You either love Ricky Gervais’ sense of humour or you cringe. I was neither for nor against him regarding his hosting of the Golden Globes. I was ambivalent towards both him and the awards show, because like him, I really didn’t care.
It wasn’t until weeks later in my support group for suicide survivors, that his name came up again. We were talking about movies that realistically portray grief. Someone mentioned After Life, a short series on Netflix, where Tony, played by Gervais, is grieving the loss of his wife.
There may be triggers, we’re warned. It might not be appropriate for some of us to watch.
Well, that was like dropping the gauntlet.
At the mere suggestion that it may not be appropriate, I decided right then that I’d watch it. If you don’t want me to do something, the best way to ensure that I do, is to tell me I shouldn’t.
I was prepared to cry. After all, it was about loss and grief, and that’s something with which I’m well acquainted. I wasn’t however, prepared to laugh until I nearly peed my pants.
As the story unfolds, we learn that before his wife died, Tony was a fun-loving husband and dedicated journalist. Not so much afterwards. He’d developed an inability to keep his darkest thoughts from escaping his mouth. No one was spared. Not the postman, the dog walker nor his colleagues. Whatever he was thinking, it just came out. His filtre disappeared as he wearied of the banality of life and the incessantly mindless chatter of those around him. Watching the Golden Globes followed by After Life, I’d decided that Gervais and Tony bore an uncanny resemblance to one another, and somehow, I fit in there as well.
Before you settle in to watch the series, let me assure you it’s the response to Tony’s grief that has me nodding my head in agreement–not the drug-sampling, the threatening of bodily harm nor his horrific potty-mouth (although I’ve been known to swear like a sailor at times myself).
Grief can show its face in the unlikeliest of places. Because it’s like a computer program running in the background of your life, you’re not always consciously aware that it’s on. You recognize its low hum when it gets close enough to brush up against you, especially along side a competing emotion.
For Tony, grief was personified in the laziness of the postman who wouldn’t deliver his mail properly, the guy in the park who criticizes him for not picking up after his dog, and the not-so-silent wish among his work mates that he’d just get back to normal.
For me, it reared its ugly head in the form of a scripted telephone call. I barely have the energy to talk to people I do know. Listening to someone talk from a guided script was like nails being pulled down a chalk board.
On this particular day, the call was akin to an ambush. I thought I knew who the call was from and what it was in regards to.
I answered my phone and could already hear talking and laughing before the caller on the other end had even acknowledged that I’d greeted her.
“Oh, hello. Is this Monica?”
“Yes, this is Monica.” big sigh. “Who am I speaking to, please?”
“Great! I’m Marcy, (not her real name) from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). How are you today Monica?”
I felt a familiar sensation rising to the surface. “Fine,” I lied, regretting that I’d even answered the phone. “I’m sorry, but could you please just get to the point of your call? I’m sure you didn’t call to see how I am.”
“Of course, Monica,” There was no change in her tone to suggest that I may have hurt her feelings or even shocked her with my terse response. “I noticed that you signed our petition to raise awareness for mental illness.”
“Yup.” I’m practicing my mindful breaths between mouthing cuss words.
“Great, Monica. Could you tell me why it was important to you to sign our petition?”
“Yeah.” I let out a long sigh. “I signed it because me daughter took her life due to mental health issues.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that, Monica… Have you seen our new site that opened up recently?
She didn’t even skip a friggin’ beat.
“It’s designed like a university, Monica. Can you think of why it would’ve been designed that way?”
This was the precise moment I’d decided I was done. I wasn’t even thinking of Tony, yet I heard him speak as I opened my mouth. “No, I don’t know and I really don’t care. Everything you’ve said so far sounds like it’s been read off of a script. Am I right?” Before she could answer, I continued. “A little disingenuous for a mental health agency, don’t you think–reading from a script rather than actively engaging in an authentic conversation?”
Our chat wrapped up fairly quickly. I took the opportunity to tell her of initiatives I actually was interested in, none of them including the design of a building.
I didn’t swear at her, I didn’t call her names, but I did call her out on what I felt was a really bad communication technique, for which she made no apology. Go figure.
Perhaps in the years BG (Before Grief), I wouldn’t have given much thought to the whole situation. I’m discovering that when you don’t have an outlet for all the big and uncomfortable feels–or you can’t express them to the one to whom they’re directed, you become somewhat of an opportunist.
After Life demonstrates this theory perfectly. The whole premise of the series is to show how the consequences of overwhelming grief become something of a ‘superpower’ for Tony. As writer and creator, Gervais explains that the concept of the series was to have the viewer imagine what it would be like to simply not care about life any longer, and to just do whatever you wanted. At one point, Tony considers taking his own life but changes his mind, deciding to make the lives of those around him miserable instead.
I’m not suggesting that making those around me walk on eggshells is my goal, nor do I believe that grief and loss gives you carte blanche to behave any way you choose. What I am saying, is that in viewing the world in this past year through the harsh lens of grief, I have come to see just how disconnected we are from one another–scripted dialogues, void of any real connection, for example. It’s hard to remain silent in the presence of apathy or the lack of respect. Grief and loss put things in perspective. What wouldn’t even show up on your radar before is suddenly lurking just below the surface in a sea of roiling emotion. The Big Feels need to be acknowledged, to be seen and tended to. I think that’s what I liked so much about Gervais’ character, Tony. He was a loathsome and offensive brute, yet so damn honest, raw and real. Slowly, he gave himself permission to connect with others, allowing his grief to transform both him and his relationships. Like Tony, I’ve discovered the thoughts I’ve kept to myself are often best uncorked. If I have no choice but to live each day in this new normal, it’d better be an authentic life worth sticking around for, even if I have to inconvenience others with my authenticity.
On the plus side, you’ll never have to wonder what I’m thinking.
Yes and amen.