Netflix’s “After Life”: A Walk Through the Valley of Grief

by | Mar 17, 2019 | Anxiety, Dying/Death | 37 comments

“Though no one can tell us how, we have to work this great battle again and again: to leave the underworld – not to harden – and to make our back into the land of the living.” – Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

People often ask me, “How do you grieve?” There’s not one answer, of course, for we humans are complicated and unique, which means there are no templates or timelines for how to walk through the valley of grief. Anyone who tells you that they have the answer or can rattle of “5 steps to grieving” is attempting to encapsulate the messiness of life into a neat and definable package. The internet these days does make you think that life can be turned formulaic and packaged into bite-sized and easy-to-follow steps for instant happiness, and while we may click the bait and read those somewhat compelling articles, another part of us knows that life is infinitely more nuanced and amorphous than the mainstream internet would have us believe.

I don’t normally watch mainstream media of any type as it tends to irritate me more than nourish me, but when my husband suggested that I watch Netflix’s new series, “After Life”, with Ricky Gervais and explained that it was about a man grieving his recently deceased wife, I was intrigued. As those of you know who follow my work, allowing ourselves to compassionately attend to our grief is a central component to breaking through anxiety, so I was curious how Netflix and Gervais would handle this sensitive and often overlooked topic.

For Tony, the main character, his grief initially presents as depression, despair, and acerbic anger. His quippy comments are offensive at worst, comical at best. But we make room for them because we also see his good heart and the depth of his love for his wife. When a comedian asks what his story is he says, “My wife died earlier this year, and it broke me. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of killing myself. I just don’t see any point in living.”

He’s in heart-wrenching pain, the deepest pain we can feel as human beings in the wake of losing a loved one. A great deal of our fear and anxiety stem from this one primal fear: the fear of loss. And here he is, in the center of this fear made real, dealing with it in the only way he knows how. And how is he dealing with it? By choosing to remain alive – barely – but walking through the world with anger at the forefront of his interactions. Given that anger is often the only acceptable emotion for men, his response makes sense. Yet anger doesn’t help grief heal. It suppresses the grief until it festers into despair. By the end of episode three, as he’s self-medicating his pain with heroin and sinking into oblivion, I wondered how he was going to turn this around.

Angels All Around Us

But there are angels along the way, as there always are. When we’re in the depths of grief, it’s easy to feel like we’re alone. We are never, ever alone.

There’s his Dad’s nurse who, like many nurses, is the epitome of selflessness but also doesn’t hesitate to give Tony a piece of her mind. There’s his dog, the true hero of the show, who saves Tony’s life multiple times. There are friends at the office who tolerate his atrocious behavior and keep trying to lift him up. And there’s the delightful and wise older woman in the cemetery, also grieving her deceased spouse. From their first meeting, we can see their connection and a window into Tony’s undefended heart; the protections soften when we connect with others who have a shared experience.

It’s the woman in the cemetery who is the true healer in the series (as opposed to his therapist, who is pathetic and, honestly, an insult to the profession.)  In one pivotal scene, the woman says to Tony:

“We’re not just here for us. We’re here for others. All we’ve got is each other. We’ve got to help each other struggle through until we die and then we’re done… What I’m saying is that I think deep down you think life is still worth living. It’s nowhere near over for you. You’re in pain. The thing you lost is the same thing that can stop that pain.”

There are nuggets of grief-wisdom embedded in this statement:

To begin with, it’s Tony’s connection with her that helps him to open. He feels loved by her and he feels seen in their shared experience of grief. We cannot heal alone. We cannot walk through life alone. We need mentors and elders, those who have walked these paths before, to shine the lamplight that guides the way through the darkness.

She also opens his mind to a possible gateway through grief: focusing on giving to others. This isn’t about sidestepping our own grief; rather it’s an awareness that when we over-indulge in grief, we truncate the healing process. There’s a time and a place for sitting alone and crying and there’s a time to get outside oneself and give to others. As the Dalai Lama teaches in The Book of Joy:

“This concern for others is something very precious. We humans have a special brain, but this brain causes a lot of suffering because it is always thinking about me, me, me, me. The more time you spend thinking about yourself, the more suffering you will experience. The incredible thing is that when we think of alleviating other people’s suffering, our own suffering is reduced. This is the true secret to happiness.” 

