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I'm Terrible, Thanks For Asking

After my husband died, my father died, and I lost my second pregnancy — all in the span of six weeks — everyone wanted to know how I was doing. And everyone heard the same thing: "I’m fine.”

Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine.

In 2015, I was totally fine. Finer than fine. And why wouldn’t I be? Just a few months before, I’d lost my husband to brain cancer, my dad to cancer of the everything, and my second pregnancy. By “lost them,” I mean that they died. I didn’t lose them at sea, or in the dairy section of Costco.

Everyone from close friends to Internet strangers wanted to know how I was doing. And everyone heard the same thing: "I’m fine.” “I’m fine.” “I’m fine, fine, fine.”

If you can believe it, I was not actually fine. Watching as my husband’s brain tumor reduce him to a thin, gray replica of himself? That had a negative effect. Having our second child vacuumed from my uterus? Made an impact. My dad going from a healthy to dead in five months? It took a toll.

But nobody wants to hear about how you’ve spent the small hours of the night hunched over your husband’s laptop, reading emails he sent people years before you met, trying to absorb any part of him that was left, however small and digital. Or that’s what I thought. I assumed that the feelings I found so icky and uncomfortable I could only experience them in private would also be unpalatable to the people around me. So I concealed those emotions, or coated them in sad-but-witty Instagram captions until they were the kind of thing you could double-tap.

Before Aaron and my father died, before I had a miscarriage, I’d had very little experience with disaster. When I’d observed others in crisis — a friend’s father dying unexpectedly, a co-worker’s child suddenly hospitalized — I was uncomfortable with their discomfort, unable to meet their gazes, eager to avoid the topic that sat between us and instead focus on something more…pleasant. For their sake, of course. Because who wants to be reminded of what they lost, or what they may lose? Who wants to talk about the hardest thing they’ve ever gone through, when they could instead discuss the weather, or how it totally feels like a Thursday but it’s only a Tuesday?

{{Everyone who has ever lived through something awful raises their hand.}}

I assumed that what the people around me wanted was for me to make lemonade, and not dwell too much on the fact that I had absolutely not ordered lemons in the first place.

It wasn’t denial — there was no denying the empty space in my bed, the crushing solitude of being an Only Parent. It was that I didn’t know what grief was supposed to look like. As a child, I rarely saw my parents cry. Their grief over their dead parents seemed to end at the funeral, and I assumed that mine should, too. Without any real social customs to guide me, I made my own. I wore a white shift to Aaron’s funeral. I gave the eulogy in bright red lipstick and lavender hair. In Victorian times, widows wore black. They donned a widow’s cap. Their dress was a signal to the world of what they’d experienced, and how they should be treated. The social norm was to be so not fine that you needed an outfit to convey it. The social expectation was that you should be in mourning for at least two years, and that your wardrobe should be, too.

There was no widow’s cap for me, no way to signal to the people around me that even though I looked exactly like a 31-year-old mother in the Midwest, I was in fact an emotional Dorian Gray.

"Grief was not a skill I was born with, or a fate that I could avoid."

I spent that first lonely year after Aaron’s death growing resentful, digging myself deep into the anger phase of grief. I was angry at how lonely I felt, angry that the people around me still had living husbands and luxurious worries like whose turn it was to give the kid a bath tonight. I was angry that sweet, kind, wonderful Aaron was dead and that some people could drive drunk, crash a car into oncoming traffic, and walk away without a scratch. I was mad at everyone who told me how well I was doing for not seeing how destroyed I was, and mad at myself for making the hardest year of my life appear to be easy.

This story does not have an a-ha! moment. The light bulb that lit up was on a dimmer switch, and it took time for me to notice what was being illuminated: that I was not fine. That grief was not a skill I was born with, or a fate that I could avoid.

"How are you?” is a reflexive greeting, one we casually toss to everyone we pass (especially in the Midwest). Turns out, many people were...not prepared to hear the real answer from me. Nor should they! The person bagging your groceries is not getting paid enough to deal with an emotional dump truck. Your friends and family? They are also not getting paid enough, but they should be able to handle you saying, “Actually things are really hard right now.” That’s who I really wanted to be honest with, so I started out in the the only way I knew how: through writing. Of the text message variety.

“Things are really hard right now.”

“I’m really fucking sad.”

“I’m sorry I’ve been a shitty friend, I didn’t know how to be close to you.”

Most of my relationships have gotten stronger since I started answering the “How are you?” question more honestly.

In some areas of India, widows are driven into exile from their homes by their family, who consider them to be bad luck. That…did not happen to me. My loneliness was not imagined, but was not entirely imposed upon me, either. I’d had a hand in building my own little prison of loneliness. It was made with every “fine” and every smile, with every Instagram post where I tried to convince everyone that I was getting an A+ at grief. I am still trying to Shawshank my way out of that place, day by day. I’m getting there by acknowledging the hard days without dwelling on them, and reminding myself that some days, it’s perfectly fine to be terrible.

Nora McInerny is the author of It's Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool, Too), the host of the American Public Media podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking. She is very tall.

This week, we're talking about preparing for and surviving the worst things imaginable. See more Disaster Week content here.