- Apple TV’s workplace thriller “Severance” is a brutal commentary on work-life balance.
- Experts say the show also deftly handles a sensitive subject: grief in the workplace.
- Two loss experts shared their advice for how to handle grief at work in the real world.
This article contains spoilers for the Apple TV+ series “Severance.”
In Apple TV’s newest hit “Severance,” our main character Mark is intensely grieving after the death of his wife. But when he’s at work, he has no idea who she is.
The workplace thriller follows Mark, played by Adam Scott, and his coworkers, who have undergone a “severance” procedure that surgically separates their work memories from their personal lives.
The show, which was renewed for a second season earlier this month, has critics buzzing about its bleak commentary on modern work. As viewers, we also know Mark chooses “severance” because going back to work after losing a loved one is torture.
Mary-Frances O’Connor, a psychologist and author of “The Grieving Brain,said the show stuck out to her for its nuanced depiction of grief.
“It is so incredibly painful to lose someone we are bonded with, and this pain takes all sorts of forms,” O’Connor told Insider. “Mark is trying everything to avoid having any awareness. Because when he has awareness, it’s so full of grief and suffering.”
Today, mental health and grief are key issues in the workplace. Insider’s Marguerite Ward has reported on how the pandemic, coupled with a lack of bereavement leave, is causing a grief crisis in the US. And even though Dan Erikson wrote the pilot for “Severance” five years ago, Mark’s journey feels deeply relevant in 2022. It especially resonates as companies push for employees to return to the office when the United States nears the grim milestone of 1 million deaths from COVID.
In an interview with The Wrap, writer and creator Dan Erikson said that the premise of the show is intended to “continue Mark’s emotional journey” with grief. He said, “The story is very much about this broken person who is going through grief and is going through this horrible loss and has literally sort of shattered himself.”
How Mark handles his grief in ‘Severance’
Rebecca Soffer, author of “The Modern Loss Handbook,” said the show’s conceit demonstrates grief’s impact on the brain, as a person recalibrates to a new reality without a loved one.
“In the early days of my grief, if I had been able to split my consciousness into two, I would have done that,” said Soffer, who lost her mother in a car crash and her father soon after when she was 30. It’s an incredibly painful thing to be a grieving soul who then, on top of that, has to worry about work.”
The first time we meet Mark, he’s sobbing uncontrollably in his car. But once he gets in the elevator at work, his face goes completely blank. As he walks to his cubicle, he pulls a tear-soaked tissue out of his pocket and nonchalantly throws it away. For grieving viewers, this is a familiar feeling of being expected to set aside their complicated emotions in the workplace.
O’Connor also emphasized how the show depicts coping mechanisms Mark is using outside of work, like heavy drinking, sleep deprivation, and the desire to talk about his wife Gemma.
“It’s such a powerful show in the way that science fiction can drill down into questions about psychology and neuroscience,” O’Connor told Insider. “I found it deeply thoughtful about work, grief, relationships, and meaning.”
Handling grief at work outside of science fiction
For people who are experiencing grief, O’Connor emphasized that it’s important to give yourself a lot of compassion in all aspects of life, including work.
Cynthia Williams, founder of Love From Afar, a nonprofit organization for families who have lost loved ones to car accidents, said daily check-ins, regular breaks, journaling, and breathing exercises are all things she integrates into her routine to handle grief at work , after the death of her son 16 years ago.
Williams also suggested finding an accountability partner at work — someone who can check in with you during lunch or a coffee break. Grief is an isolating experience, so building those relationships at work can be a lifeline.
“I don’t think any company knows how to address grief because most employees have worked with unresolved grief for many years,” Williams said. “We just come and do what we’re supposed to do because we’re supposed to sweep grief under the rug.”
It’s not fair that the labor of navigating the workplace falls on the person experiencing grief, Soffer said, but there are more options in a pandemic world for flexible hours and working from home. She also encourages people to ask their managers for a break from setting goals or meeting targets.
For many people, grief makes work almost impossible, O’Connor said. Others may use work as a welcome distraction, obviously in a less extreme way than in “Severance.” For those grievers, she said it’s okay to have periods of avoidance, as long as it’s not the only coping mechanism.
“Grieving is a form of learning,” she said. “We have to learn how to carry the absence of this person, so it’s not really something you get over. You come to understand how to integrate it into your life.”