She says to him that the thing you lost – love – is the thing that can heal the pain. Love is our greatest risk and it’s also our greatest healer, and real love is what you give. She’s not saying, “Go out and find someone to love you and then you’ll be fine.” She’s saying: Go love someone. Spread kindness. Be the goodness that you are. Not in a grand way, but in a way that embodies by the phrase: Random acts of kindness. It’s Tony’s decision to be someone who implements random acts of kindness that heals not only his own grief, but others’ as well.

We Grow Through Pain

Through their friendship and as the show evolves, we see Tony let go of his defenses and open his heart to the kindness and goodness that live at the center. We watch him embody a statement that I say every day to my clients: we grow through pain. Tony would not likely have shifted into this expanded version of himself had he not been broken open first. Had his wife not passed away, he would likely have remained in his safe and predictable little world, content to live their happy-enough life.

But life had other plans, as life often does. And it’s through these curveballs – the descent into anxiety, the terror of a panic attack, the hell-realm of insomnia, the heartbreak of loss – that we’re given opportunities to shatter the old husks that are no longer serving and step into a new version of ourselves.

It’s through loss that we grow.

It’s through walking through darkness that we reach for more light.

It’s through our shared pain that we reach for each other, and it’s through his reaching – the holding of hands, a shared smile across the shards of unshed tears – that we come home.

After Life walks us through the shadow of grief until we emerge into a field of kindness. It’s not a perfect show – and there are a couple of scenes that are deeply disturbing on many levels – but ultimately it reminds us that we have a choice when life hits us hard: we can remain stuck in the smallness of our world where we feel victimized by our loss or challenge, or we can reach across the vast spaces that seem to separate us and clasp hands with humanity, recognizing and remembering that nobody is exempt from loss. It reminds me of the often-told Buddhist story, The Parable of the Mustard Seed:

Kisa Gautami was a young woman from a wealthy family who was happily married to an important merchant. When her only son was one-year-old, he fell ill and died suddenly. Kisa Gautami was struck with grief, she could not bear the death of her only child. Weeping and groaning, she took her dead baby in her arms and went from house to house begging all the people in the town for news of a way to bring her son back to life.

Of course, nobody could help her but Kisa Gautami would not give up. Finally she came across a Buddhist who advised her to go and see the Buddha himself.

When she carried the dead child to the Buddha and told him her sad story, He listened with patience and compassion, and then said to her, “Kisa Gautami, there is only one way to solve your problem. Go and find me four or five mustard seeds from any family in which there has never been a death.”

Kisa Gautami was filled with hope, and set off straight away to find such a household. But very soon she discovered that every family she visited had experienced the death of one person or another. At last, she understood what the Buddha had wanted her to find out for herself — that suffering is a part of life, and death comes to us all. Once Kisa Guatami accepted the fact that death is inevitable, she could stop her grieving. She took the child’s body away and later returned to the Buddha to become one of his followers.

In the end, After Life is a celebration of the human spirit and depiction of one of the abiding and paradoxical truths about emotions: pain and joy live in the same pocket of the heart. It’s also a reminder that there is life after loss. At the core of anxiety – relationship anxiety or otherwise – is the fear of loss, and more specifically, the fear of death. Our minds attempt to protect our vulnerable hearts from this inherent risk in loving through a variety of defensive mechanisms, all of which are designed to convince us not to step into love’s risk. But what After Life teaches is that a full life is possible after we lose a loved one. We have to walk through the valley of grief, and this will look different for everyone, but eventually, through the kindness of humans and the unconditional love of animals, we find our way through. We live again, and we even love again. And eventually, hopefully, our pain leads us to make the choice that our world so desperately needs today: to soften instead of harden, and in the softening we choose to open our heart again, link into the interconnectedness of compassion, and make our patch of the world a kinder place.

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37 Comments

  1. Sheryl,

    Being a huge Rocky Gervais fan, I was thrilled to see he had a new show on Netflix…until I read the title “After Life”. I felt myself hesitate and I could hear the voices in my head saying, “don’t watch this, you can’t handle a show on death, death is so scary, its too much right now for you…”. I’m going to watch this show regardless. What I love about this concept is that you have taught me death is all around us and what I’m learning is that that’s the BIG picture and I have started noticing the smallest of details of it such as the leaves falling, roadkill, friendships fading, new identities being created, and so on and I can feel my eyes swell as I write this.

