28] Caller: Hi, Jaime. This is Jacqueline. I read your post about grief, and I thought I’d tell you a little bit about my story of grief. I still carry all of this. In December of 2010, I had a 10 year old, an eight year old and a 26 year old. My 26 year old was arrested by the FBI and sentenced to a 14-year sentence. I had absolutely no idea of what was going on. I was left wondering what I didn’t do as a mom. I couldn’t figure it out. It’s been 10 years. He is in federal prison in Texas. He had never been arrested for a DWI, he had never been in trouble. He was in the Air Force and doing good things. So I was left with grief. I love him and I’ve had to love him even in the midst of not knowing what was going on. I’ve not ever spoken of my story, certainly not publicly, and I’ve carried my grief very silently, even in this moment. Thank you. Tell Me What To Do in how they handle grief going forward. He is coming up on his release. Thanks again, Jaime. Really appreciate everything that you’re doing.


[23:13] Jaime Primak Sullivan: Jacqueline, first of all, thank you so much for your call and for your voicemail. I can’t imagine as a mother what it would feel like to be completely blindsided, not only not knowing feeling like you don’t know your own child, but now understanding that there are such significant consequences to his actions that you have no control over. Because don’t forget, as moms, we spend so many years sort of controlling environment, and teaching cause and effect, and action and consequence, and so to sort of be stripped of that so abruptly, is a shock. But she does mention something: a living grief. What are your thoughts on that? 


[24:01] Nora McInerny: A living grief is such a beautiful way to put it. I’m glad that she can call it grief, because I think that sometimes there’s this almost natural hierarchy that people try to apply to things. So she has lost a son. She’s lost the version of the son that she thought she had. She lost all the future versions of the son that she was hoping to have. 14 years is a long time. He’s going to come out a man. And not the man that she expected. And she will have missed all 14 of these years. And who knows what else.

[24:39] Jaime Primak Sullivan: Yeah, she’s also mourning — think about it: 26, 14 years you come out a 40 year old. So, you know, the years where he maybe would fall in love and get married and make her a grandma and all of those things, she’s mourning an entire phase as mothers that we look forward to, that we also dream about. And, you know, I think saying maybe it would have been easier if he died because she could have put it to rest, you know, you’re in a stage of living grief that maybe is lying to you only because I don’t believe that it would have been easier if he died. 


[25:16] Nora McInerny: I think that here’s the thing is that the need that we have to compare is a false way of trying to find some relief for ourselves, and rationale to say, well, if only he died. By the way, when people do die, you do say, if only we were divorced instead. And at least I could, like, hope that we would not hate each other at some point and, you know, still dance at our son’s wedding or, oh, if only he would have died this way and not that way. And the fact is that there is no other reality and there is no way for you to truly feel the weight of a different experience. And what that is, is a way of denying what you are going through now. It’s a way of you — I think that when you focus on what might be easier, it’s — I don’t want to say like a waste of energy because obviously we all do it like magical thinking is —


[26:20] Jaime Primak Sullivan: Well, it can still be a waste of energy. a waste of energy that we all do. 


[26:26] Nora McInerny: Yeah, it is a waste of energy. And sometimes when we compare, we’re doing it in almost like a favorable way. So my friend and I each lost her husband, but her husband died of suicide and my husband died of cancer. And we look at each other and like, yours is worse. That’s harder. That’s harder. And that’s like our way of acknowledging the weight of what the other person is going through. But when we say this is harder than another thing, it’s almost like a way of us not truly processing and not truly acknowledging what we are going through. Because if you are comparing, you are not experiencing, and you are not processing. You are looking around at other people’s papers when you’ve got to keep your eyes on your own homework and work through it. And it sucks and it’s hard, and I am glad that you can actually recognize it as grief because it is. And it will not always feel like it does right now.


[27:30] Jaime Primak Sullivan: I think at least there is a finite amount of time to this part of the grief. And then you get to work on healing, because he comes home and you work on forgiveness and you work on healing and you work on second chances. So hold on to that, Jacqueline, hold onto the healing that’s coming, the forgiveness, the memories, you know, the learning. Because at least you know you will get that. 


[29:50] Jaime Primak Sullivan: Let’s move on to our next question. OK, we have another question from Mari, another voicemail. So let’s take a listen.


[30:04] Caller: Hi, Jaime. My name is Mari. I was calling because I lost my son last year in May in a car accident. And me and my husband were having problems before the accident. And I was thinking of separating, but now with the accident and grieving and not being able to grieve together with him, it’s really put a strain on our relationship. We’re arguing more. We’re trying to keep our other two children out of our problem and it’s real hard just to keep the happy face with them around and not being able to be happy in our marriage. So Tell Me What To Do, Jaime. I really want to just be happy with myself because I feel like I haven’t been able to grieve 100 percent the loss of my son. Thanks. 


[31:11] Jaime Primak Sullivan: OK. Mari, so if I hear you correctly, basically what you’re saying is I don’t feel I can properly grieve my son because I am having to keep up the facade of being in this unhappy marriage. I don’t understand. I will tell you that I empathize. I am so sorry for the loss of your son. I’m hoping Nora will have something more insightful, because what I want to say to you is get the fuck out. You have been through one of the most trauma — the most. Not one of the most. The most traumatic experiences a woman can go through. And that is the loss of a child. Why would you waste one more second of this life unhappy? I understand that you don’t want your other two children to be disrupted, but if anything, if anything, these children deserve a happy, healing mother. They do not need to stay in a situation where their mother is perpetually exposed to unhappiness, where she is admittedly not even able to grieve properly because she is living a lie and a facade. No, no, no, no, no. I say get out. Show them that you can move on. You can heal. You can find happiness. 


