Nora McInerny on Sharing the Worst Moments in People’s Lives

Nora McInery Photo by Brandon Werth
Nora McInery Photo by Brandon Werth

How the creator of Terrible, Thanks For Asking used personal tragedy to become an excellent listener (and podcast host).


Within the space of eight weeks in 2014, Nora McInerny lost her husband, Aaron Purmort, to brain cancer at the age of 35, her father to “all kinds of cancer,” and her second baby to a miscarriage. She was left alone with her infant son.

People would ask how she was doing and she’d say, “Fine.” But of course, she wasn’t.

She decided to channel those feelings into Terrible, Thanks For Asking, a podcast where she talks to people about their own tragedies and how they cope with them.

McInerny claims she was “as bad at dealing with other people’s grief as anyone else” before grief entered her own life, but now she’s an empathetic listener who is able to draw people out to tell their stories of loss and sadness, while offering her own experiences and tossing in a few zingers along the way. Here she shares her personal journey toward Terrible, Thanks For Asking.

Spotify for Podcasters: When your husband got his diagnosis, you started a blog called myhusbandstumor.com, and before he died you both worked on his obituary, which joked that he left behind his first wife, Gwen Stefani, and that he was a superhero who died after a reaction to a radioactive spider bite. Did you expect the huge reaction you got to both of those things?

Nora McInerny: Not at all. I started the blog for us because it was just so lonely. Aaron was so funny and he was so much fun, and I could just feel him becoming a sad story and I didn’t want that. I hated people pitying him and pitying me. And the obituary was an inside joke for me and Aaron and our friends. He would have found it hilarious that it went viral and became news. That obituary is where the podcast came from, because hundreds of people started emailing.

What were they saying in those emails?

They wanted to share the terrible things that happened to them, or they just felt lonely and wanted to feel like they were being heard. For a long time I would sit down every night and I would drink and I would reply to all these people. I had to stop because I was getting two hours of sleep a night and you can’t spend your entire life doing that. I realized that most people didn’t need a response anyway. They wanted to get their story out there and feel like somebody had listened to it. In the six months after that I wrote a book, It’s Okay To Laugh: (Crying Is Cool Too).

And how did the podcast come into being?

I bought a house and I painted every square inch of that house myself and I would listen to podcasts constantly while I did it. I was listening to things like Dear Sugar and This American Life and The Moth and the TED Radio Hour. And I thought, "I could do this." I mean, how hard could it be? Very hard, it turns out. Very hard. [Laughs] I was a writer but I knew nothing about making a podcast. I had a very kind, patient producer in Hans Buetow who taught me how to produce a storyline and the different way of writing needed when you’re saying something out loud.

How did you find people to come on the show to share such personal stories?

I literally pulled them 100 percent from my inbox, from people who had emailed me because of the blog or the obituary. And then after the first few episodes came out, we were just flooded with people wanting to share their stories. We got so, so, so many. We could produce a new episode every day for the next 10 years.

What do you need from someone to make an episode of Terrible, Thanks For Asking work?

You do need a subject who is willing to really go there and not just recite the events that have happened to them, but have some reflection on what those events meant. And look, I'm for sure an unlicensed therapist in many ways. Sometimes it feels like I'm talking to a friend that I’ve not seen in a long time, even though it’s somebody I just met. And sometimes it feels like I am providing a needed service. And sometimes it just feels devastating. I do have days where it feels like I've soaked up the world’s sadness and I am a wringing-wet sponge and I cannot imagine doing this for another day. I think that's normal.

You’ve made something positive and something successful out of terrible circumstances. Do you sometimes think about what Aaron would make of it all?

I realize I would not have this podcast if Aaron were alive. If he were alive, we would cohost a podcast called Space For Entertaining. We would dissect House Hunters episodes and talk about why these people always want so much space for entertaining. Nobody entertains that much. It would be such a good podcast and he would have been so good at it because he was so, so funny. Because my husband died, people think my podcast is only about grief. But it’s not really. I'd say most of our topics are not about someone dying. They’re about someone going through something difficult and being so isolated by that experience. And it’s about listening to them.

—Barry Divola