Thrive 5//

The “Thrive 5” Podcast: Nora McInerny on Coping With Grief During a Pandemic

The reluctant co-founder of the Hot Young Widows Club shares what she’s learned about navigating loss and communicating better in the workplace.

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty

If you’ve felt a palpable sense of grief in 2020, you’re not alone. During this pandemic, grief has become a collective experience.

Nora McInerny, our most recent guest on the “Thrive 5” podcast, is no stranger to the subject. This week, host Clarice Metzger chats with Nora — a podcaster, social entrepreneur, and co-founder of the Hot Young Widows Club (a program of her nonprofit, Still Kickin)  about coping with loss, the importance of empathy in the workplace, and how to let people know when you’re going through difficult times.

Here’s a little of what Nora had to say…

On the sense of grief you might be feeling this year (it’s universal):

“In 2014, my husband, Aaron, died of brain cancer. Six weeks before he died, my dad died of lymphoma. And six days before my dad died, I lost my second pregnancy. Those losses obviously shifted my perspective of life, my experience of life. And in the five years since then, I’ve gone from feeling kind of like an outlier to sort of being like, ‘This is an experience that a lot of people can relate to’ — not because everybody has a dead husband, dad, and a lost pregnancy, but because 2020 has spared nobody. We’re all in the club now.

Grief opens you up. It opens you up to the pain of other people. At the very beginning, it felt like it was something that set me apart from the world; that I was behind a pane of glass and nobody could get to me. And you learn that, no, grief is what makes you a part of the world — that actually what connects you to other people is that you have lost something. Once you’ve experienced it, it’s very hard not to see the humanity in other people, even when you disagree with them.”

On why workplaces need to realize that death is a part of life:

“The average bereavement leave in the U.S. is three days. That’s on the generous side, which means you have less than a work week to plan and execute a funeral, deal with shock and possible trauma, and then get back to work. And you only get that leave, those three paid days, if you’re a full-time employee. I can tell you anecdotally, knowing a lot of widows, that for people who did get a decent bereavement leave or even compassion, it had to happen under the table. It had to happen outside of the system. It had to be all their colleagues saying, ‘We’re going to donate our PTO to our colleague.’ It had to be their boss saying, ‘Look, we’re just not going to document it, but don’t come back for six weeks.’ It sucks that it comes down to this, because you should not be punished for your very human experience because your boss or company has not yet learned to use their imagination.”

On “conversational consent” and how it can lead to more meaningful communication:

“My company, Still Kickin, exists to help people through hard things. We give away money — unrestricted grants. When we start meetings, we do a sort of clearing. What happened before this meeting? What are you carrying that is preventing you from fully focusing? For example, ‘Hi, I’m five minutes late because my kid couldn’t get on a Zoom call for school, or my dog is annoying me.’ You can say that! We can make space for that. As a manager, as a colleague, are you creating a safe place for people to tell the truth? I’ve been trying to practice this in my relationships, too — this same type of what I call ‘conversational consent.’ The idea is to ask: ‘Are you in a space to hear X right now?’”

On how to truly help someone who is grieving: 

“The most helpful thing you can do is remember you’re not here to fix something. You’re not here to solve the grief or solve the problem. You are here to be present with what is — and what is is terrible. It sucks. It doesn’t need to be anything else. 

So when someone is grieving, ask yourself: What can you do? And what will you do? Humbly, competently, and if you can, consistently. Maybe it’s: ‘I can remember their birthday. I can remember their anniversary. I can remember their deathaversary. I can remember to send text messages. I can remember to have meals delivered regularly.’ What is truly in your capability, and what will you do? Again, you are not fixing the grief, you are here to be a part of it. Compassion means to suffer with somebody — and yeah, you will feel awkward. OK, so feel awkward. Go be uncomfortable. You’ve just got to show up.”

To hear more from Nora, listen to her full podcast episode. “Thrive 5” is available on iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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