I believe that there is a point during the grieving process when the individual who is grieving comes to the realization that if he continues to grieve as he has been grieving, he will die. This realization doesn’t put an end to one’s grief. This realization doesn’t even ensure that one will put a stop to existing destructive behavior. It is merely knowledge that one did not possess before. If I continue to carry this pain in this manner, my life will degrade to a point that it will cease. Am I okay with that?
Often? One is okay with it. One is not only okay with it but deeply angry at the length of the process—frustrated at the amount of time that stands in the way of reunification. Each morning is a nightmare one cannot wake up from. Life is a sentence with no reprieve. You must do your time. And there is so, so much time, each second of it nearly unbearable.
I cannot imagine how much more painful grief is to endure as an atheist. There is no comfort of an afterlife. But there is no fear of one as well. How are you driven to continue without the specter of Hell looming? How do you take comfort in the end of your loved one’s suffering if you believe nothing lies beyond the pain and agony of the body?
Our religious beliefs shape how we grieve. They dig deeper than the surface rituals of burial to show how we deal with absence—or if we consider there to be an absence at all. If you believe the ancestors are always with you and speak to you, then death is not a separation. It is merely a change of form.
I’ve been watching After Life on Netflix and it is a fascinating look at how one grieves when one has no fear. The lead, Tony, is white, male, straight, middle-aged, cisgender, and of an economic class that is comfortable. He is also an atheist, fairly recently widowed, and devastated by loss. The absolute emptiness and cessation of interest in life is spot on and so familiar. However, Tony’s behavior towards authority figures, those in the service industry, and his family and friends is abominable. Grief has not made him retreat from the world, but defiantly remain a part of it and abuse others so that they feel the pain he feels. As someone who belongs to multiple groups expected to put aside their own pain to serve others, the idea of inflicting that pain on others instead boggles the mind. What kind of person makes others hurt because they hurt?
At one point during the series, a nurse who cares for Tony’s ill father chastises Tony for his behavior and questions why he cannot adhere to basic social graces for the sake of getting along. Later on, Tony acquiesces and apologizes, but I can’t help but feel that had Tony not been born with certain privileges, he would have never considered rejecting the behaviors society expected from him in the first place. Because for Tony there are no repercussions for being—and I am using this term wholly in the British sense—a complete and utter cunt.
Tony is cruel to his friends and cold towards his father. He openly ridicules his brother-in-law/employer. He threatens to terminate the job of the nurse who cares for his father. He smokes heroin! My God! Even in the deepest depths of grief and depression I managed to make sure my vehicle registration was up-to-date because I am that fearful of breaking the law. The fact that Tony is so cavalier about a much greater transgression shows that not only does he not care about himself, but he also has zero fear regarding the results of his actions and how they harm others in his community. It is not unusual in grief to stop caring about one’s life, and this is illustrated well in After Life. Tony does not care for his body—getting little food and sleep to sustain it. However, it is unusual to stop caring for others. Wanting to die doesn’t give you carte blanche to be mean to the waitress—unless you were raised to believe you never had to be nice to her in the first place if you didn’t feel like it (and that she was only lucky you felt like it for so long). That is privilege in action.
Is Tony irredeemable? God, no. He’s grieving. He’s in pain. And when pain gets to be too great, one retreats or attacks. The conditions of our birth coupled with our experiences push us towards one option or the other. Our religious beliefs determine how we engage with our selection. One who is a devout Muslim would likely not retreat into a bottle. A strict Catholic is wary of suicide. Tony, an atheist, has decided to attack—but merely with words. Does his atheism drive him to cherish and respect the physical existence of others more than most? Is that what stops him from engaging in the physical violence that he admits to his therapist that he fantasizes about? Heavy questions for a comedy, I’m certain, but so far After Life doesn’t seem afraid of tackling them. However, I doubt it will tackle one unspoken and painful reality of grief—that sometimes people do remain irrevocably broken. Tony will likely return to some semblance of the man his wife fell in love with, giving viewers an upbeat ending worthy of a sitcom. But like the privileges Tony enjoys, that is not always an option available to all.