In his darkest days, the comedian unexpectedly moved the Internet to tears with an honest post about the profound loss of his wife. His words taught us three important things.
Patton Oswalt and wife Michelle McNamara at the Young Adult Premiere on December 2011 in Beverly Hills, California. Gregg DeGuire | FilmMagic
We know Patton Oswalt as a funny man. As a stand-up comedian, Spence in King of Queens, and sweet Remy in the film Ratatouille; Oswalt makes us laugh.
But since his wife, Michelle McNamara, a true-crime writer, died suddenly in her sleep this past spring at age 46, we’ve come to know another Oswalt—a man who deeply loved his wife and knows how to grieve.
Oswalt wrote a beautiful tribute to his wife for Time, just weeks after she’d passed. And now, he’s written more about his experience, posting on Facebook about the toll of grief and the hope that kind strangers have offered him over the past few months.
Whether you’ve had to grieve for a loved one in your own life or not, Oswald’s entire post is worth reading. But here are three of the most important lessons about grieving from his open letter:
Grief differs from depression
People say the pain of grief is “indescribable” for good reason. Few of us have the words to describe what it’s like to lose a beloved, but Patton offers images that many can relate and cling to:
Thanks [grief] for making depression look like the buzzing little bully it always was. Depression is the tallest kid in the 4th grade, dinging rubber bands off the back of your head and feeling safe on the playground, knowing that no teacher is coming to help you.
But grief? Grief is Jason Statham holding that 4th grade bully’s head in a toilet…
Grief teaches us
Of course, this is a sarcastic opening, but as the letter rolls on, as Oswalt moves us through his world—through this love for his wife and the actions of others to his commitment to “start being funny” again—we see that somewhere, somehow, the man is grateful for what grief is allowing him to experience:
You will have been shown new levels of humanity and grace and intelligence by your family and friends. They will show up for you, physically and emotionally, in ways which make you take careful note, and say to yourself, “Make sure to try to do that for someone else someday.” Complete strangers will send you genuinely touching messages on Facebook and Twitter, or will somehow figure out your address to send you letters which you’ll keep and re-read ’cause you can’t believe how helpful they are.
MORE TO READ: How to help a grieving friend
And we see his deep gratitude for the woman his beloved wife was—and continues to be in his heart. When Oswalt says he’ll start writing jokes again, he reminds us it’s “… not because, ‘It’s what Michelle would have wanted me to do,'” but instead because he wants to celebrate the spontaneous woman his wife was:
For me to even presume to know what Michelle would have wanted me to do is the height of arrogance on my part. That was one of the many reasons I so looked forward to growing old with her. Because she was always surprising me. Because I never knew what she’d think or what direction she’d go.
Grief moves us toward hope
Oswalt’s letter does what all great writing does: it moves us. Not only emotionally, but actually, through time and space:
I was face-down and frozen for weeks. It’s 102 days later and I can confidently say I have reached a point where I’m crawling. Which, objectively, is an improvement. Maybe 102 days later I’ll be walking.
Oswalt knows that healing from grief is devastating, and painfully slow, but reminds us that there is still a future to look toward:
I’m going to start telling jokes again soon. And writing. And acting in stuff and making things I like and working with friends on projects and do all the stuff I was always so privileged to get to do before the air caught fire around me and the sun died. It’s all I knew how to do before I met Michelle. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do now without her.
With these words, Oswalt reminds us that even in our deepest grief and sadness, there is hope, which fights to pull us out of darkness and into the light.
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