Patton Oswalt: Hard Lessons in Grief and Mental Health

Patton Oswalt - Experiencing Grief and Mental Health

In 2016, the actor Patton Oswalt lost his wife of 11 years. In the months and years that followed, Oswalt was open about his experience with loss and grief, creating opportunities for conversations about what it means to mourn.

Introduction: Overview of Patton Oswalt’s Career and Public Persona

Best known for his roles in The King of Queens, Two and a Half Men and Mystery Science Theater 3000, as well as his voice acting in dozens of television shows and movies, Patton Oswalt has enjoyed a successful career that has spanned decades.

In 1988, at just 19 years old, Oswalt began performing stand-up comedy in small clubs around the Washington, DC, area. He soon connected with Blaine Capatch, also a stand-up comedian, and the two eventually moved to Los Angeles where Oswalt began to round out his career with writing and acting gigs.

Oswalt’s big break came in 1998 when he was cast as Spencer in The King of Queens. The show ran for nine seasons, with Oswalt performing in 122 episodes. After the show ended, Oswalt voiced several well-known characters in animated television shows and movies, including Remy in Ratatouille, Professor Dementor in Kim Possible and Neil in United States of Tara. At the same time, he had two comedy albums, My Weakness Is Strong (2009) and Finest Hour (2011), peak at the No. 1 spot in the U.S. Top Comedy Album Chart.

Winning fans across numerous genres, Oswalt has become known for his observational humor, satire and keen insight into social and political issues. He’s well-respected in the entertainment industry for his ability to connect with audiences.

Coping with Grief and Loss After the Death of His Spouse

In 2016, Oswalt’s wife of 11 years, well-known crime writer Michelle McNamara, died unexpectedly at just 46 years old. McNamara maintained a blog and podcast where she discussed cases that weren’t getting a high level of publicity. She also appeared regularly on the Investigation Discovery series A Crime to Remember. Outside of work, she and Oswalt were raising a daughter, who was 7 at the time of McNamara’s death.

McNamara died in her sleep in April of 2016. While the cause of death wasn’t immediately evident, an autopsy found that she was living with an undiagnosed heart condition. Additionally, McNamara was taking prescription medications to control nightmares and symptoms of anxiety, including Xanax, Adderall and fentanyl. An overdose of these drugs, combined with her heart condition, ultimately led to her death.

When speaking about the night of her death, Oswalt recollected how she was immersed in her research for a book she’d been writing. The details she’s uncovered had resulted in her having difficulty sleeping, with Oswalt saying, “She had overloaded her mind with information with very dark implications.” Not knowing the other medications she was taking, he suggested that she take Xanax that night and sleep in the next morning. He’d left her a coffee on her nightstand at about 9:40 the next morning after taking their daughter to school, and when he checked on her several hours later, he discovered she wasn’t breathing.

Oswalt was open about his grief over his wife’s death, openly discussing his emotions on social media. A few months after his loss, he expressed the pain he felt in a particularly raw social media post, saying that even after time has passed, a grieving person “…will not have ‘closure.’ You will not have ‘perspective’ or ‘resilience’ or ‘a new sense of self.’ You WILL have solid knowledge of fear, exhaustion and a new appreciation for the randomness and horror of the universe. And you’ll also realize that 102 days is nothing but a warm-up for things to come.” He also said, “I was face-down and frozen for weeks. 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.”

At the same time, Oswalt noted how helpful a strong support system was during his grief, saying, “They will show up for you, physically and emotionally, in ways in which make you take careful note and say to yourself, ‘Make sure to try to do that for someone else someday.’ Complete strangers will send you genuinely touching messages on Facebook and Twitter, or will somehow figure out your address to send you letters which you’ll keep and re-read ’cause you can’t believe how helpful they are.”

Candid Discussions About Mental Health Challenges and Seeking Therapy

Along with opening up about his experience with grief to his followers on social media, Oswalt participated in some candid discussions about the mental health challenges he’s faced since losing his wife in numerous interviews. In an interview with The Mental Health Comedy Podcast, Oswalt was asked how he conveyed a healthy, balanced way of managing grief in his stand-up. In response, he talked about how the wisdom he’s acquired since the time of his wife’s death allowed him to speak from a healthy place. However, he also noted that while he sounded “healthy” during his one-hour special, his audience didn’t see the pain and grief he continued to experience.

Oswalt also talked about how he kept up with regular sessions with his therapist, even multiple times per week in the early days after losing his wife. To help his daughter process her own grief, Oswalt took her to a weekly support group for children who’d lost a parent. During her sessions, he sat and talked to parents in the lobby who were experiencing similar challenges and emotions.

In the interview, Oswalt went on to discuss how he became “frighteningly comfortable” with the idea of merely existing. However, he later discovered that he still had the capacity to feel joy and to continue contributing to the world through his career.

Advocacy Work and Destigmatizing Conversations About Grief and Mental Health

By being open and candid about his experience with grief and loss, both in interviews, writings and in his stand-up routines, Oswalt has played a significant role in destigmatizing conversations about mental health. His words have resonated with many people who have experienced loss, giving a voice to the emotions they feel as they process the death of a loved one. While everyone is entitled to their privacy as they navigate loss, Oswalt’s decision to openly share his thoughts – both the positive and the difficult – has encouraged more open dialogue about the realities of mourning.

Conclusion: Recognizing Oswalt’s Resilience and Advocacy Efforts in Navigating Grief and Mental Health Struggles

Grief isn’t a linear path, and processing the death of a loved one requires patience, willingness to experience difficult emotions and an openness to support from others. Throughout his journey through grief, Oswalt highlighted the importance of learning to sit with uncomfortable emotions rather than trying to “get over” a significant loss. He also spoke often about how he relied on emotional support from friends, family and fans, as well as his therapist. These were all instrumental in helping him build resilience and find satisfaction and joy in life after loss.