TORONTO — When it was disclosed that comedian Patton Oswalt planned to remarry 15 months after the death of his wife, he was met with a flurry of condemnation on social media. How, his critics implied, could he move on to a new romantic partnership so quickly?
Oswalt, whose spouse Michelle McNamara died in her sleep in April 2016 due to a combination of prescription medication and an undiagnosed heart condition, became an online target after fiancee Meredith Salenger announced their engagement last week on Twitter, with the actress calling herself the “luckiest happiest girl in the universe!”
“Wife dies in her sleep and he’s married a year later? Nope!” one social media user said, while another wrote, “Like good for them and all but, personally, I’d like to be mourned for more than a couple months.”
Oswalt, 48, pushed back online against what he called these “bitter grub worms” after receiving numerous messages of support, including one from widowed blogger Erica Roman, who chastised the social media posters for their unsolicited judgments based on ”sensibilities rooted in old Victorian traditions.”
Still, the debate does tap into societal expectations about when it’s appropriate to resume couplehood after the death of a spouse.
So just how soon is too soon? And is it anyone’s business?
Aruna Ogale, executive-director of Bereaved Families of Ontario (BFO) – Toronto, isn’t sure where the idea arose that there’s an acceptable period of mourning, but she does know that each person processes grief differently.
“It doesn’t mean that if you were able to move forwards into finding someone else to share your life with quicker that you loved or appreciated what you had with your spouse any more or any less,” she said.
“So I think that’s one of the misconceptions, that the longer you wait, it means that you loved your spouse more or you cared more deeply or you’re grieving more deeply. That’s just not true. People just move at their own pace.
“And I think that’s what’s happening with Patton Oswalt.”
Jock Maclachlan of Toronto can relate. He lost his wife Lynn to colon cancer in early 2010 after 25 years of marriage.
After going to grief counselling, Maclachlan later became friends with a woman whose husband had died about a year earlier. The two acted as supports for each other as they each mourned their lost spouses.
But over time, their relationship began to evolve into something more — the pair began dating and now are in a committed relationship.
“Some friends thought I was rushing it,” conceded the 56-year-old father of two, who volunteers as a facilitator of the BFO’s support groups for spousal loss.
“It’s easy to fall into judgment, to judge, because people have a notion and they think there’s this ‘respectful time’ that someone must observe before moving to another relationship. But those people are not walking in the other person’s shoes.
“If you’ve experienced good relationships in the past and this person and this opportunity is before you, to love again, so be it,” said Maclachlan, stressing that there is no place for others to speak out against the life decisions made by Oswalt or anyone else who’s been widowed.
Sadly, such negative reactions are all too common in the “widow community,” said Carole Brody Fleet, a U.S. grief recovery expert and author of a number of books, including “Happily Even After: A Guide to Getting Through (and Beyond) the Grief of Widowhood.”
“‘It’s too soon. How could you possibly go on after you’ve lost the love of your life?’ I’ve heard it all, I’ve experienced some of it,” said Brody Fleet, whose husband died from ALS in 2000, followed by the death of her father four months later.
When she started dating after two years of working through her grief, she too got some unwelcome reactions. ”Someone actually said to me: ‘How does it feel to dance on your husband’s grave?’” Brody Fleet said from Orange County, Calif.
“People are quick to bifurcate life and love into an either-or proposition,” she said.
“You either love your past and the person you lost … and get this once-a-widow, always-a-widow head space and stay there, or you can recognize that the heart expands infinitely to embrace all of the love that it wants to.”
She advises people who have lost a spouse or partner to treasure and honour their past, but not to live in the past.
“This is a new life that (Oswalt’s) in now and he’s entitled to a new love in his new life, just as I found, just as anyone is who makes that choice to find love again,” said Brody Fleet, who remarried in 2009.
“Nobody can dictate that, and I’m appalled that anybody, especially someone who hides anonymously behind a keyboard and screen, feels that they have that right.
“You cannot live your life by opinion poll.”