Grieving & Gaming
How The Witcher 3 helped me grieve
It was October 2015 when my family and I experienced the sudden and unexpected loss of my cousin to suicide. He (as they so often are) was young, extremely smart, popular and handsome. He had just completed university and had a great job lined up. No one knew or understood why he made the decision he did, but we’re all learning to accept that this was his choice and that’s okay.
At the time, my betrothed and I had flown to Melbourne where I was sitting a set of exams I’d spent the previous year studying for. I got my results the same day. I passed! So we decided to spend that evening celebrating over a fancy meal and some early evening shopping and all was great! However, later that same night I was awoken abruptly by a teary call from my brother and cousins in London. This is when we found out what had happened. I didn’t sleep at all after that.
The next few days were filled with some obligations I could not forego, outbursts of sadness with tears in food courts and a flood of questions I had no answers to. At first, I asked why, but quickly realised what a stupid question this was and how an answer (even if I had one) really made no difference. It would be another 3 days before we got home. Nonetheless, I was still 35 hours’ worth of flights away from everyone back in London.
Incidentally, a couple of weeks prior to the exam while I was “procrasta-studying” (when you get obsessed by something totally random and start a whole new endeavour just to avoid revising) about which open-world RPG to buy and get obsessed with after my exam, I came across The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I was very excited about this game (had there really been two before this that I hadn’t heard of?) and the incredible reviews it was getting. I realised I couldn’t wait until after the exam and instead needed it “right now”, so I purchased it from the PS4 store online (which I now realise was a mistake as the box comes with all sort of goodies I’ve missed out on!). I was disciplined enough to only play in my breaks from studying and when I was “free”. I just never thought I’d also be playing in my some of my darkest hours.
There is a ton of advice online about coping with grief, so initially I did a lot of reading and also sought professional counselling. Together with the love and support I received from my betrothed and my family I finally came to a position to talk about my experience and realise how much the The Witcher 3 subconsciously helped me through.
Perhaps this was pure coincidence or perhaps this reflected my mental vulnerability, but the fact that I was playing The Witcher 3 somehow now feels like an important and crucial detail to my experience and story. This must be a testament to the story telling of the game. I actually never perceived any (side) mission to just fluff out or be unrelated to the main storyline. Every task I was asked to do, every fetch quest, was somehow intricately placed to add meaning to the storyline and add clarity to my experience of this world. I felt depth in most of the characters and related to the importance of helping them and overall felt intimately connected to this world I could access at any time.
I read about rituals relating to “letting go” or “commemorating your loved one” with some kind of regular act (like lighting a candle or freeing balloons) but this didn’t feel right to me. I was unaware of it then, but I realise now I was already practising a ritual. A ritual can be “any practice or pattern of behaviour regularly performed in a set manner” and this is exactly what The Witcher 3 became.
‘Press PS button’, select profile, scroll along 3 times, press X, wait… square, square, square, X and I was in’.
The gentle voiceover on the comic strip art reminded me where I was in the main story, the familiar map, beautiful colours and stunning weather satisfied my creative mind. Panning the scenery, fighting beasts I met repeatedly or just running around the expansive landscape within the familiar surroundings of my living room at roughly the same time daily, felt safe, comforting and calming. I knew that once I turned on the PS4 my mind could rest and the woes of reality would slip away for a momentary hour or three. I ate, went to the gym, painted, talked for hours with my betrothed, slept and awoke like clockwork, all the while knowing that my escape was always a button press away.
Creating a new normal
I had a total of ten days off work. My first day back I cried secretly, hung my head and stayed quiet all day, because in those ten days I had created a new normal. My new normal now had an extensive fantasy world I could escape to, with characters I knew and a purpose and goal which was as real to me as it was achievable. I accomplished small tasks in the game, finding rare loot, reading books, making money, completing side quests, all “successes” that gave me strength to carry on and keep living in the real world too.
My anxieties and sadness lessened and my confidence and self-esteem increased knowing that I wasn’t totally worthless, unimportant or unable to help anyone. I know it may sound a little pathetic but even being able to accomplish those small tasks and help NPCs really gave me a sense of worth. Together with the routine of my days, speaking with loved ones and consoling each other from afar, this world became a normal, real and important part of me and my coping strategy.
Patience and expression
Above all, the level of preparation allowed by The Witcher 3 is what helped. The careful planning prior to a kill. Could I use a better blade by completing a side quest first? Do I need an oil? Read the bestiary, what weaknesses does this monster have? I learnt that just as I tackled a mission at a time, I needed to take each day at a time. I couldn’t plan much further than a day in advance and initially saw no future past my grief, but seeing a mounting list of missions reminded me that life is much the same.
Going to work was initially too much — sometimes eating or staying awake was a task in itself — but playing The Witcher 3 gave me the courage to be patient with myself and my feelings again. I knew my emotions would change unexpectedly; sadness, bargaining, questioning, disbelief and slowly acceptance. With each mission, I felt not only able to express those feelings but also as I resolved problems in this world, I felt some small resolution too.
Yes, I was angry too. How could he be so selfish? Did he not think of the pain this would cause everyone he left behind? Was I not a good enough cousin/brother? So, I vented my anger. I killed Water Hags, Drowners, Bandits and Wraiths. I freed captives, slayed evil doers and let others die, I smashed in doors using Aard and burnt what I could with Igni. In the real world, I went to gym and ran and ran and ran. Fortunately, a friend had commissioned me to do her a painting a few months prior, so I did it too. For hours I painted, meditating with my canvas and acrylics.
I don’t think everyone will understand nor do I expect everyone to. I know some people will think I’m lame or weak or pathetic, but I’m okay with that too. I feel that more and more we live in a world where “video games” are not just the toys we played with as children. Games compel us to connect in a deeper way with them now and experiencing The Witcher 3 is a testament to that. It helped me get back to work and ultimately grieve the loss of my beloved cousin/brother. There will always be place in my heart where his memories will live, but going through this process with a new outlet has helped me take the darkness that filled the frame of my life and marginalise it to a mere corner, as a tiny part of the picture that makes up me.
I’m now socialising again and things are improving. I took time talking to a few close colleagues so it’s not a secret/taboo any more. I still play regularly, but the association with my hardship is loosening and I’m enjoying the game even more! I’m closer to my extended family now and after long chats with friends, colleagues and my beloved betrothed. I’ve also made some decisions about changing profession and eventually going back to university. I want to be fulfilled in my work and not feel guilty for wanting more for myself in life. My betrothed has been incredible. We’re stronger because of this experience too, she is my rock and my saviour, throughout everything she has stood by me and supported me. Perhaps this is the silver lining and maybe with time it’ll become yet more apparent.
I’ll end with some words from my cousin’s eulogy;
“Perhaps this was his gift to us all…. but I would have just preferred a box of chocolates.”