The comic Patton Oswalt, whose wife Michelle McNamara died suddenly of unknown causes in April, was interviewed this past week on Conan. Oswalt’s comments were both funny and poignant "I'm like every bad '80s sitcom where there's a dad raising a kid by himself, and the mom is somehow... Except my '80s sitcom sucks. There's no punch lines. It's just, there's a lot of insomnia. There's a lot of me eating Cheetos for dinner, and I'm waiting for my daughter to turn to the camera and go, 'No wonder I'm in therapy!'"
What caught my attention the most came at the end of the interview when he described taking his daughter to Chicago, two weeks after McNamara’s death, as a way to cope with Mother’s Day. He felt that they both had done well in dealing with the situation when an older ticket taker at the airport recognized Oswalt and proceeded to tell them how sorry she was about their loss. In a faux Polish accent, Oswalt launches into the woman’s comments about how her mother had died and that she never got over it. “I’m sad every day.” Now Oswalt is afraid that every holiday the “Polish Woman of Doom” (PWOD) will suddenly appear spreading her message of despair.
Thanks to social media, Oswalt’s video is getting a lot of play and I’d recommend that people watch it. This is clearly a resilient man who is coping with his lost with some excellent tools, including the love and support of family and friends. According to grief/loss researcher, George Bonanno, one of the most helpful things you can do for a grieving person is make them laugh- “laughter almost always has a positive effect.”
Oswalt’s comments about the PWOD, which are incredibly funny, drives home the point that telling a grieving person that grief never ends is not helpful. It’s also not true. A loss can be a precipitating factor for longer-term problems, such as PTSD, and the literature shows that by six months if the grief isn’t really resolving, major interventions are needed. Clearly the person in need of help is the PWOD.
In keeping with celebrities and death, one of the more disturbing things I’ve recently seen was the reaction to Gene Wilder’s passing. Facebook and magazines covers contained images of he and Gilda Radner with comments like “finally united.” Really? He and Radner’s relationship was at best eight years. His marriage to Karen Webb lasted 25, ending with his death. After watching TCM’s Role Model: Gene Wilder it’s pretty clear that Wilder had found his bliss with Webb and the life they were living.
I don’t quite understand why there is such a glorification of unending grief when it’s not only unhelpful it’s down right unhealthy.
For more on the topic of grief and loss.