What Patton Oswalt’s grief is teaching us all, especially during the holidays

“I’ll never be at 100 percent again,” the 47-year-old actor and father says. “But that won’t stop me from living this.”

Patton Oswalt at "Inside Out" Premiere, June 2015 in Los Angeles. Joe Scarnici | WireImage

We share our happiness. We hide our sadness. We populate Facebook and Instagram with smiling faces, beautiful children, adorable pets. We fill our Christmas newsletters with good news and funny anecdotes. Joy demands an audience.

Not so our disappointments, our pain, our grief. We keep all that locked away in a box somewhere and shove it in a closet. Perhaps we let it out with family, maybe a close friend or two. But for the wider world, we paste on a plastic smile and greet it as if nothing was wrong. “How are you?” people ask. “Fine!” we say, smiling wide and falsely. “Great! And you?” It’s ironic that during the holiday season—when grief is often at its strongest—our instinct to hide that grief can be at its strongest, too.

MORE TO READ: Why is everyone so impatient with Sheryl Sandberg’s grief?

But sometimes we can’t hide it. The pain is too great, the grief too strong. And sometimes, maybe we shouldn’t.

Comedian Patton Oswalt has made a career out of making people laugh. He’s been in movies (Ratatouille) and television (The King of Queens), written full-length bestsellers and amused millions with his Tweets. He’s best known as a stand-up comic, riffing on geek culture and making funny, moving confessions about his job as a father to his now 7-year-old daughter, Alice. His latest stand-up special, “Talking for Clapping” on Netflix, won an Emmy.

Patton Oswalt and his daughter Alice at Legoland in February 2016, California. Daniel Knighton | Getty Images

But now, Oswalt’s doing more than performing. He’s grieving in the public eye. On April 21—the day before “Talking For Clapping” first aired—his beloved wife, Michelle McNamara, died unexpectedly in her sleep.

Most celebrities react predictably when tragedy strikes. Not Oswalt.

He told The New York Times that the day he found his wife dead in bed was the second-worst day of his life. “The worst is when I told my daughter the next day.”

Most celebrities react predictably when tragedy strikes. They act like most of us would. They retreat to their homes, stay away from the cameras. Maybe they have their publicist release a statement imploring the press to respect their privacy during this “very difficult time.”

MORE TO READ: How to help a grieving friend

Not Oswalt. On August 1, 102 days after his wife died, the comedian took his grief public on Facebook.

“If you spend 102 days completely focused on ONE thing, you can achieve miracles,” Oswalt wrote on his Facebook page. “Make a film, write a novel, get MMA ripped, kick heroin, learn a language, travel around the world. Fall in love with someone. Get ’em to love you back. But 102 days at the mercy of grief and loss feels like 102 years and you have s— to show for it.”

He promised in his post that he’d be “funny again soon.” It took a few months, but he made good.

He started performing again this fall, beginning with some small shows in Los Angeles. “These have been the hardest sets I’ve ever done in my life,” Oswalt admitted to Vanity Fair. But he’s still on the road even now, performing in Raleigh, North Carolina on December 3, then heading back to Los Angeles and Irvine, California for a few more December shows.

He’s making people laugh, but he’s grieving on stage, too—sharing his sorrow with a paying audience, and perhaps giving that audience license to grapple with their own issues. He told Steven Colbert during CBS’s Late Show that grieving in public was strangely therapeutic.

If we never see anyone truly grieve, how will we know how to handle loss and tragedy when it’s our turn?

“You’re all denying whatever is bad for just an hour,” he told Colbert. “It’s weird how both me and the audiences I’ve been performing [in front of], we all kind of rise to the occasion. It’s a way to make the darkness feel uncomfortable with itself for a little bit.”

Oswalt is coping with his grief in other ways, too. He told Vanity Fair that he’s re-read C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed three times already. He marvels at Alice’s ability to cope, and he’s trying to capture just a bit of her resilience. He admits that he attempted to drink his sorrows away. “I found out the hard way these past few months that alcohol doesn’t really help,” he told the Times with a heavy, comical sigh.

But the truth is, Oswalt suspects that the ache and grief will be with him a long time. Forever, maybe. “I’ll never be at 100 percent again,” Oswalt says, “but that won’t stop me from living this.”

When we hide our sadness, not wanting others to see how much we’re hurting, how vulnerable we are, we’re not only doing a disservice to ourselves, but to our friends and associates, too. If we never see anyone truly grieve, how will we know how to handle loss and tragedy when it’s our turn? How can we expect to deal with it if no one shows us how?

If you don’t talk about it, then grief really gets to set up and fortify its positions inside of you, and begin to immobilize you,” he said on The Late Show. “But the more you talk, the more you expose it to the air and to the light, then grief doesn’t get a chance to organize itself and then maybe you can move on a little better, a little easier.”

Patton Oswalt is showing us how to grieve. He’s showing us how deep the pain can go, how impossible it can seem to move forward. But he’s also showing us that, in spite of all that, it is possible. That even in a world of tears, it’s possible to laugh.

Read more about life on the corner of “Hollywood & Reality” from movie expert and reviewer Paul Asay every Friday. If you have an idea for a future topic, feel free to drop Paul a suggestion in the comments.

Paul Asay
Paul Asay

Paul Asay is a movie critic for Plugged In and has written for a variety of websites and publications, including Time, The Washington Post and Beliefnet.com. He’s authored or co-authored several books, including most recently Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet.

Leave a comment: