Three months after the sudden death of his wife, comedian Patton Oswalt was reeling. “The air caught fire around me and the sun died,” Oswalt wrote in a Facebook post about the morning his wife, true-crime writer Michelle McNamara, passed away at 46.
Grappling with "the randomness and horror of the universe," Oswalt grieved deeply and publicly. He penned an obituary for Time about the "blast crater" she left behind, wrote about the panic of suddenly becoming a single father for GQ and addressed the personal tragedy in his 2017 Netflix comedy standup special, Patton Oswalt: Annihilation.
Somewhere in the meantime, Oswalt met another woman. Actress Meredith Salenger was a "life force" that pulled him out of his "death vibe," the comedian told Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. A year after his first wife died, Oswalt was engaged; the couple married last November. "It's almost like getting hit by lightning twice," Oswalt said. "The statistical odds are so insane."
None of this went over particularly well with the critical public. Observers were appalled that Oswalt had remarried so quickly. One particularly cruel person accused the comedian of having "publicly dined out on his grief." Oswalt fired back at the "bitter grub worms," sharing a blog post written in his defence by a Florida widow named Erica Roman. "How long should a widow sit in isolation before YOU are comfortable enough to release them from their solitary confinement?" Roman hissed.
Mourning a spouse while simultaneously falling in love again is fraught territory. There's a sense that certain time frames qualify as "too soon" – as if an appropriate grieving period has been universally demarcated. When it's "too soon," widows and widowers are accused of erasing old partners and of performing a fraudulent grief.
It is criticism the widowed are particularly attuned to: Just how long is long enough before you're allowed to look outward again?
"In our culture, we expect one stage to be over before the next one can begin. There's a feeling that you're being disloyal or minimizing the loss of the person – who is also a daughter, sister or friend – and her memory as if it never happened," said Carolyn Klassen, a Winnipeg psychotherapist who married Jim Klassen, a widower, 13 months after his wife died of breast cancer.
But Klassen and others believe these stages aren’t perfectly linear. Instead, they often overlap: Mourning can co-exist with new love.
"We didn't require him to finish grieving before he began the new relationship," Klassen said of her new husband. "There's lots of room for him to miss her while still loving me." (Roman described it as hearts that expand: "One love isn't moved out to make room for someone new. An addition is built.")
It's true that some widowed people do move on too fast, because they're in denial and don't want to face pain; such relationships often bear a cost. Still, even for those not in denial, finding a connection remains a huge human urge.
In a fascinating recent case, after two authors who wrote bestselling memoirs about their final months ailing with cancer passed away, their widowed spouses fell in love with each other. Lucy Kalanithi is a doctor and widow of Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who wrote the memoir When Breath Becomes Air and died of lung cancer at 37. John Duberstein's wife Nina Riggs also penned a memoir, The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, published last year after she died of breast cancer at 39.
As Riggs was dying, she urged her husband to reach out to Lucy Kalanithi for help. The two began e-mailing as Duberstein struggled "not to go insane" grieving. And so their unconventional union was sparked. Both of the terminally ill spouses had given their partners "radical permission" to forge new relationships, Kalanithi told The Washington Post earlier this month. But the re-configuration was bittersweet: "Having a second relationship is a tragedy," Duberstein said.
Despite the self-awareness many of these couples exhibit, the outside world often sees one thing: callousness.
“We are all afraid that when we die, we’ll be forgotten. It comes from fear. We want to be special and singular, and we are,” said widow Nora McInerny, who wrote about her husband Aaron Purmort’s death of brain cancer at 35 in her 2016 book It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too).
McInerny remorsefully recalls one incident when she herself was judgmental. While Purmort was very sick, a widowed friend of hers called and said she was going on a date. McInerny's reaction was a visceral "ugh." She gossiped about it to her husband, wondering if it wasn't too soon for a grieving woman to be dating. Purmort slammed her for it. "Once you've gone through a loss like this," McInerny said, "you would never judge a person for wanting to fall in love again."
Six months after Purmort passed away in 2014, she tried dating but felt she was operating on "a different plane of existence" than the men: The small talk was killing her. Six months after that, she met Matthew Hart at a mutual friend's backyard party. The conversation was rich, spanning hours.
Even so, on one of their early dates at a restaurant, McInerny withered in shame when an acquaintance spotted them. "It made me feel so self-conscious that I angled myself away from Matthew, as if I was there alone and he just happened to be sitting at the bar next to me. I ignored him for the remainder until we left the restaurant." She looks back now and wonders why she cared so much. "But you do," she says.
McInerny and Hart married and had a baby, all within two years of her first husband's death. Today, she feels like she's in love with two people – one dead, one alive. "I can love this life and still have grief for Aaron," said McInerny, who runs a support group called Hot Young Widows Club. "They aren't competing. To me, having both of these flames burning makes them both burn brighter."
Widows, McInerny contends, are particularly primed for love: They are emotionally open, understand that time is finite and value good partners, fiercely. "I don't have baggage from my husband dying," McInerny said. "I know what a good relationship looks and feels like. I'm not going to do anything except that."
For those falling in love shortly after the death of a spouse, Winnipeg's Klassen is a firm believer in "holding space." At her wedding in 2015, she and her new husband mentioned his deceased wife in their vows and placed an extra red gerbera daisy on certain tables at the reception: red was her favourite colour. "We're not trying to rub out her memory," Klassen said. "We remember her."
In a blog post titled "Visiting my Husband's Wife's Grave," Klassen described watching him shake while weeping. She wasn't jealous, but sad.
“I’m grateful that he had this tremendous love,” Klassen said. “I love that he loves her because it tells me how well he loves. That’s the same man that is also loving me.”