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.

How to Grieve for a Child: Al-Kindi’s Advice

While philosophers seem to thrive on conflict and would really have nothing to say at all without substantial disagreements, they are remarkably consistent on how to respond to death, dying, and loss. Most recently, I have turned to the work of Al-Kindi , who lived Al-kindifrom about 801 to 866 in Baghdad, for advice on how to respond to grief. Al-Kindi gives us the example of the mother of Alexander the Great.

As his death approached, Alexander wrote to his mother to prepare her for the loss of her child. As Al-Kindi tells it, Alexander said, “Do not be content with having the character of the petty mother of kings: order the construction of a magnificent city when you receive the news [of the death] of Alexander!” Everyone in Africa, Europe, and Asia should be invited to a great celebration of his life with one proviso, that anyone struck my similar misfortune should not come. After his death, his mother was mystified that no one obeyed and attended the funeral until someone pointed out to her that no one had ever escaped the type of misfortune she was experiencing and those with similar losses were told not to come.

Al-Kindi says Alexander’s mother exclaimed, “O, Alexander! How much your end resembles your beginning! You had wanted to console me in the perfect way for the misfortune of your death.” This story of consolation is similar to the Buddhist parable of Kisa-GotamiKisa Gotami who lost her young son and was advised by the Buddha to collect a mustard seed from every family that had not lost a close relative. Of course, she was unable to find any family that had not faced loss, so she realized her suffering was universal and took comfort in the teachings of Buddhism.

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, himself influenced by Buddhist texts, also points us to the suffering of others for comfort: “The most effective consolation in every misfortune and every affliction is to observe others who are more Schopenhauerunfortunate than we, and everyone can do this. But what does that say for the condition of the whole?” Indeed, the suffering of others may make us feel petty for our complaints, but it does little to relieve our pessimism about life. But maybe we just cling to life too tenaciously.

Al-Kindi tells us that all our possessions are only on loan to us and that “the Lender has the right to take back what He loaned and to do so by the hand of whomever he wants.” He says we should not see our loss as a sign of disgrace; rather, “the shame and disgrace for us is to feel sad whenever the loans are taken back.” He is speaking of possessions in this instance, not of children, but I’ve heard many people say that our children are only “on loan” from God, who can call them home at any moment. I personally have never found any comfort in this, and I wonder whether anyone has ever felt the brunt of loss softened by the thought of a merciful God calling in His loans.

No matter what happens, Al-Kindi tells us we should never be sad, as sadness is not necessary and “whatever is not necessary, the rational person should neither think about nor act on, especially if it is harmful or painful.” Many philosophers echo this sentiment. We should trust that God has created the world that is perfect according to God’s design; therefore, we should accept the vicissitudes of life with equanimity. This advice is almost universally dispensed and almost universally not followed for a simple reason: sadness is really an involuntary reaction to loss and pain.

Al-Kindi tells us the death is not an evil, because if there were no death, there would be no people. By extension, if what is thought to be the greatest evil, death, is not evil, then anything thought to be less evil than death is also not evil. As such, we have no evil to fear in our lives. From these assertions, Al-Kindi claims that we bring sorrow to ourselves of our own will. A rational person would not choose such a form of self-harm, so depression and mourning can be controlled through the proper exercise of reason.

Most ancient philosophers, and many contemporary ones, will tell us that letting our rational nature rule our emotional nature will ease our pain in the face of loss. Certainly, a rational examination of death, life, and loss helps us to make sense of our suffering, but it does not eliminate suffering. In fact, if you see grief as a moral failing, which many thinkers have said it is, I believe your suffering is compounded. Grief, hard enough to bear on its own, becomes a catalyst for an explosion of guilt and shame.

While it is important to examine the causes of our suffering and explore what meaning loss brings to our lives, denying the necessity of grief is as useless as denying the necessity of breathing. While I can accept that Al-Kindi’s description of death is accurate, it only helps me come to terms with the prospect of losing my own life. For each of us, our own death brings a promise of relief, but the death of our loved ones only brings relief when they are so burdened by suffering that we can no longer bear to see life oppressing them.

