Ricky Gervais and the Wrong Way to Grieve

After Life, created by Ricky Gervais, seems to be a quest to show just what it would mean to grieve in the wrong way. While grief counselors and well-meaning supporters will often assure us there is “no right or wrong way to grieve,” the central character, Tony, is destined to be an exemplar for how badly things can go when someone takes that advice to heart.

Tony recently lost his wife along with his will to live. Even without a will to live, though, he keeps living in spite of himself, partly because the dog needs to be fed. Maybe he really does feel an obligation to the dog, or he really wants to live, or he is just afraid to die. It doesn’t really matter why he keeps living, maybe, but several characters do make note of the fact that he does, in fact, find a reason to go on each day, even if he can’t say what it is.

So he goes on without wanting to live, which he feels gives him the freedom to do things he never would have done before. Of course, he always had the same freedom, but his suicidal ideation has now made him aware of it. The fact that suicide is on his mind tells him that if something he does causes things to get even more unpleasant for him, he will simply end it all.

This is, of course, a central tenet of existentialism, especially as articulated by Jean-Paul Sartre. Humans have radical freedom to choose their actions because they can annihilate themselves at any time. This annihilation can come in the form of suicide or simply choosing to become a different person. Sure, you can’t actually become a different person, but you can choose radically different actions, and we are defined by what we do.

Suicide is also the central question for another existentialist, Albert Camus, of course, but for Camus the question of suicide should challenge us to find meaning for our lives each and every day. If I’ve chosen not to kill myself today, I must have a reason. I should be aware of what it is I am living for. If it is just to feed the dog, then so be it.

But Tony isn’t so far along his journey yet. He’s engaged in a little game theory such as that discussed by Robert Nozick and other philosophers. He’s decided that being a decent person isn’t a good bet in the game of life. While it would be better if everyone were nice, that is not the case. Consequently, nice people consistently lose ground to the selfish people around them. Tony reasons it is better to be a rotten person benefiting from the kindness of a few naïve but altruistic people than to be a nice person expending energy on people and getting nothing in return.

So Tony is pretty awful to everyone around him. I don’t think there is any need for a spoiler alert here as this is all laid out in the first minutes of the first episode. Tony does some awful things that have awful consequences for people who come into his contact. Brief flashes of remorse or regret let us know an empathetic individual still lurks in there somewhere, but people risk real harm by coming into contact with Tony.

In the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Buddha tells the grieving Kisa Gotami to go to all her fellow villagers and collect a mustard seed from everyone not touched by grief. She returns empty handed, of course, as everyone is touched by grief. Like Kisa Gotami, Tony slowly learns this lesson, and it changes him.

In the end, though, I think existentialism drives the series more than Buddhism, but it is Simone de Beauvoir who gets the final say. Beauvoir believed, as did the other existentialists, that to be human is to be free if we constantly practice freedom as an act of will as Tony has decided to do. However, as we will ourselves to be free we must also recognize the freedom of others and will them to be free as well.

We must all suffer, but our suffering is shared by all those around us as both Kisa Gotami and Tony learn. Recognizing that means we will move forward with compassion and kindness, and that is the greatest freedom there is.

Is there a wrong way to grieve?

Over the past few months, I’ve written of several philosophers of the ancient past who taught that grief should not overwhelm us before themselves becoming overwhelmed by grief. Stoic philosophers taught that we should understand that death is nothing to fear or mourn, if only we can have the proper understanding, but the emotion of grief trumps rational explanations every time. I would conclude, then, that we should not attempt to suppress or diminish our grief but should let it unfold naturally and grieve for as long as necessary. Criticizing the grief of others seems counterproductive at best.

But this left me wondering whether there is a wrong way to grieve. What obligations can the bereaved have to others? Obligations to the dead? Does grief suspend normal obligations?

Like the rest of the world, I don’t know what caused Spc. Ivan Lopez to go on a shooting rampage at Ft. Hood. He certainly had experienced a great deal of stress in his life and had good reason to experience problems with mental health. According to a CNN article by Ray Sanchez, Lopez’s father said the recent deaths of his mother and grandmother, medical treatment, and changes related to transfer of military installations “surely affected his condition.” Grief often becomes unmanageable when it is combined with other complications, obstacles, and challenges. We do well not to ignore the impact of grief on those around us. We are part of a community, and the health of the community deals in part on how well we respond to grief.

