Suffering just under the surface

Last weekend I binge watched Ricky Gervais’ Neflix series Afterlife. Given it was only 6 episodes at ~ 30 minutes each, I’m not sure it really qualifies as a binge, but I’ll take the credit regardless (note: not an achievement).

The series had a lasting effect on me which I suspected it might going in. It deals with death and loss and grief – subjects of which which I have not yet developed much of an understanding or internal model of coping.

I sat down afterwards and jotted down all the themes that had stuck in my head. My list was 7 items long. One theme however seemed to dominate, so I’ve tried to capture it below. Please excuse the clumsiness of my expression.

Suffering is just under the surface, in just about everyone

Gervais’ character Tony is undoubtedly suffering from the death of his wife (and I’d also argue the dementia of his father). There is no ambiguity about this to us as the viewers or the other characters that he interacts with. In fact, early in the show, the other characters simply provide the backdrop for us to understand his suffering better. Many of them are badly treated by Tony as his anger and grief and hopelessness overtake him.

But over the course of the series we, via Tony, encounter a number of characters who are also suffering, but who have constructed layers above that suffering to try and keep it concealed and to try and avoid it. His boss/brother in law Matt, whose marriage is on the rocks, but who focuses on trying to stay upbeat about the work and tries hard to ‘save’ Tony. The drug dealer Julian, whose drug lifestyle hides a similar loss to Tony’s.

This theme continues with many of the characters Tony encounters as he gathers stories for the local newspaper. Like Brian, the hoarder, whose strange collecting ways conceal the pain of his relationship rejection. Or the old man who finds humour in receiving 5 of the same birthday cards, a humour that helps him deal with the loss of his wife.

As Tony comes to realise that so many other people are barely scraping together a public face over the top of their suffering/vulnerability, we start to notice some dents in his angry/hurt facade. His patience with people starts to increase a little and his treatment of them improves. Gratitude starts to creep in. He starts to see people for what they are truly carrying, not the somewhat caricature selves that form over the top of those wounds. He starts to entertain the idea that maybe there are other ways for him to carry his grief.

This journey towards holding his pain in a different way isn’t without some brutal lessons/ transition points though. He is jolted out of the numbness of helping Julian to die (by giving him the money to purchase a lethal overdose), with the reality of losing access to his nephew. He’s also shocked to discover that his pain is so strong, he’s willing to threaten violence against a small boy who is bullying other kids. These events are salient because they are such marked deviations from who Tony was before the loss of his wife.

In the end, I think it is Anne, the lady on the park bench at the cemetery, who seems to finally provide Tony with a formula for carrying his suffering in a more compassionate way. She sees that Tony is fundamentally a good person, and that the public face of his grief isn’t an accurate representation of who he is. She doesn’t him ask to not suffer. She simply invites him instead to be part of something bigger – humankind – where everyone is carrying suffering and where the ‘good’ people will take on the responsibility of helping other’s hold their suffering, in exchange for help in holding their own.

The fact that Tony takes up Anne’s informal invitation is, for me, most memorably captured by him putting the Kevin Hart picture in Kath’s snow globe, finally recognising her ‘love’ of Kevin Hart was simply the best public expression of her desire to love/need for love that she could put forward in the world.

There are a few take home messages for me from this particular strand of the show:

  • Death is inevitable. It is the ultimate loss.
  • Loss leads to suffering. We will all lose, so we will all suffer.
  • Most of us will try to conceal our suffering (and avoid it) by putting a public face forward. We’ll construct stories about ourselves and others and use those stories to try and soothe us.
  • That if we assess and judge each other on that public face, we likely miss the shared underlying experiences of loss that would ultimately help us connect better.
  • That if we’re more openly honest about what we’re going through, there will be people who step up to try and help. Their efforts might be clumsy or poorly timed, but their intention will be to help.
  • Recovery from loss is not about withdrawing from life, rejecting efforts to help and minimising the number of things we’ll lose, but instead helping others deal with their suffering and in turn, gaining access to a level of connection that ultimately does our healing.
  • To do this isn’t easy. In the process we might deviate markedly from our normal behaviour. We might push those away who are trying to connect. We may cause others suffering in the process. It may take months or years of us, piece-by-piece, letting people in, until we are willing and able to share our collective loss.
  • Gratitude is one of the healing elements we might gain in the process

I’ve always been impressed with Gervais’ ability to use humour as a vehicle through which to explore more fundamental truths. In Afterlife, he takes a crack at grief and loss. I am not sure if I have internalised his messages correctly, but I feel he is trying to say that we will all probably try to lock our suffering behind some kind of public face/identity, but that will leave us all bereft in terms of the connection we might actually need to heal from that suffering.

The solution? Trying to find the courage to share our vulnerability at times and also to listen to, note and facilitate others in sharing theirs.

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