Nora McInerny's podcast "Terrible, Thanks for Asking" helps people work through grief. Picture: Brandon Werth, The Washington Post

Minneapolis - Tears spill down Nora McInerny's face as she stares at the recording studio's ceiling.

"That was when the doctors told her the cancer was going to kill her," the interviewee is saying.

"Wow," McInerny says, letting the word rest in the air. The pause stretches far beyond a comfortable one. McInerny has a pained look on her face, yet she appears every bit the polished modern woman: her blond hair is curled, her red lipstick is still in place and there is a scarf tied in a perfect knot around her neck. In another studio, she could be working on a show about the latest fashion trends or young women in the workplace.

Instead, she's hosting a podcast about the horrors that face humanity: cancer, suicide, sexual abuse, mass shootings.

Welcome to Terrible, Thanks for Asking, the podcast about "the complicated nature of difficult experiences," as McInerny says.

Each week, the podcast digs deep. It allows listeners to think about the pain we live through, how we face it, tackle it, collapse under its weight. It gives permission to grieve, to go on living, to be happy and sad simultaneously. It's about everything that life can throw at us and the myriad ways in which we must reimagine our lives. As McInerny writes in her newest book, No Happy Endings: A Memoir, "death is not the only time we start over."

And McInerny is an expert in the subject.

Terrible, Thanks for Asking and all that has come after was born out of McInerny's own grief. She launched it in 2016, as a 33-year-old single mom, just two years after losing her first husband, Aaron Purmort, to brain cancer. Weeks before Aaron died, she also suffered a miscarriage and watched her father die.

Aaron's obituary, which they wrote together, went viral, and people began contacting McInerny. "So many people ... were reaching out to me, a complete stranger, in the middle of the night to talk about the worst thing that ever happened to them, and it wasn't because they were all friendless or familyless," she remembers. "It was just because the people around them were afraid to talk to them or didn't want to remind them of their tragedy."

Episodes include guests such as a young man with cerebral palsy; a woman who almost died in a fire that killed her boyfriend; an emergency-room doctor who watched her husband die in the hospital where she works.

Each story is filled with almost-unspeakable pain. And yet, the podcast has been listened to more than 14 million times.

The Washington Post