Last week, Patton Oswalt announced his engagement to Meredith Salenger, roughly one year after his wife of 11 years, Michelle McNamara, passed away in April 2016. While he’s received no shortage of support and praise, some have been quick to criticize his engagement on Reddit and Twitter. In response, Oswalt wrote on Facebook, “I expected some bitter grub worms to weigh in (anonymously, always always always) with their much-needed opinions when I announced my engagement last week. And I decided to ignore them.” He also praised an essay, “A Widow’s Rage Defense of Patton Oswalt’s Engagement,” by writer Erica Roman, who lost her husband of seven years, around the same time Oswalt lost his wife. “Erica articulated [my rage] better than I could have ever hoped,” he wrote.
My parents are dead—very, very dead. When I was 13 years old, my mom died; when I was 24, my dad died. Both had been sick for a number of years. Instead of hooking up in Cabo or donning flower crowns at Coachella, I spent most of my early twenties sleeping in hospital waiting rooms and meeting with funeral directors. Here’s what people say to you when both of your parents die: nothing. They tell you nothing. No one told me how much paperwork I’d have to do, and no one told me how horny I’d get. No one tells you that the sadness that accompanies death doesn’t necessarily make you sad in the traditional sense. Instead, it consumes your conscious thoughts with memories of the person you’ve lost—at least it did for me— but I could still laugh and experience joy. Grief didn’t stop me from doing stand-up socializing and having fun. And it definitely didn’t stop me wanting to have sex.
Patton’s engagement made me think about how I felt after I lost my dad. I had a love crater in my heart that needed to be filled. Patton is known for being a levelheaded guy, and I believe he knows what’s best for him and his own happiness. There is no set time frame for remarriage after the death of a spouse. If finding your happiness means getting engaged one year after the death of your spouse, so be it.
That may be the first thing that no one says that should be said more often: that experiencing the death of a loved one shouldn’t restrict you from experiencing love at the same time. You may have heard about the stages of grief, but I wanted to share the stages of something that can be triumphantly more hopeful, joyful and, well, normal: getting back to dating after losing a loved one. Here are the stages.
RELEASE ANY GUILT
A few weeks after my father’s death, I became super horny. All I wanted to do was fuck, and I felt awful about it. I had never felt guilty about my sexual desires before, but suddenly I did, as if it was disrespectful to feel that way. Sometimes people feel guilty about wanting company and physical love so close to a death, but it’s perfectly normal to crave it. Don’t beat yourself up over it; feeling guilty about wanting to date and have sex after my dad’s death didn’t make the mourning process any easier.
People who are criticizing Patton on his new engagement are questioning whether he had “mourned” long enough. There is no such thing as a mourning quota. In the end, what helped me let go of guilt was knowing that both of my parents had always encouraged me to date. They wouldn’t have wanted me to sit on the sidelines. I’m sure Patton’s deceased wife would’ve wanted him move on and be happy, and I think my parents would want me to move on, too. I could almost hear my mom’s ghost yelling in my head, “Are you really gonna let my dumb death keep you from having fun and getting busy in the bedroom? No! Now, remember to be safe and go buy some condoms!”
YOU DON’T HAVE TO “GET OVER IT”
Yes, you will have to move on and go back to living a life without the person you lost, But you don’t have to necessarily “get over it.” “Getting over” a death implies that you’ll return to some state of normalcy. For those who said Patton “got over it” too fast, I ask how his engagement is an indication that he’s “over it”? It’s possible to mourn and be in love simultaneously. Maybe it’s Patton’s attempt to return to normalcy. Considering how close you were with someone, returning to “normal” might be impossible, but you have a new normal now. Learn how to integrate the loss into your life. Everything will be a little different. Birthdays are different. Holidays are different. And they always will be—but that is my new normal. I’ve grown to accept it. It’s made me braver, stronger and a great chef on Thanksgiving.
NEW RELATIONSHIPS MIGHT MEAN BREAKING UP FIRST The tricky thing about dating is that, unless a person is strictly a friend with benefits, it’s a 50/50 game. The person you date will either become your spouse or your ex. Break-ups and death are actually pretty similar. The last time a guy broke my heart, I cried as if I was in mourning. A part of me suddenly felt like it was missing. I ached like I lost a loved one. Although there wasn’t a funeral, flowers or casseroles, a major part of me went missing.
When people with whom we are closest leave us, some of us goes with them. Luckily, my relationship’s heartbreak and my dad’s death were far enough apart, so I could handle them both. But before you launch or download any dating apps, be aware that you may soon after experience a break-up and all the grief that comes with it. Whether you’re going through a death or a break-up, take all of the time you need to grieve. There is no limit on the amount of time you can spend mourning either. Allow yourself to grieve. If you don’t, these emotions will be repressed, and repression is a dangerous thing.
APPLAUD YOURSELF FOR GETTING BACK OUT THERE
For many, romantic love is integral to their lives; without love, life may seem worthless and devoid of meaning. Without love and desire, many people feel a part of them is dead. When Patton’s his wife died last year, I remember him writing about her on Facebook, thinking to myself, “Damn, I wish someone loved like me like that”.
Good for him for finding getting back out there and fuck anyone for judging him. After my dad’s death, I worried that the people I dated would feel uncomfortable if I talked about my dead parents. In the beginning, I felt more insecure than I had felt in years and it caused me to overreact to things that previously would have rolled off my back. Losing my parents meant losing my biggest fans, who reminded me without hesitation that they were proud of me and that I am beautiful. The absence of such support caused me to seek constant affection. I started jumping to the worst possible conclusions if there was a sliver of a doubt, from awkward silences to a lack of texts.
While I never acted out or started fights, I did let insecurity dominate my mind and deflate me. Many guys let me get it out of my system. Some built me back up with the truth—that they think I’m great, too. It’s hard to get back out there. If you can do it, applaud yourself. No matter what may come, you’re more resilient than you think.
If you’re mourning a recent loss, I know how vulnerable your heart feels right now. I know you’d like to someday be able to tell your parents “I met someone…”. This aching will pass, but it takes time. I’m not sure I understand death any more clearly at age 30 than I did at 13, but it does get easier. You are not broken. You will love again. You will have mind-blowing sex again, you will orgasm again, you will find somewhere to have Thanksgiving and you’ll even be able to give advice on the topic one day, like me, tearing up.