    The quote first quote reminded me of a vine that I saw years ago, it was an older man saying to the camera, “Help one another, because that’s all we have, each other.” I’m currently in the mist of letting go of an old friendship with the “we will be friends forever fantasy” and my god, it’s so difficult. You feel every emotion: anger, frustration, blame, guilt, projection, fear, all the big ones that Loss brings but I know as you move through those feelings more and more, there is light, there is CONTINUAL forgiveness. It’s so hard right now and I want to stay present for a little bit in my feelings and as they pass I know that the ultimate healer is to give.

    One more thing, I have currently transitioned to another job and it has been overwhelming to say the least. I didn’t feel properly trained and I am drained to my full capacity. I told F that I was going to bake every holiday for the company and recently have been so full of anger that I said, “You know what, no I’m not going to bake for them, they don’t deserve it..” and you know, learning to be introspective more and more, I heard the heart of my giving nature say..”being spiteful doesn’t do any good, give anyway” and you best believe I will bake for my job tonight. I was told by an old coworker that I always am so happy and it’s not that I don’t feel my feelings but that I try to create a positive and open space around me so that others can feel it.

    My two cents are up, much love always to you and your readers.

    PS your new website revamp LOOKS AMAZING! You’ve got the golden hour feel…my heaven!

    Xo

    Reply
  2. Thank you for your beautiful and thoughtful two cents, Cait. Your first paragraph brings a big smile to my soul as I see your poetic nature emerging and, with it, a willingness to embrace life in all of its loss and beauty. YES to allowing every feeling to move through you as you grieve the end of a friendship, and to creating a positive field around you. That’s the essence of the message of the show: that there is life after loss, and we get to choose what kind of life that is.

    And thank you for your words about the new site! Yes, the golden hour… my photographer is my neighbor and we very intentionally scheduled the photo shoot at that hour ;). x

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  3. Hi Sheryl,

    Once again, one of your posts is so timely and speaks so deeply me to that it’s almost scary! 3 years ago, my mother suffered a massive stroke at only 59 years old. Thankfully, she survived and has regained so much of her old self. However, she is still limited physically and cognitively. Although I’m infinitely grateful that she’s still here, I still grieve the life our family had before her stroke and my heart breaks over her frustration and embarrassment over not being able to do the things she once could. I’ve come to a much greater place of acceptance in the past few years. However, grief has been bubbling up the last few weeks. I’ve also had increased anxiety about losing my husband, parents, loved ones, and especially the precious baby I’m currently carrying. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that these fears are creeping in while I’m pregnant with my first child. This post comes at the perfect time and gives me some guidance on how to manage these new feelings and experiences. Thank you so much, once again!

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    • I’m so glad the post gave you some guidance, and yes, it makes perfect sense that your fears have increased, especially around being pregnant. The more we love the more we realize what a risk it is.

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    • My mom died last March on March 5th.I didnt just lose my mom i lost my best friend .My dad died 5 years previous.It has taken me a whole year before i am able to say my mom died not lost.My mom always used to say to me that our boby is like a snake we shed it when no longer needed but the spirit lives on. I will always have my memories i wear her wedding ring around my neck she always with me.When i was going through a very bad time with my grief.My doctor told me i was privileged because i had been loved and had wonderful memories.This has helped me and so as this wonderful show the words expressed by the older lady visting her husband Stan were perfect as was the music.The whole show was so loveing written

      Reply
      • Nicola: Thank you for your comment; I have tears in my eyes after reading it as I can feel your deep love and, thus, the depth of your loss. It is, indeed, a blessing to have been loved so deeply by your mother, and you will always have that with you. Yes, I agree that the show was a profound offering of love – a rare show to find these days. Sending you much love.

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  4. I watched this whole show in one night! It really brings a ton of mixed emotions, and the therapists in the shows are always terrible (have no idea why they do this in every series. It’s quite upsetting). But I really think it was a great way to show people that loss can be overcome and love is the way! Glad you talked about the show, it definitely had something to teach!

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    • Yes, it’s a very emotional show, and it would be easy to watch it all in one night!

