American comedian Patton Oswalt recently announced his engagement to actress Meredith Salenger. Many fans on Twitter were delighted to hear that the two stars were planning to tie the knot. On the flip side, though, there was a depressingly predictable backlash against the announcement coming 15 months after Oswalt's first wife, Michelle, suddenly died. It proves that so many of us are still in the dark about how grief works.
Last year I was moved by Oswalt's stark honesty - and often dark humour - in speaking out about grief after the death of his beloved wife Michelle. As a firm believer in the value of talking about loss and grief, I was heartened by Oswalt's openness after the sudden death of his wife. On his Facebook page, just over three months after Michelle died unexpectedly in her sleep, he shared a lengthy message with fans about the toll of losing the love of your life.
"I was face-down and frozen for weeks," he wrote. "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."
Fast-forward to the summer of 2017 and the U.S. comedian indeed seems to be "walking" rather than crawling. He made public his relationship with actress Meredith Salenger, appearing alongside her on the red carpet for the premiere of the film Baby Driver.
On July 6, Salenger shared an excited tweet - "It's official. I'm the luckiest happiest girl in the universe" - along with pictures of a not unimpressive diamond ring.
-- Meredith Salenger (@MeredthSalenger) 6 July 2017
Responses to the tweet from Salenger's fans are largely heart-warming, but you don't have to delve far into the internet's murky depths before discovering a truly ugly - and very predictable - negative response to Oswalt's happy news.
"I'd be careful of a man who would replace his beloved wife," said one commenter on Salenger's Instagram post.
"Hold up," said one concerned tweeter, "Patton Oswalt's wife died one year ago and he's engaged? Does that seem totally sketchy to anyone else?"
"Boy, he moved on past his grief pretty quickly! I mourned longer over a goldfish!" said another.
Our obsession with celebrity culture obviously makes a lot of people feel as though they're entitled to judge famous people both harshly and with impunity. We don't know Oswalt or Salenger - what we see of them is just a tiny part of their lives.
Secondly, it's a sad fact, one which ought to be written in giant letters above the gateway to the internet, that there will always be people saying bad things on social media. The combination of anonymity and an inflated feeling of self-importance brings out the worst in some people.
It's likely that it will always be that way, but I believe there's a third ingredient in the cocktail of judgment and spite in response to Oswalt's engagement - and that's a complete failure to understand grief.
Patton Oswalt at the 2010 San Diego Comic Con in San Diego, California. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.
For those who support the bereaved, or have experienced close personal loss, it's frustrating to see that people's concept of how grief works is so inaccurate.
"Lost my first wife to cancer," one person responded to trolls on Twitter. "There's no timetable for when you're ready to love again or rules of grieving. Why not just be happy for them."
For grief counsellors, it's become almost a mantra: "There is no timeline for grief." This idea that there's a neat timeline of 'mourning', 'getting over it' and 'ready to re-marry' is not only wrong, it's directly harmful to those coping with grief. So many bereaved people beat themselves up for not being 'over it' yet, or for moving on too quickly. The truth is that ways of grieving are as diverse and different as the people grieving and it's nobody else's business how someone reacts to the death of their partner.
If Patton Oswalt had never wanted to remarry for the rest of his life, that would be fine. If it took him 10 years to be ready to fall in love again, that would be fine. Getting engaged to Meredith 15 months after the death of his wife is also completely fine.
The truth is, love doesn't always happen when you're ready for it to happen. It's not like the universe waits until you're finished grieving and then sends a perfect partner your way. In fact, you're probably not going to finish grieving, ever. Many people who lose a spouse or partner realise that they'll never stop missing them. The suggestion that 15 months isn't long enough for Oswalt to 'get over' his first wife is ridiculous because he'll probably never get over it. Love doesn't just evaporate or disappear after someone dies.
I hold it as a golden rule to never judge how someone is grieving. Support them, be there for them and help them if they're struggling, but never be arrogant and heartless enough to think you know how they should be handling it.