Death is still an evil, because it robs me of the people that make my life meaningful. It threatens to rob me of the people, indeed, who may make my life bearable. It is possible to imagine that death is not an evil, but, more importantly, we must recognize that love is certainly a good, and to lose those we love is an excellent reason to mourn. Mourn freely, I say, without guilt and without shame.

The Ethics of Grief

It seems each time I attend a funeral, I overhear someone being criticized for grieving too subtly, too gregariously, too privately, or while dressed inappropriately. I dismiss the critics as judgmental and ignorant cranks who should have better things to do. We all know that each person grieves differently. We should all be allowed to grieve in our own time and in our own way.

But I wonder whether there is am improper way to grieve. Many of us tell our loved ones not to cry for us when we are gone. We’d rather imagine they will have a party to celebrate our life. We would like for them to pay tribute to us through their own joy. And when people ask us to do this, we promise them we will, even though we know we won’t. We make an impossible promise out of respect for those we love.

But some people take such promises seriously. This past week, I came across a paper by Amy Olberding that discusses different approaches to grief by Seneca and Zhuangzi. In letter 63, Seneca counsels his friend, “We, however, may be forgiven for bursting into tears, if only our tears have not flowed to excess, and if we have lost a friend, nor let them overflow.  We may weep, but we must not wail.” But Seneca goes on to confess that he wailed excessively over the loss of his friend, Annaeus Serenus.

Seneca (Photo credit: tonynetone)wailed excessively over the loss of his friend, Annaeus Serenus.

He admits the power of his grief, but admonishes himself, “I must be included among the examples of men who have been overcome by grief.  Today, however, I condemn this act of mine.” In describing Seneca’s position, Olberding says grief for Seneca is “a form of self-injury that neither effect relief from pain nor alter the event that stimulated it.” As a Stoic, Seneca claims that death should not be seen as an injury, so it is wrong to grieve something that is not actually harmful. Many Christians find themselves in a similar state. Should we not celebrate someone’s passage to a blissful eternity?

English: Zhuangzi dreaming of a butterfly (or ...
English: Zhuangzi dreaming of a butterfly (or a butterfly dreaming of Zhuangzi) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And Zhuangzi, the Daoist, finds himself in a similar state. Zhuangzi taught that death is a mere transition to another state and nothing to grieve at all. Olberding says the Daoist views death as part of a “global harmony that sustains the natural world.” But when Zhuangzi’s wife died, he also reacted with extreme emotion. He said, “I with my sobbing knew no better than to bewail her. The thought came to me that I was being uncomprehending towards destiny, so I stopped.” Unlike Seneca, Zhuangzi did not express any self-recrimination over his grief.

Whether we consider it appropriate or not, the feeling of grief when something of great value is lost is universal. We are shocked when someone seems unaffected by the loss of someone who should be valued. With later reflection, we can reassess our grief and our loss more rationally and understand death in a larger context, especially if we have, indeed, learned to live without our valued loved one.

In Buddhism, Kisa Gotami also learns to reevaluate her grief after some reflection and guidance from the Buddha and her neighbors. Kisa Gotami had a young son who died, and she carried his body from person to person seeking aid to revive him. Finally, she was directed to the Buddha who asked her to obtain a mustard seed from every house where no one had lost a child, spouse, parent, or friend. After she couldn’t gather even a single seed, she judges herself for being selfish in her grief while remaining ignorant of the suffering of others.

The Buddha tells her, “In whatever manner people think a thing will come to pass, it is often different when it happens, and great is the disappointment; see, such are the terms of the world.” Even when death is expected, it is painful, but surprise intensifies the pain. The loss of young and healthy friends, siblings, and children often shatters the narrative people tell themselves about how the world works.

The advice of Seneca, Zhuangzi, and the Buddha all seem to be good advice, so long as we acknowledge that no human can suppress an immediate expression of extreme grief when faced with loss of someone so valued. As time passes, we may benefit from reminders that death is a transition, that death is universal, and that we can, indeed, live on after our loss. I do realize there are cases where survivors do not seem able to live on after loss, and compassion should move us to try to help those who are crippled by grief or loss of support.

It is true that people grieve in their own way and their own time, but compassionate care, free from judgment, might help people reach acceptance of the reality of a world that often seems to lack moral order, fairness, and predictability.