The Hot Young Widows Club
“The person you love has a 100 percent chance of dying,” Nora McInerny points out. “And the most romantic thing you can do is make sure all your shit is together.” McInerny is the author of two memoirs, It’s Okay to Laugh and No Happy Endings (out in March). Her husband, Aaron, died from cancer in 2014 at the age of thirty-five. They wrote his obituary together—it features a radioactive spider bite, and it went viral. McInerny didn’t like the word “widow,” and she wasn’t interested in a support group. You might think this would make her an unlikely cofounder of the worldwide Hot Young Widows Club—but then again, this isn’t your average support group.
Talking to McInerny about death, loss, and love is just as likely to make you laugh so hard you snort as it is to make your eyes well up. She’s funny and irreverent and sometimes self-deprecating—and she’s wise. “Moving on is not a thing,” McInerny says. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t move forward or love again. In fact, it’s the opposite. Of remarrying, McInerny says, “Falling in love with Matthew made me realize just how big my love for Aaron was. It was so big that it had stretched my heart. There was room for Aaron and Matthew and all of our kids and our extended families.”
A Q&A with Nora McInerny
People tend to find it strange that Aaron and I wrote his obituary together. I think it’s stranger that we leave such an important thing—the final word on a person’s life—to the moment we are in full-on crisis mode. There’s been a death, and now there’s a deadline and a word count and oh GOSH what do they want to be remembered for??? Aaron was sick with brain cancer for three years. We hoped for the best and planned for the worst.
And not just with him, either. We had our medical directives and wills filled out. We both talked through what we would want at the end of life, and what we’d want after life. I knew what songs to play at the funeral, I knew to cremate him and where to scatter the ashes. And I knew because he and I had looked each other in our tear-filled eyes and talked it all out, and I count those conversations as some of the most romantic ones of my entire life. There is nothing like talking about death to make you feel the full fire of being alive and in love.
Matthew and I have an even more complicated situation: We’ve blended a family of his, mine, and our children. We need to have this conversation, not just for our own security but for our children’s.
“I think it’s stranger that we leave such an important thing—the final word on a person’s life—to the moment we are in full-on crisis mode.”
I like to credit Aaron with the name, because I’m pretty sure he gave it to me before his death. He had also requested that sometime after his death I post a photo captioned “Black widow, baby” and credit him. I did.
I did not want to be in a club or support group of any kind, and when your husband dies, people always try to matchmake you with the other people they know who have experienced loss. I didn’t want to be in a club because I didn’t WANT to be in the club. I wanted Aaron to be alive. My friend and cofounder Moe was one of the widows people wanted me to meet, and I said no thanks! But eventually we did meet up, and we just clicked. We clicked, and we called ourselves the Hot Young Widows Club and made T-shirts, and eventually people wanted it to be a real group.
Being a widow is a tender thing. I’d LOVE for it not to be the case, but you’re often targeted for phishing scams or just scams in general. So the club is a secret Facebook group: You can be added by another widow, and if you apply, hell yeah we ask for a death certificate!
The Hot Young Widows Club is not just young women who have lost a husband. It’s a group of people from all over the world—men, women, gay, straight—who have lost their romantic partner. I don’t care if you were married or not. We’re here to help one another through this common experience without the platitudes the rest of the world offers us.
The Western world does a really bad job with grief. Most of us have maybe three days of bereavement leave, and then we need to get back to work. I wish I were joking. People who haven’t experienced a deep and transformative loss can work only with what they see, and what they see is: Well, Nora is back at work; she must be fine!
“It has been almost four years since Aaron died, and I think I would gladly punch someone who said I have ‘moved on’ because I’m married to another person.”
The truth is that the things that shape us—the good and the bad—stay with us. We’re RESHAPED. We are different. It has been almost four years since Aaron died, and I think I would gladly punch someone who said I have “moved on” because I’m married to another person. I have lived on; I have moved forward, because that’s what it means to live. But Aaron is still a part of me and a part of my life, and he always will be.
We take resiliency to mean: You bounce back, and then everything is okay. And we expect it really quickly of one another. We love to see a person triumph over their adversity. We love lemonade that comes from organic, grass-fed tragedy. And that expectation means that instead of being honest with people about our suffering, we put on a smile and a good Instagram filter and show the silver lining and the sunny side. And both are there—you find glimmers of joy even in the depths of sorrow—but they’re not the whole experience.
The whole experience is that sometimes when I’m driving, I’ll see my dead husband on the street. He’s wearing Vans and a baseball hat, and he’s riding a dumb electric scooter, and as he approaches, I realize it’s not him. It’s another tall, gangly, joyful young man. And the reality of that—that Aaron is dead, that he’ll never actually ride a dumb electric scooter because he died before they were mainstream—hits me like it’s brand-new news to me.
We don’t see it! I didn’t even see it until I lived it. When my grandfather died, I know my mother must have been sad, but all I saw was that after the funeral, she went back to work.
Once you have a loss, you mentally go back to the ways you failed other people you know and love during their losses. It’s a club we all eventually join, and not talking about it means we are missing out on being there not just for each other, but with each other. We miss out on the richness of human experience, which is, really, packed with loss: Everyone you know will die!
When your person dies, you’re expected to become a museum of them. After all, if you really loved them, how would you do anything but just love them? People who haven’t done this have a lot of expectations for you: You should move! You shouldn’t move. You should cry more! You should get over it. Truly, we’ve all gotten loads of advice from people who have NO IDEA what they are talking about. And people are really uncomfortable with the idea that you can be and have and feel more than one thing at once. That you can be grieving and still laugh. That you can love and long for your partner and also want to feel the weight of another human body on top of you.
“That’s such a small and weak view of love: that it could be broken simply by you creating more of it or that it is a finite resource.”
I was so afraid of what people would say if they knew I was dating because I had internalized that pervasive, limited view of what love is: that it is just for this one person. That’s such a small and weak view of love: that it could be broken simply by you creating more of it or that it is a finite resource. Anyone who has loved and lost and opened their heart to more love knows better than that.
I assumed, after Aaron died, that that was it for me. I’d had a big love, and that was enough for me. If I never found a deep and abiding love again, okay. I assumed that I’d used it all up. What I realized as I fell in love with Matthew was that our hearts are like those survival radio/flashlight things that L.L. Bean sells: Once you dust it off and turn that crank, you realize oh, it wasn’t used up. You just…make more? Is that a weird comparison?
Falling in love with Matthew made me realize just how big my love for Aaron was. It was so big that it had stretched my heart. There was room for Aaron and Matthew and all of our kids and our extended families. I almost missed out on that, by just assuming it wasn’t possible. What an idiot.
Take your time. You do not owe anybody anything right now. Not even (especially!) a fucking thank-you note. Expect less of yourself for a long time. Also, sleep. Your body and your brain need it. If it’s too hard to go to bed alone, sleep on your couch. Have your mom sleep in bed with you. Get a dog! Just sleep.
Show. The. Frick. Up. Long after the funeral. Don’t ask, “What can I do?” Just pick what you can do, and what you WILL do, and do it. Without expectation of acknowledgement or appreciation. Remember that none of this is about you. That you actually don’t understand. Before you talk: Listen.