How Netflix’s “After Life” Gets Grief Right
What does Ricky Gervais know about grief? A lot, apparently.
Ever since my 15-year-old daughter died two years ago, I’ve been obsessed with stories about grief, my own included.
I keep retelling my story over and over again, examining it from a dozen different angles, trying to navigate this landscape of loss without a compass. I know I’m not the first person searching for meaning in a world that no longer makes sense — and I certainly won’t be the the last — but popular culture denies the pain of grief at every turn.
The Happiness Cult
We’re bombarded with positivity in our day-to-day lives. Some psychologists refer to this as “The Happiness Cult” — roughly defined as the preoccupation with a self-centered quest for feeling good. This preoccupation with perpetual happiness and optimism is at odds with those of us who have suffered traumatic loss, particularly with the intractable grief of losing a child.
In her book, Bearing the Unbearable, Love, Loss and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief, Dr. Joanne Cacciatore addresses this “culture of happiness” by presenting real stories of grief and loss, including her own. The book’s resounding message is that we need to make space for our grief, that it’s okay not to “move on” — at least in the way society expects us to.
Dr. Cacciatore is swimming upstream against a tide of impatience for complicated or (what other people may perceive as) prolonged grief.
Most movies and books that address grief subliminally communicate this impatience, delivering the resounding message that we must get over it, we must move on, and we must somehow, magically, heal from a trauma that has effectively shattered us. This (directly or indirectly) implies that grief is our own fault and that we have the power to “fix” it.
But some things stay broken forever.
Grief is hard to witness. Death is hard to reconcile. The popular myth of “healing” from traumatic loss is compelling in a society that embraces perpetual happiness, but is this idea anything more than fiction? I am a member of several parental grief support groups online and I can tell you from firsthand experience that there are some losses you never get over.
“After Life” Dares to Address Real Grief
It is the rare TV Show or movie that effectively and honestly captures real grief, and I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t expect this from Ricky Gervais.
In “After Life,” Gervais plays “Tony,” a man who lost his wife of twenty-five years to cancer. Their relationship was genuine and loving, as depicted in the videos of Tony’s wife that he watches throughout the series. In many of the videos, Tony’s wife — her hairless scalp covered in a wrap — provides instructions and encouragement to him on how to go on without her.
Though the timing of her death isn’t specified, it is clearly recent (on several occasions, Tony tells people that he lost his wife “earlier this year”).
The first episode of “After Life” lays down the foundation for the entire six-episode series. Tony is deeply in pain. He contemplates suicide on a daily basis and, though he makes the decision to stay alive, he takes comfort in the knowledge that he can kill himself anytime he wants. This gives Tony the freedom to be candid and blunt, often trodding over others’ feelings in the process.
It also gives him a special kind of insight into the daily absurdity of life (and this is where Gervais truly shines — he’s always had a unique gift for teasing out life’s absurdities). Juxtaposing the absurdity (and stupidity) of life with the spiritual destitution of grief is often jarring, sometimes hilarious, and an incredibly accurate portrayal of what it feels like to be in a state of deep mourning.
Tony describes this as a “super power,” insulating him from the niceties of day-to-day living and allowing him to be completely candid with everyone in his life — though that often makes him cruel.
It’s not easy to witness Tony’s destructive behavior — not for viewers and not for the fictional characters that care about Tony. His new philosophy is couched in deep spiritual pain (even though Tony, like Gervais, is an atheist).
Tony’s grief is antithetical to the culture of happiness we’ve carefully constructed in our modern-day lives. You may find yourself crying more than laughing. And, if you haven’t experienced the kind of traumatic loss that Tony has, then you may find yourself rolling your eyes and thinking,
“Hey, what kind of sitcom is this, anyway?”
This isn’t a sitcom. Although “After Life” offers up moments of genuine hilarity, this is not a comedy.
The Many Moments That Spoke to My Grieving Heart
In the first year after my daughter died — particularly during the early months — I wanted to die. I wasn’t suicidal, like Tony, but I didn’t care about living. I got a mammogram, and was disappointed when the results were normal. I read a story about a man in his seventies who had died suddenly from a heart attack, and I envied him. I love my younger daughter and husband and my hilarious little dog, Roo, and I hung on for all of them.
I hung on because my older daughter had fought tooth and nail for her life. She loved living. She had such bright hope for her future. If she could persist through pain and terrifying fear as she grew sicker and sicker, the least I could do was to be grateful for my life.
I wasn’t grateful, but I didn’t really want to die. Living with the pain was excruciating, unbearable. Tony’s constant thoughts (and threats) of suicide which he presents in a matter-of-fact way to nearly everyone he meets resonated with me. I suspect it will resonate with many grieving parents.
At first, Tony is so consumed with his own pain that he’s oblivious to everyone else’s. But certain characters break through. One is a drug addict, Julian Kane, who works for the local newspaper where Tony also works (and Tony’s brother owns).
Tony grows fascinated with the addict who lost his own partner to a drug overdose, and there is an absolutely heart-wrenching scene when Tony tries heroin for the first time. As he sinks into oblivion, he visualizes laying his head on his wife’s lap, sighing with relief.
This scene was so real to me. The compulsion to self-medicate, to lose yourself in a fog of alcohol or Xanax-induced numbness (or worse) is intense. You will do anything for relief, but as Tony soon learns, that’s not the same as living.
The other character who breaks through Tony’s fog of grief is an older woman that he meets at the graveyard where his wife is buried. She has lost her husband of 40+ years and spends her days sitting on a bench chatting with him. Tony doesn’t know it, but she is a lightkeeper — a Sherpa that connects with Tony and helps him navigate his way in the foreign land he’s found himself in.
Sherpas like these truly exist. I’ve found a few and I thank the universe for them every day.
A Message to Ricky Gervais
Accurate portrayals of grief are rare. The happiness culture is insistent and needy and unforgiving. The world is impatient with grief — married to the narrative of “getting over it,” enamored with the idea that grief can be sliced up into five stages that always end with acceptance and “moving on.”
“After Life” goes against this accepted paradigm and a brilliant, poignant and truly accurate way. It is a piece of fiction that is needed. I plan to watch it again.
Thank you for using your voice and your platform to tell a story that needs telling. Not everyone is going to get it, but you knew that already, didn’t you?
Grief is lonely, the path uncertain. But I can honestly say that I walked away from this series feeling hopeful and inspired. I also had a good cry. Bravo, Mr. Gervais.