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'You're the Worst' and the Biggest Myth About Grief

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | September 29, 2016 |

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | September 29, 2016 |

For those of us who don’t experience mental disorders, or live with others who do, our understanding of them are often limited to what we consume in the media, and television has done a remarkable job in recent years of creating awareness and understanding around certain mental health issues. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has deftly highlighted anxiety issues; Bojack Horseman is quietly the best show on television about depression and substance abuse; Showtime’s The United States of Tara ably covered multiple personality disorder; and even Mr. Robot has raised awareness around dissociative disorders.

What’s been remarkable is how thoughtful these series have covered mental-health issues. They’ve managed to erase the stigma by creating likable — often beloved — characters who suffer from these illnesses, and they’ve given us glimpses into the reality of their lives. Our affection for these characters has, in turn, created a sense of empathy. Television personalizes mental illness.

No show has been better at this than FX’s You’re the Worst. The series spent the better part of its second season dealing with the depression of Gretchen (Aya Fox), and I gained a deep understanding about the illness from those 13 episodes. When Gretchen told her boyfriend Jimmy (Chris Greere) that the symptoms of clinical depression could strike at any time, and that he could be there for her but that he could not fix it — and should’t even attempt to do so — it felt like an epiphany. I instantly understood that trying to snap friends out of their depressive funks was not only useless, but insulting in a way that doesn’t honor what they’re feeling.

The season also prompted cultural critics to open up about their own depression, filling our Facebook feeds with supplemental knowledge. People who suffer from depression have found solace in the writing of Allie Brosh over on Hyperbole and a Half for years, but You’re the Worst steered the conversation outside of those circles to a broader audience interested in learning more about one of TV’s best comedies. For instance, Courtney wrote a brilliant piece earlier this year not only about the crippling effects of depression, but how emerging from it can often feel anticlimactic. Likewise, Todd VanDerWerff over on Vox wrote a beautiful piece about what it’s like to be married to someone with depression. Taken together, it’s created an unprecedented level of perspicacity around the illness.

Likewise, this season of You’re the Worst has done for post-traumatic stress syndrome what the second season did for depression, and last night’s episode gave viewers an intimate glimpse inside the mind of someone suffering from PTSD, from the insomnia to the rage to the paranoia, fear, and suicidal ideation. It’s an incredible episode that once again allows us to bear witness to the symptoms of a particular mental illness.

The other major arc this season concerns Jimmy and his grieving process, or lack thereof, and that’s something with which I am more personally familiar. Despite what a lot of indie movies or television dramas might have us believe, for a large percentage of the population, the way Jimmy has been coping with the death of his father is a far more accurate representation of the grieving process —- or lack thereof — than the tropes we have been fed.

Depictions of grief usually follow one of two routes: The bereaved gets a major case of the sads and falls into a funk that can last days, weeks, months or even years or the bereaved lives in a state of denial for a number of days or weeks until the realization that a loved one is actually dead sets in, triggering a cathartic moment of Good Will Hunting-style weeping.

For those of us who do not fall into one of these two categories, it can feel like we’re broken, because we don’t suffer from fits of histrionics after the death of a loved one, or we worry that we’re a ticking time bomb, that one memory or one familiar place or object will eventually set us off. Often, we wait for that cathartic moment to arrive, almost dreading it. For many of us, it simply never will.

In this season of You’re the Worst, Gretchen learns that Jimmy’s Dad has died, and she’s so afraid of how he will react to the news that she can’t bring herself to tell him. When she finally does, Jimmy reacts with indifference. Disturbed by his nonchalant response, Gretchen spends a day with Jimmy attempting to elicit his sadness, if only so that she can get it out of the way and they can move on with their relationship (and go on a hipster cruise). Her efforts, however, are futile. It’s not in Jimmy to cry. In fact, he feels a sense of relief about his father’s passing.

Likewise, the sudden, traumatic, and scandalous death of my own father triggered a response not unlike that of Jimmy, though not quite that level of nonchalance. I tried not to think about it, and I continued not to think about it, and after a while, not thinking about it just became the default. It wasn’t denial, exactly. It wasn’t quite repression, either. It’s just how my brain naturally dealt.

As it turns out, this response — like Jimmy’s — is more common than not.

People are not always devastated by grief, even when they lose someone with whom they are close. In fact, in a study reported in Scientific American, up to 65 percent of widows and widowers suffered no significant symptoms of depression after their loss. They did not feel acutely sad or self-critical, they did not have any suicidal thoughts, they did not lack for energy, they experienced no loss of appetite and suffered no disturbances in their sleep patterns. They simply moved on.

They were fine. In fact, in some cases, they felt a sense of relief. In a small number of instances, those who were experiencing depression before the death actually emerged from it afterwards. The most that could be said for about half of the 1500 bereaved widows and widowers in the study was that they felt sad for a short period of time.

In other words, as cold as Jimmy’s response to his father’s death might have appeared in You’re the Worst, his indifference and even his sense of relief to the news of his father’s passing was normal.

We all grieve in our own way, and I think that five seasons of Six Feet Under took us through the gamut of grief. The reality for many of us, however, is that we don’t go through the grieving process at all. In fact, according to that study and despite what Freud would have us believe, “grief work may be unnecessary for the large proportion of people who do not become significantly distraught after a loss.” As we learned in last week’s episode of You’re the Worst, Gretchen’s attempts to guide Jimmy through the grieving process were pointless, not because he’s an unfeeling narcissist (although, he is that), but because he’s like roughly half of the population in that he just doesn’t need to grieve. That response is just as valid as months-long weeping jags, Beaches and My Life Without Me, be damned.