games / Columns

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide: Gaming and Grief

January 26, 2021 | Posted by Jed Shaffer
The Walking Dead Gaming Grief

I intended for this edition to be about gaming during pregnancy. Before I could get too far into the column, some real life events derailed my train of thought. It’s brought up a topic that, while somewhat heavy, I think needs to be addressed, and the events I recently experienced serve as a good reason to bring up this topic now.

A note on this column before we officially begin: I don’t know how much humor will be found in this. Normally, I write the column, adding some humor and the picture/caption jokes as I go, and then do a few re-writes to add more humor and refine the existing ones. I don’t know that humor belongs in this column, though. It’s just where my mind is right now. I’m also not going back and editing it, save for spelling. If you were coming here looking for the funny, my apologies in advance. We’ll be back to our normally scheduled stupid shit next time, I swear. Today, we gotta wear big boy pants.

As of the time I write this – Saturday, January 23 – it’s been almost two weeks since my nephew, 27, took his own life.

When you lose someone, contrary to the oft-quoted but mostly-debunked five-stages-of-grief theory, feelings come in from all directions. Sadness, loneliness, nostalgia, relief if they’ve been suffering from a terminal illness; there’s a whole cavalcade of emotions that, no doubt, you’ve felt from the loss of someone in your life. Suicide adds in a whole bunch of other feelings; you wonder if you could’ve stopped them if you’d done X, Y or Z. You wonder why they didn’t reach out for help. You feel guilty that you didn’t call enough or stop by and see them, or that you didn’t see the signs that were surely signposted. You have to reconcile the sudden ending of a person’s life with that person and the life that precedes it, and try not to let this ending be the define and overshadow the rest of their lives. You’re angry because they’ve left you with unanswered questions, but also weirdly relieved that they no longer feel like they’re drowning in a bottomless ocean of misery. If they left a note, you have to deal with what they said in it; if they didn’t, you have to deal with the lack of a final statement, and how you will never get the closure you want.

I’ve felt each and every one of these feelings in the past two weeks. This May willl make it 44 trips around the sun for your humble scrivener, and I’m still trying to suss my way through this dense forest of emotions.

Now imagine how a kid must feel processing death. Whether it’s a 92-year-old great-grandma passing from natural causes, or a peer in a car accident, or a situation like my family recently faced, it’s a lot. If you can’t get your arms around it, how do you expect someone whose brain is still developing, to process complex emotions like survivor’s guilt?

A common modern criticism parents here is that we let our kids be babysat by screens, and to some extent, that can be true. As I write this, all three of my kids are upstairs, the twins on their PS4’s and the youngest on his Switch. They’re not fighting, they’re not out causing trouble, and they’re not giving me a headache. If the price is letting them over-indulge in video games all day for a little peace and quiet, right now, I’m good with that decision, so hey, guilty as charged.

But I think, when it comes to death, there is some value to be found in gaming. Kids’ minds just aren’t ready to cope with a concept like “grandpa suffered with cancer for 2 years, so I’m glad he’s dead because he’s not suffering anymore, but I still miss him”. Besides, with their selective hearing and – depending on the age, limited comprehension – all they hear out of a sentence like that is “I’m glad he’s dead”, and that brings up a whole new set of problems.

One thing that child psychologists and early childhood educators will tell you is that children crave structure, but they also want control. So much of their lives are dependent on us; we’re how they get from here to their friend’s house. We check under the bed for monsters and leave the bathroom light on all night. Dad got a new job that requires relocating? Pack your stuff, kiddo, you’re moving across the country! It’s why they recommend, when they’re old enough to start going to preschool, to give them small choices; do you want to wear the green shirt or the red? Do you want Cheerios or Froot Loops? Little choices that give them the semblance of control over some small part of their life’s narrative.

By design, that is the whole purpose of video games: controlling the narrative. Does Link save Zelda and stop Ganon? Does Nathan Drake find the lost treasure? Does The Prince roll up a big enough ball of stuff to rebuild a star? You make that happen. There is no narrative progress – nay, no narrative at all – without the player. We cannot control when our loved ones leave this world, and that terrifies kids, of any age. There’s a line from The Crow that goes “’Mother’ is the name of a god on the lips and hearts of children everywhere’.” The last thing kids want to see is one of their infallible gods – mom, dad, grandparents, pretty much anybody modestly older than them – stricken down. It rattles their sense of mortality. If [person] can die, I’m vulnerable. Both R and L – 15 in April – shed tears freely when we stood in front of my nephew’s, their cousin’s, casket.

