Some folks were surprised to learn that Patton Oswalt, whose wife Michelle McNamara died suddenly in her sleep a year ago — and after a very public grieving period in which Oswalt spoke openly about his suffering — has announced he’s engaged to be married to actress Meredith Salenger.
Many online commenters congratulated Oswalt for finding love again, but others remarked that it “just seems so soon,” or that it seemed strange that Oswalt had just written a column about how he hadn’t taken his wedding ring off until the one-year anniversary of McNamara’s death. “And now, barely two months after that, engaged? Side. Eye.”
Author Erica Roman, whose spouse died three days after Oswalt’s, saw the comments and took to the internet to defend him in a post that has since gone viral, writing:
Who gave you the position to judge when it’s “too soon” for a person who has suffered the worst to be able to find happiness and companionship again? Its been 15 months! How long should a widow sit in isolation before YOU are comfortable enough to release them from their solitary confinement? Because it’s really about you isn’t it? You aren’t actually concerned about the heart of the person who has found the strength and courage to love once more. You’re worried about your own offended sensibilities rooted in old Victorian traditions. Stop pretending you are actually concerned about their “healing.”
Anyone who has read anything about grieving — or experienced it personally — learns one major truth quickly: There is absolutely no one predictable, correct timeline for grief; no one way to do it; and no way of knowing when it ends (which is likely never). Anyone who searches the internet for statistics about remarriage will also learn that marrying soon after a spouse dies isn’t actually uncommon at all, especially for men. In a piece looking at the phenomenon in 2006, The New York Times invoked an old saying that when it comes to grieving a lost spouse, “Women mourn; men replace.”
“For men whose marriage ends only because of death there is often a desire to repeat the happiness they knew,” Susan Shapiro Barash, a gender studies professor at Marymount Manhattan College, told the Times. “These men love being married, and they are good husband material.”
In that piece, they explored why men may take a wife more quickly, and the reasons are pretty practical: Help rearing children is a big one. (Oswalt’s daughter with McNamara, Alice, is 8.) In more traditional relationships (no idea if Oswalt and McNamara’s fits that bill), women often take on organizing tasks around the house and planning the social calendar, something men may feel particularly more lost at attempting in the absence of a spouse.
Another piece at the Times addressed other differences between how men and women process grief:
Many will be not be prepared for the experience. The loss of a spouse often is crushing for men physically as well as psychologically. In a 2001 paper published in The Review of General Psychology, psychologists at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands confirmed earlier data showing widowers have a higher incidence of mental and physical illness, disabilities, death and suicide than widows do. While women who lose their husbands often speak of feeling abandoned or deserted, widowers tend to experience the loss “as one of dismemberment, as if they had lost something that kept them organized and whole,” Michael Caserta, chairman of the Center for Healthy Aging at the University of Utah, said by e-mail.
So it isn’t so much that women mourn and men replace so much as it is that women are simply more equipped to go it alone because they are typically better at coping with grief. Men may look to another woman for companionship and sympathy because they take longer to get over their spouse, not because they processed their feelings with the efficiency of a trash compactor. Men typically have fewer support networks, too.
All this means that doing something rather than feeling something—in this case, finding a companion to connect with and heal with so as to not sit around alone feeling horrible forever—may be simply the best they can do.
The same is true with remarriage for men in general. Writing at The Huffington Post about the fact that men remarry more quickly in general, therapist Emily Gordon explains that as with grief, men typically simply have fewer therapeutic resources and less emotional support to weather the storm of separation or loss. Gordon writes:
In my experience as a therapist and as a friend, it seems that the majority of the breakup resources available are for women and not men. Women, who tend to be more vocal about their emotional struggles, are the squeaky wheel that gets the grease from friends, from online communities, from books, and from therapeutic approaches. Women are encouraged to go on an emotional journey of self-care after a divorce, while men are expected to need help learning how to cook and parent on their own. When you Google “how men handle divorce,” many of the links advise women on what to do if their husbands become violent during the divorce process. Why is there so little focus on how men can heal after a divorce?
That’s why, Gordon concludes, that we’d do better to focus on more specific, male-focused approaches to grieving and divorce rather than “scorning men for remarrying so fast.”
And of course, it’s always worth reminding ourselves that there is no timeline for falling in love again—just different human beings, stumbling their way through it. Let Oswalt do it how he needs to.