For an example from fiction, I’m reminded of “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner. Emily has much to grieve for: When she loses her father, she loses a loved one but also status, wealth, predictability, and honor. She responds by simply refusing to acknowledge her loss. In the beginning she denies that her father is even dead. Eventually, she relents and permits him to be buried, but continues her life as if nothing has changed. Her neighbors go along out of pity, not respect. As you probably remember, Emily eventually takes a lover from out of town, kills him, and sleeps with his body for the rest of her life.

Emily’s neighbors had tried to offer condolences to her when her father died, but she denied his death. After his death, the neighbors reacted to her with a mix of compassion, respect, suspicion, and disgust, but they also lacked the will to intervene as Emily continually pushed them away. They left Emily with her privacy and, as much as possible, a little dignity, which only led her to more extreme and destructive measures.

If I say that Emily grieved unethically, you may say that grieving wasn’t the core problem; rather, she was refusing to accept change. But grief is always a reaction to change, and all change is annihilation. The bereaved will often say the whole world changed, and that is exactly what has happened. Emily’s world changed, but she refused to accept either her father’s death or her change in fortune. By killing her lover, she tried to preserve a moment forever. Emily’s response to grief was understandable but not excusable. Then again, perhaps her neighbors did not respond ethically to Emily’s grief. The neighbors did reach out to Emily, even with follow-up visits, but failed to intervene more forcefully. Are they obligated to take matters into their own hands?

I recently had the opportunity to hear author Cheryl Strayed speak on her latest book, Wild, which is about Strayed’s own response to her mother’s death. Strayed is a talented and courageous writer and proficient speaker. As she talked about her grief journey, she only lost her composure once. She said that after her mother’s death she became the kind of daughter her mother would not have wanted her to be. She described her adultery, promiscuity, and substance abuse through tears that evaporated as she moved on to discuss how she began to manage her grief more positively (ethically?).

I ask whether there is an ethical way to grieve. We can see that people, overcome by grief, behave in ways that are certainly unethical in most contexts, but we may have such compassion for the bereaved that we soften our judgment of them. “What she did was wrong,” we may say, “But I can see why she did it. I might have reacted the same way.” But this may be true anytime someone acts unethically. In the exact same situation, I may have acted as Bernie Madoff acted. In fact, we have all acted in unethical ways. We had our reasons (grief, exhaustion, addiction, depression, or whatever), but our actions were unethical.

So what helps people behave more ethically? Jean-Paul Sartre, the famous Existentialist philosopher, says that with each of our actions we choose “the good.” He doesn’t mean we always make good choices, but given our options, we choose the one we thought was best, which means we write our ethical values for public view by the actions we choose. In this environment, other people become our hell. Nothing is more damaging to us than being trapped by the others’ perceptions of us.

When we choose an action, we are choosing the one that seems best to us at the time. The problem is that some of us have run out of good ideas for what to do. We often explain ourselves, rightly, by saying, “I didn’t know what to do!” If we had more ideas, we would have more choices and could make better decisions. Sartre claimed we have absolute freedom, but really we can increase our freedom by increasing the number of actions we have in our consciousness. Sartre saw others as our judge, jury, and executioner, but they can also become our community.

It is Sartre’s companion and lover who had a broader vision for existentialist ethics. Simone de Beauvoir was able to see the positive importance of others in our lives. Beauvoir declares “freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others.” If we want to be free, we must seek our freedom through the freedom of our community, and our freedom grows out of our love. Beauvoir says, “If we do not love life on our own account and through others, it is futile to seek to justify it in any way.” Without valuing others, our life truly loses meaning, and we will lose all hope.

When I was in China, I once thanked someone for helping me with a problem, and she responded, beautifully, “When we help each other, we are free.” Indeed, it is the only way for us to become free. And it is the only way for us to have more good ideas of what we can do.