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  5. I have one (possibly triggering) question: isn’t it possible for the reason behind our relationship ocd to be the fact that we are trying by all means to avoid facing the grief that inevitably emerges from a breakup? That maybe The relationship is already dead, but, like the mother in the buddhist story, we keep carrying It in our arms instead of facing the hard reality and move on? I think that secretly that’s what some of us are doing: staying with someone because we can’t face the end – “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”…

    Reply
    • This is certainly a possibility, which is why the purpose of my work and my course on relationship anxiety (I tend to steer away from the term “ocd”) isn’t to convince people to stay but to help them find their clarity. However, for the vast majority of people that I work with, it’s clear that the problem isn’t the relationship at all, and that they would never describe their relationship as “dead.” On the contrary, people with relationship anxiety typically describe their partner as “everything I’ve ever wanted”. That doesn’t mean the relationship is perfect, but it means some part of them knows that the source of the anxiety lives inside of them.

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      • Wow super triggering!
        I have the RA course and it has helped so much!
        Comments like this still trigger me though. But now I try to anyluse it, instead of thinking “What If my relationship is dead”.
        So I Will share a bit of What I have learned.
        A relationship is not dead unless one or both of the partners have chosen that it is dead. Leaving is always a choice.
        If You greif the end of your relationship like the death of a child then I would say it is not dead on your part.

        Hope this makes sense,
        C

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      • Hi Sheryl
        I notice that many people do say their partner is “all they’ve ever wanted” on this forum. I find that triggering since that isn’t and wasn’t true in my case. What if I DID settle? Ive been in therapy for a few years now and I know all the reasons (living out the messages I absorbed growing up) why I chose the way I did but it doesn’t make it easier to accept even all these years later. I believe in keeping promises. So I stay. Is there any hope that it could shift into something truly fulfilling?

        Reply
        • There’s always hope as long as you’re both willing to work on the relationship. Have you considered EFT couples therapy – Sue Johnson’s work? Also, when people say “my partner is everything I wanted” what they really mean is “we share core values.” There are no perfect partners on the planet, and the longer you’re with someone the more you realize that.

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          • Thank you for your response.

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    • Susana, I second your thoughts. Thank you for stating them far more succinctly and clearly than I have been able to do.

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      • Please read my response and C’s response, Stacy.

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        • Thank you all and sorry for the spike i might have caused. I’m just so tired of living in this nightmare. I feel dead inside when I think of breaking up (in fact we have already been separated by my decision, and I fell into a deep depression due to missing us terribly), but I also feel terrible when I notice how infatuated and attracted I can feel towards other men (in ways I never felt towards my partner). I’m thorn between two terrible options, and no matter which one I choose, I will lose imensely.

          Reply
            • I went back to therapy recently and was waiting to see the results, but I am considering that possibility, yes. Thank you.

              Reply
  6. oh,yes to so much of what you say.I helped a customer today to find F.Weller’s,The Wild Edge of Sorrow-that book is an amazing gift,I hope you know of it,I imagine you do..He didn’t want it,he said he had his own wild edge,instead opting for other books.We talked for a bit,he told me his husband died of cancer.We stood there in the aisle,strangers speaking intimately.We acknowledged what is real,that it’s about learning to manage one loss at a time for we stand to lose everything.After these few short minutes,I think we both re-entered the topside world,which is really,truly upside down..The gift of learning to surf an inner life is so you can help another stay afloat for these moments.I’ve had both terrible and awesome therapists and I have to say that my favorite first therapist was the one in the movie,”Ordinary People”,I wish everyone saw that movie!

    Reply
    • What a beautiful and human exchange, Jen. Thank you so much for sharing it, and for these words: “After these few short minutes, I think we both re-entered the topside world, which is really, truly upside down.”

      I haven’t seen Ordinary People in a long time but I do remember the therapist being fantastic :).

      Reply
  7. Thank you so much for this article. I lost my baby daughter–the only person I feel I have ever let myself love completely and fully–three months ago, and every day I wake up wishing I had died with her. The grief is too all-consuming right now for me to think about giving to others just yet, but it is something I wish to do in her honor when I feel ready. I will definitely be tuning in to watch this show. Thank you for writing about grief and for the reminder that we’re not alone.