[32:35] Nora McInerny: Oh, I fully agree. I fully agree. In the words of our patron saint, Cheryl Strayed, wanting to leave is enough. Wanting to leave is enough. You don’t need truly any other reason. I know that sounds absolutely bonkers bananas when you also have children and also you have lost a child. And also your kids are very perceptive. All children are. All children are little sponges who absorb — your children can tell before you can how you feel about something. They memorize our faces. They memorize our voices. They know so much. So your children are not unaware of how you feel about your marriage, even if you are an Academy Award winning actress, they can tell. They can sense these things. And also, you would not be the first or the one millionth woman whose marriage did not survive the loss of a child. I think that extreme traumatic loss has a way of snapping things into focus for us. It is an entirely new lens through which to see the world. And your lens is terrible, fucked, would prefer any other lens, but this is the one that you have. And you already felt this way before. So if this is a loss that has not propelled you back towards one another, but instead has widened that chasm, you already know the answer. And the answer is that you go, and you show your children what it means to truly love, which is that the success of a relationship is not dependent on its longevity. It is not. You can have a successful marriage that eventually ends. And anybody who would judge you for it is a piece of trash who has not experienced what you specifically have experienced. So don’t worry about it. 


[34:38] Jaime Primak Sullivan: Agreed. You’ve got to go. You’re not honoring your son by not grieving him. 


[34:45] Nora McInerny: And it’s like to live fully alongside all of this loss and all of this pain does not require you to sacrifice yourself. Pain does not mean and grief does not mean that you sacrifice all future happiness. It does not mean that the price you pay to live in this world is to compound your suffering over and over and over. You don’t have to pay interest on this. You don’t have to pay more than once. And right now you’re paying for a lot of debts that you do not owe. 


[35:17] Jaime Primak Sullivan: Correct. I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for saying that so eloquently. Thank you for being on the podcast and for allowing me to admit that the healthy ways to grieve don’t always work for everybody. And when I say healthy, I mean the things like drinking water, getting enough sleep, breathing, all of those things. Sometimes you have to stare into the darkness for a while, and it allows you to, I guess, appreciate the sun when you do feel it again. I don’t feel bad for any of the days I spent staring into the darkness after that loss. I don’t even feel bad about the self-destructive behavior after my dad died. I think it shaped me in a lot of ways. And I was the Wolf of Wall Street for 10 years. You know, I blew it out and I dated a lot of the wrong men and it led me to the right one, you know, and grief is interesting. You know, if grief has stages, we are always in some stage of grief throughout our entire life. And so if this conversation has given you nothing else, let it remind you that when you are in the hardest part of grief, the thickest, darkest part, that you are at the tail end of grieving something else. And let that remind you that you will cycle through it and you will eventually get to the happy remembrance, sweet, reflective part of grief. And so if you know that that tail end comes for one thing, remember that it will come from something else. And Nora, I am incredibly grateful for you and your podcast and your sense of humor. 


[37:06] Nora McInerny: Thank you for having me and for making me laugh so hard today. 


[37:16] Jaime Primak Sullivan: OK, so listen, you know, this is a heavy episode. Grief is the one common denominator — not the one, but one common denominator — that we as human beings all experience. We lose friends. We lose loved ones. We lose animals. We lose homes. We lose mobility. Our health, our vision, our hearing, our vaginal moisture. I mean, we don’t escape this stuff. And so grief is something that we could talk hours and hours on. But from this conversation, I take away the first and most profound thing that I think I’ve ever heard in regards to grief is society has carved out three to five days for grief, but we haven’t even cycled past the disbelief, the shock, the denial that somebody is gone or something has happened or our husband has had an affair. And the notion that we don’t get bereavement time for affairs and natural disasters and things like that, yet we all are expected to just keep going, keep it moving. So allow yourself some real downtime when you are grieving things. Just because society says there is not specific carved out time for it, you know, who cares what society says? The second thing is grief can coexist with joy, with happiness, with love. You are not expected to put all of those things on hold while you’re grieving. It doesn’t make your grieving any more significant or real. You know, you’re allowed to love your other children and see value in them while grieving the loss of another. You’re not required to stop parenting. And I think that’s a really important thing to remember. And I also think the third thing I’d like you to remember is that we are always in some stage of grief.


[39:11] Jaime Primak Sullivan: And when you are in the heaviest, thickest parts of it, you are also in the healing, hopeful, beautiful parts of it, where you look back and remember the best of something. You know, maybe right now you’re grieving the physical loss of somebody, like a death, but you’re also in the beautiful stage of loss where you can look back on a friendship that you had to end, but only remember the great parts. It’s no longer a trigger for you. You’re not crying over it. You’re not checking her social media anymore. You’ve really moved on. And what I want you to remember in that is grief is a cycle and you will come out of this dark, thick stage. You will not stay there forever. I want you to remember that I love you today. I love you tomorrow and the day after that. I am grateful that you listen and share the Tell Me What To Do podcast. 


[40:06] Jaime Primak Sullivan: If you have any comments or questions for us, you can always call us at 833-453-6662. Or you can email us at Thank you guys so much for listening to the Tell Me What To Do podcast. 


[40:36] Jaime Primak Sullivan: Tell Me What To Do is a production of Lemonada Media. The show is produced by Kryssy Pease, and associate produced by Claire Jones. It’s edited by Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Dan Molad. Jessica Cordova Kramer, Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jaime Primak Sullivan are executive producers. Rate and review us, and follow us @LemonadaMedia on all your favorite social platforms. Of course, you can follow me at Jaime Primak Sullivan on Facebook or at Jaime P. Sullivan on Instagram. If you have any questions for me that you want me to answer on the show, give me a call at 833-453-6662.


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