Video games allow a kid to have a sense of control, and moreover, control over a fictional form of life and death itself. They can keep Mario alive and rescue Princess Peach. They can rescue hostages in a Call Of Duty game. They can be Commander Shepard and save the galaxy. Does this make the sting of losing a loved one go away? No, and I’d be a damned fool if I tried to peddle that nonsense. Only time, and therapy, will do that. But video games can be sort of an emotional booster shot. A way to give them a sense of confidence and control.

Also, as I’ve said, their little brains still aren’t on our level yet. Sometimes, they just need a place to hide. A place where they don’t have to admit the world they know has had a big chunk taken out of it, and that there’s not a damned thing they can do about it. Again, there’s no harm in letting them hide behind a video game controller for a while. Now, I’m not advocating total ostrich syndrome here; there’s a fine line between hiding behind one’s shield and burying oneself in a bunker. You can’t allow a child to not face reality. That’s irresponsible on your part. But if they need some time with NBA 2K21 to help them defrag their still-developing brains … is there really harm to be found? Hell, if the choices are “lose myself in a game of [game]”, go on a bender with [substance of choice] or any other unhealthy indulgence … geez, video games look downright healthy in comparison. It’s up to you to know where the line is between indulgence and over-indulgence is, but you should already know that by now.

You could also play with them. I mean, you’re a gamer. They’re gamers. Family needs each other in times of loss. Maybe you already play with them regularly, so it won’t seem like a big deal … but it will be, because you’re remembering them in a time of need. And if it’s not a common thing? Hey, then it’ll be a red letter day.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that video games, either by their design or narrative, can also sometimes teach us about loss and grief and how to handle it. There’s a number of games – from Fallout and Skyrim to Darkest Dungeon and Diablo – that offer perma-death modes. It cannot be understated how precious you or your kids will find life in a video game when you don’t have one to spare from the get-go. I’d daresay, more than any other mode, it puts you in the game; you now have to make decisions with the ticking clock of mortality always in the back of your mind. That may be a bit more stressful, but there’s also some value in having a health respect for life’s fragility. It may not be apropos, say, after you get home from the funeral, but at some point.

If you’re looking for a more narrative approach, there are no shortage of options. The number of games that deal with death, grief and mental illness are too numerous for me to mention here, as I discovered when I did a quick Google search. The Last Of Us, Nier: Automata, What Remains Of Edith Finch, Night In The Woods, Spiritfarer, That Dragon, Cancer, Limbo, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice … the lists go on and on and on. Most of the games do tend to be of the indie variety, so if your kids are more attuned to big-budget, triple-A experiences, the inherent quirkiness found in an indie title might come with a bit of a learning curve, but I think it’s worth the investment. I’m linking several articles below with lists of death-positive games and games that touch on themes of mental illness and handling loss, because it’s far more complex a subject then I can get into in the confines of this column:

A list of death-positive games.

More on death-positive games and how they can be useful.

Games that deal with grief, loss and depression.

Games that deal with mental illness.

I highly recommend reading these articles if you’d like to explore some of these games and their themes. Many – I won’t say all, but easily most – are fit for kids as well, so you could get one or more for them and play it with them. Discuss it with them.

The only wrong way to handle death is to pretend like it doesn’t exist. It is not just a fact of life, but the ultimate fact. It is the most universal experience on the planet; humans, birds, seahorses, bears, we all are going to face it. If, through video games, a child can find some way to cope with it, or just let their brains heal from the hurt of it, then by God, it is our duty as parents to allow them that, and to make it available. Life is too short. Let them fill it with something good while they can.

And in closing …

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please, please know that there is help available. You’re not alone, and your problems can be worked through. Just about every municipality has some kind of suicide prevention hotline or resource available, and the people who work at those places are saints. Kevin’s Song is a wonderful organization that offers both help to those suffering from depression and suicidal ideation, as well as support and healing for the survivors. They’re just one of many organizations around the world, and they’re one my brother- and sister-in-law picked to highlight in my nephew’s obituary. If you feel so inclined to make a donation, it would mean the world to me and my family.

My nephew was a good man. Funny, irreverent, clever. He and his dad shared a love of the outdoors, but he and I shared a love of gaming, and even though we didn’t have a lot of cross-over in what we played (he was more of a PC gamer, I’m a console guy, and the genres didn’t align), our bond was in our love of the hobby. We could talk for hours about the newest releases or the latest news from gaming. He didn’t come around during the holidays, partly due to [gestures at the hellscape outside], and partly because of the depression that was tearing him apart. We never got to discuss the fustercluck that was the new console launches, or what games might get us to drop coin on a new console at launch, and we never will. I wish I could’ve helped. I wish anybody could’ve. RIP, Shaun.

Sorry I had to get heavy this week. It’s where my heart and head have been. I just couldn’t force the funny. I promise a return to normal programming next time around. Thank you for reading. Remember to love each other, and to love yourself.