    Reply
    • Dear S: I’m so, so deeply sorry for your loss. Losing a child is the most painful loss we can endure, and of course the grief is all-consuming and it’s much too soon to think about giving to others right now. One of my issues with the show is that I think it shows a fast timeline for grief, pushing the character to be further along than he is ready to be. We live in a culture that hastens grief and doesn’t allow it to move at its own pace, so please know that you can take as long as you need. There’s no rush. I hope you have a loving support all around you. We can’t get through these devastating losses alone. Sending you love and hugs.

      Reply
    • Also, I wonder if it would be helpful to connect with others who have lost a baby. I have another blog reader who lost a baby about three months ago as well. You’re not alone…

      Reply
  8. I loved not only your review of the show After Life, but also your insights but grief. I have been dealing with grief for the majority of my life; and when I think I feel better or getting over it something happens that seems to send me on a tailspin. I suffer from depression, anxiety and PTSD; I have been watching the show for the past few nights and it has made me cry a lot and even laugh out loud. I think it’s genius in many levels but I was wondering if you would advise someone who is struggling a lot to heal some before they watched it. I love it, but I think it had re-awakened a lot of feelings I thought I was over with. It has made me very emotional, do you think that’s a good or a bad thing?

    Reply
    • As long as you have some tools for handling big feelings, which means having a loving inner parent at the head of your inner table and also being able to reach out for support if you need it, reawakening painful feelings can only be positive. The pain lives inside of us and it needs to come out. If it doesn’t, it festers and mutates into anxiety and depression.

      Reply
  9. I am so grateful for the messages you share with us, Sheryl 🙂 I am grieving a break-up and the loss of childhood friends with whom I had shared a significant time of my school years with. I was ready for a new stage of maturity and openness in my relationships- I beginning to be more authentic and willing to show myself to those around me. I assumed (and hoped) that my boyfriend and friends would be supportive and continue to be beside me along this new journey I was taking. However, I found they were’nt ready/willing. They somehow couldnt accept me for who I was or connect with me from a place of authenticity- I realise now that this is most likely to do with their own insecurities and very little with me. And I am consciously letting these relationships go and feeling freer. But since I had invested a lot of my time and energy into these relationships, a big part of me still feels let down by them and I stay with these feelings, which is the most challenging part. I realise that we spend so much of our time hiding our grief from others and ourselves, convincing ourselves that everything is okay, but in the process neglecting our own precious feelings. Im on my path of recovery and it feels scary and dark sometimes but also liberating and right. More and more, I feel reassured and bonded to the collective, cause like you said, we are not alone. Thank you for reminding me again with your post today 🙂

    Reply
    • Beautiful, Chandana. I hear your pain about these losses but more so your willingness to feel your pain and allow it to move through you on its own timetable. Thank you for sharing. x

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  10. You are wonderful!! I’m so glad you write – and so thankful.

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  11. I Stumbled upon this show the other week because I absolutely love Ricki Gervais but was not expecting to resonate in such an incredible way. Though I have not lost someone that close to me, it made me realize how much other types of grief are at the core of so many of my struggles. Thank you for sharing your insights!

    Reply
    • Yes, the show is really about grief and loss, regardless of the circumstances. Whenever we experience loss it feels like a death experience, and shows like this can help us make sense of these losses and process the grief.

      Reply
  12. This post is just beautiful, as always. I’m tearing up while I eat my lunch. :’) I’ve been feeling very melancholy lately, I think it’s the transition from winter to spring and realizing how quickly 2019 is moving for me. Lots of emotions are stirring up inside. We need more shows like this. I’ve been really impressed with Netflix’s offerings lately, I may actually cave in and finally get a subscription!

    Reply
    • I’m so glad it touched you, and I’ve been impressed with some of Netflix’s offerings as well!

      Reply
  13. Sheryl I’ve never known if I loved my partner & now feel like a fake who’s lived a lie meaning not only have I lied to him but to everyone else too. I feel I’m an imposter living a lie. I’ve had emotional breakdowns when it all gets too much for me. I’m so scared.

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    • At the moment all I feel is fear that I’m going to be exposed as the fake & fraud I now feel I am. I feel numb & can’t even cry. I feel dead inside.

      Reply
      • Lynne: As other course members have offered to you when you’ve commented previously, the way through is with the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course and to continue with your personal therapy. I’m not sure what else I can offer you through the blog comments, but I hear how much you’re suffering and I truly hope you take steps toward getting the help you need.

        Reply

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