“After Life.” Ricky Gervais’ unexpectedly hopeful portrayal of Grief and Depression
Updated: Mar 18, 2019
A Psychotherapist’s TV serie review
I have to confess I have a biased soft spot for Ricky Gervais. Undeniably, his humor and his language are not for the faint hearted. He is extremely politically incorrect. He is rude, brutal, blasphemous and his contributes have been condemned as nasty and mean-spirited on numerous occasions.
However, I cannot help it: nearly every single joke that comes from him makes me burst into tears of laughter. Interestingly, Freud believed that jokes have the function of releasing unconscious aggressive thoughts that can be shared as if they were not serious. Is it the way the Ego rebels to the harsh, controlling Super Ego but since “it is just a joke”, it does not cause tension or angst.
Despite all the criticisms Gervais received through the years, I have never believed that he was insensitive and unsympathetic as he often aims to be perceived. What did not occur to me before watching “After Life”, his new series on Netflix, is the extent of his awareness and acuteness in describing the most painful feelings we inevitably experience as human beings.
“After Life” is the highly relatable portrayal of a man in a bottomless pit of grief. Tony (Gervais) has recently lost his wife Lisa through Cancer and he is in constant, relentless pain. Every moment of his day is a struggle. He does not see any point of living and the only tiny love for life he can still feel is for his dog, beautiful German Shepard Brandy, who saves his life when Tony was about to attempt suicide.
“I just want to live without pain or die without a pain, what ever comes first”, says Tony.
“After Life” is an impeccable title for this serie in many ways. What Tony is experiencing does not feel like Life at all, it is the opposite of what he has known before the death of his wife. There is no happiness, no hope, no relief , no emotional sharing, no break from the suffering. Just sorrow, anger and pain. He may not be dead, but his life is over.
What is left in the aftermath of the death of his wife is gloomy and disheartening. An uninspiring job, the total lack of energy in accomplishing any basic daily task, the visits to the care home of his dad who suffers from Alzheimer and who ironically keeps on asking how his wife is. Everything feels unbearable and Tony comes up with a decision, an involuntary coping strategy: he grants himself the right to be nasty to everyone around him, he will just say and do whatever he wants. Unexpectedly, this is the beginning of his journey to different phases of bereavement and towards a new chapter of his life.
What Gervais effectively sheds the light upon is that Grief and Depression- sadly, one can easily lead to the other- have a strong, and often, overwhelming component of Anger.
When we lose a beloved one, the first reaction is shock and disbelief. What happened just cannot be true. The world is not the same anymore. The mind goes over and over the traumatic events in order to try to find a meaning but there isn’t any.
Then the “Protest” phase unfolds; we are angry and realising that people around us simply carry on with their lives hurts even more. Anger can in many instances be directed towards others and oneself (ie substance misuse which also serves the purpose of numbing the pain, suicide ideation attempts).
With his decision to be nasty to people, Tony is protesting to the world. He cannot help spreading his cynicism in every interaction he has with people around him.
And what is cynicism if not trying to cope with negative realisation and depressing conclusions we draw from adverse events?
According to Robin Sharma, “cynicism stems from disappointment . Cynical people were not always like that. “
The cynic is faced with the rawness of living, he feels his eyes have been opened while everyone else is still blind and does not get it. As Gervais pointed out, “a cynic is trying to make everyone around him unhappy as he is”.
However, this coping strategy soon reveals itself as pointless and harmful to Tony, isolating him even more from the people who care for him. Eventually, somewhere in himself , Tony finds a way to change his attitude. He finds what has always been dormant in him, despite the trauma and the bitterness,: Hope.
How do we survive grief? There is no simple answer but what Gervais brilliantly reminds us is that it is by giving to others that we can slowly come back to life. In Tony’s case, it is the responsibility for his lovely dog who needs his kindness, but also his dad that despite the dementia still has feelings and occasional warm memories, his brother in law going through marital problems, a new employee that needs his guidance and expertise, colleagues and new friends that have no self esteem and have, unlike Tony, never experienced happiness before.
Our only option to stay alive is to care for others and thankfully, we can be very creative in choosing how to do it. This is what brings us back up from the pit and saves us from drowning. It is an act of creativity and transformation: slowly, anger and pain become energy and motivation again.
Marcel Proust, the writer/philosopher that probably reached the deepest level of awareness and one of the most sophisticated description of our mind and soul, rightly contends that grief makes us selfish. It is inevitable, especially at the peak of it
In grief, our suffering is too overwhelming, it is blinding and numbing to other people’s feelings and intentions.
But more importantly, Proust believes that while happiness is healthy for the body, grief develops the power of the mind.
Thank you, Ricky Gervais for this little gem of a serie, for offering us hysterical, alternated phases of laughing and crying.
And I have to disagree with one of your critics stating that “the world is evolving, Ricky Gervais isn’t”. Through “After Life”, you have showed us your humanity hidden under the rant, helping us understanding and getting in touch with the most ugly, at times shameful, excruciating feelings and at the same time, giving the hope that we can survive them.
I knew you were everything but insensitive (is it even truly possible to be unfeeling and love dogs and animals so much like you do?).
Hopefully though, if I may, people will believe psychologists and psychotherapists are there to help in the long journey of grief and are very seldom as useless and self-absorbed as Tony’s counsellor!