Grieving Like a Gamer: Five Stages, Five Games

Grieving Like a Gamer: Five Stages, Five Games

The Broken Road to Healing

My story is nothing new: I grew up in a broken home. About the time I started becoming aware of my surroundings, my parents were eager to return to the dating scene, quickly marrying anyone they happened to be seeing for more than a couple of months. It was during this time that my parents found that the quickest way to keep my brother and I occupied was to tell us to “go play video games”. A couple of fractured relationships later, my parents settled down with their respective spouses for the remainder of my childhood.

Witnessing these events did nothing to educate me on what a “healthy” relationship looked like once I reached adulthood, yet I still craved one. And predictably, just like my parents, I experienced multiple failed relationships. After a permanent split from my child’s mother, I wound up in another long-term relationship that is now ending in divorce after six years. Many obstacles impeded any successful union between us, including her ongoing battle with substance abuse, my son’s mounting behavior problems as our communication broke down, and my own broken view of what a “successful relationship” should be.  We basically reached an impasse and didn’t know where to turn at this point.

As a last ditch effort, we decided to see a marriage counselor to help us address our issues and if anything, help us heal from each other. In the end,  I decided that enough was enough and asked for the divorce. It’s important to note that anger didn’t drive this decision, but rather my own acknowledgment that I simply didn’t have the tools to be a nurturing partner and didn’t want to pretend like I did anymore.

Seeing my son go through the painful grieving process while sifting through my own emotions was not easy, and in a lot of ways, we’re still working on it. I help him out by keeping an open dialogue while keeping him busy with out-of-the-house activities, but as for myself, I decided to take action and work through my own grieving process the best way I knew how: playing video games.

What I Did Differently This Time

Historically, before I begin the grieving process, I like to watch a few of my favorite movies multiple times, namely 28 Days Later and Fight Club, but after a month of this, I wanted to see if games could help. Playing something like Paper Mario so early in the grieving process seemed out of place, so after studying the five steps of grieving, I decided to assign a game for each stage and record the results, hoping that it may help or inspire other gamers who are going through the same thing. Here goes…

Stage 1: Denial

picture1As anybody else in a state of denial, the world literally made zero sense to me. Even the slightest provocation would prompt a strong reaction, as my brain would shut down due to overload. I needed something casual and with as few boundaries as possible. What could be better than Super Mario Bros. 2 during this phase of healing?

As opposed to the original NES entry, Super Mario Bros. 2:

  • included Toad and Peach as playable characters.
  • encouraged exploration by allowing forward and backward motion.
  • included a bonus game between stages (grab those coins!).
  • and most appropriate for this stage of healing, was one player only!

What made this game highly appropriate is that it’s colorful, casual, full of easter eggs, and totally dependent on the actions of a single person. For those who may be struggling with “numbness” or “acceptance of reality” during this phase, Super Mario Bros. 2 delightfully tickles the senses. Life started making more sense after a couple of weeks,  and Super Mario Bros. 2’s quirkiness helped segue me smoothly into the next stage…

Stage 2: Anger


Though the media will decry the use of violent video games as cathartic therapy, for me, it was necessary. In the real world, I like to think of myself as a nurturing father, great ally to a small circle of friends, and a lifeline to disenfranchised youth who sadly, in many cases, are going through a lot of the same things I did growing up. So why is Doom a good choice to help deal with what seems like rampant anger during this stage? Well:

  • you’re a lone Space Marine on an alien planet overran by the tenants of Hell who all want you dead.
  • there’s a large variety of weaponry available to ventilate your enemies.
  • finally, there’s something satisfying about gibbing that final Imp in what was a large group with 10% health and 0% armor.

I was first introduced to this game at the age of 10 (much to my mother’s dismay), but I’m glad I was. When I realized that I had to face my anger if I ever wanted to overcome it, nothing was more satisfying to play during this stage than Doom. After about 2 weeks of solid gibbing, the anger had dissipated and I was ready for the next phase…

Stage 3: Bargaining


To be 100% candid, marriage was just not my bag. However, I went with it at the time, thinking it would emotionally enrich everyone involved. I wanted to return to the period of time when it was just me and my son as if nothing happened. To this end, I picked up my much loved copy of Silent Hill to visualize my efforts to restore our former lives.

Silent Hill is a great selection for those in this stage because:

  • it features a highly relatable protagonist who possesses no special combat skills.
  • Harry stops at nothing to save his daughter, despite experiencing horrific monsters and shifting planes of reality.
  • the player has the choice to save or take a life when the time comes.

As I progressed through the game, I came to the realization that even if Harry were successful in getting his daughter back despite the odds, neither one of them would be the same again. When significant events happen in our lives, we’re changed forever and there’s no going back. This is by no means a bad thing, but it can also lead to…

Stage 4: Depression

Much like with Doom during the Anger phase, it seems that playing a game that is centralized on the chief emotion proves cathartic. For those not familiar with this game, The Cat Lady tells the story of Susan Ashworth, a lonely middle-aged woman contemplating suicide. When she finally decides to take her own life, she is resurrected by a powerful deity and tasked with killing five psychopaths.

picture4As Susan faces the horrors of her environs, I found that:

  • Susan has the power to sculpt her destiny through in-game choices.
  • friendship and “doing the right thing” become a big part of healing the pain.
  • the game shows that even though life can be painful, we pass up finding the good in it if it’s squandered.

Even during this dark phase, I found myself sympathizing with Susan’s plight and doing what I could to “save” her. But in the end, despite the fleeting feeling of “doing good” through the murder of the Five Parasites, the only good feeling came from fostering her friendship with Mitzi throughout. After facing my own horrors with the help of The Cat Lady, I found myself approaching the final stage of grief…

Stage 5: Acceptance

picture5In the end, we can only save ourselves. I reached this stage when I looked around and accepted my new, permanent reality. A year ago, a good friend of mine gave me a copy of The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, a roguelike dungeon crawler where you play the titular character trying to escape from his murderous zealot mother through the basement. I quickly discovered that:

  • Isaac needs to accept this new reality in order to survive.
  • The creatures and bosses ahead are representative of what he was taught and his own insecurities, and he must defy them in order to escape.

This is where a lot of people trip up. One cannot truly reach the Acceptance stage if they continue on with a previously held mindset. Accepting people for who they are and most importantly, who you are flaws and all, is an important step in breaking the cycle, and Rebirth does an excellent job of portraying this. After a solid month of playing this one, I was finally able to accept my flawed self for who it is (I’m not the marrying type), accept my ex-wife for who she is, and see the beauty in others around me.

Even the somewhat tarnished relationship that I had with my own mother improved a thousand fold after this stage!

Be Your Best

Social media is rife with openly negative people who can’t seem to get their life in order. Busted relationships, fractured families…the list goes on and on. We need to be able to love who we are and be upfront about our flaws, yes, but we also need to be in charge of our own healing as well. If you’re a gamer struggling with loss, I’d recommend trying this list throughout the five stages of grief, and let me know if it works for you.

When in doubt, game on!