Relating Anime Characters’ Grieving to My Own Loss
Deceased parents are a common trope in anime. Many times, though (particularly outside of more action-oriented series), the immediate impact of that death on the surviving characters’ emotions seems to be glossed over — we’ll see the occasional shot of the small shrine in the house/apartment, or part of an episode will involve visiting the gravesite. But much less frequently do I see the characters dealing with or working through that first burst of real grief, and the emotions that come with that loss. Having recently lost a parent myself, and being the kind of person who tends to relate experiences to pop culture references (song lyrics, book and movie and TV show quotes, and similar), I was interested in going back and revisiting those anime series I can recall that do cover how their characters react, or reacted, to such a loss.
Content Warning: I don’t normally like to do these, but I will be discussing parental loss, both in various series, and in real life. Also, spoiler warning applies in general. Finally, a general note: While I will be discussing anime in relation to everything, this will also reference other properties, and be in large part a personal essay on loss and grief.
This past August, my father passed away suddenly and unexpectedly (not COVID-related). I flew home to say goodbye before he passed, although at that point, he was already non-responsive. I couldn’t tell you now how it came up, but in talking with someone before we flew home, my wife had said she’d never seen me really cry. And honestly, other than somewhat from pain after badly breaking my ankle, I couldn’t remember when the last time I actually, truly cried was. Teared up on occasions, particularly in response to sad bits of TV shows or movies, but not really cried. But I absolutely cried there in that hospital room, alone with my dad, trying to say goodbye, and how much I loved him and was going to miss him, holding his hand, wishing that he could even squeeze mine back, but knowing that it wasn’t going to happen.
I re-discovered the Doctor Who quote above a couple months ago, and there’s absolutely so much truth in it, particularly for the loss of a close family member or friend. You spend the immediate aftermath making arrangements, and supporting others. It’s not that you aren’t hurting, and not even that you don’t have time to grieve — but you’ve got these tasks to do. Family to look after in this first rough patch. But then, you’ve made the arrangements. You’ve attended the funeral. Possibly you’ve accompanied the casket (or urn) to the burial site, depending on the preferred funerary customs of the deceased and your culture. After that though… this set of immediate to-dos ends. And you’re left somewhat adrift, to deal with and process your grief.
I’d give anything to have them back.
In the Fullmetal Alchemist series (both original, and Brotherhood, as well as the original source), brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric try to use alchemy to bring back their mother after she passed away. While I’m not sure I’d go so far as to risk life and limb meddling in Things Man Was Not Meant To to bring back my dad (especially since he was able to be an organ donor), I get that feeling of wishing you could do anything to see them again, to be able to talk to them again. And for quite some time, it’s sort of soul-crushing every time you run into some situation that reminds you, you can’t, at least not in this life.
They can’t be dead. It’s not possible.
On the other hand, we have Rikka from Love, Chuunibyou, & Other Delusions, whose chuuni behaviors are at least in part a way to escape from handling the death of her father several years before. And in A Place Further Than the Universe, Shirase refuses to accept the reality that her mother passed away three years earlier until her mother’s laptop is found, and Shirase logs in to find that all of the daily emails she’s sent her mom since she was lost are still unread.
I very much understand wishing I could turn away from the truth of losing my dad. Like Shirase, I want to let him know almost every day how things are going, what’s happening in our lives, what his grandson accomplished, or things I’ve done. And I can’t. “It’s all the days they stay dead.” There are so many times when I share something, or I see a video, or have a snarky comment I want to make, when I think “I wish I could send this to Dad” and then the hurt comes back.
If only I could have told them…
In Poco’s Udon World, main character Souta comes home after the death of his father. Both he and his older sister are dealing with regrets about their different interactions with their father before his death. Souta in particular is reflecting on how he essentially fled to Tokyo, leaving his old life, including his father, behind. In this, I feel relatively fortunate — I can’t think of anything unresolved in the relationship between us when he passed away, or similar, that I would have regrets over not being able to work out with him. My regrets are more mundane — for example, that he never got that photo opportunity he was looking forward to with a restored locomotive engine that occurred a week or ten days after his death. Or that he wasn’t able to see the new Beatles Get Back documentary, which I’m sure he would’ve enjoyed. (Indeed, knowing that made my own viewing of it bittersweet.)
You can’t change that, that’s theirs!
For the first half of the recent series The Aquatope on White Sand, Kukuru’s dream is to somehow save Gama Gama aquarium from needing to close, despite its declining revenues, and being too expensive to continue to maintain properly, let alone renovate. For her, this place contains many of her happiest memories of time spent with her now deceased parents.
In UzaMaid, main character Misha has a tendency to lash out and rebel after her mother’s death. Understandable in an elementary-school aged child, in particular, she refuses to let Tsubame, the maid of (highly) questionable character, touch her mother’s studio room. Tsubame herself is a former fighter pilot who joined the air force in order to reach the sky in the belief that her own deceased father was waiting there for her.
While wanting to maintain things exactly as they were is in some ways a childish view, I understand the sentiment. In some ways, it’s an extension of “they can’t be gone” — if their “stuff” or the places you lived or went to together is still just as it was, then they’re not gone yet. If it’s changed, it’s that final admission that yes, they’re dead.
In Sweetness and Lightning, Tsumugi declines her father’s offer to make her a new school bag, as her current one, despite being old and becoming worn, was made by her deceased mother. I can absolutely relate to the idea of not wanting to let go of something physical from your loved one. In my case, rather than anything from my father (at least right now), I have several items given to me by my deceased grandparents that I would be devastated to lose, as being part of my last links to them outside of memories — many of which are now 30+ years old and getting fuzzier by the day.
That lingering presence
Not to be confused with a literal haunting or a spiritual visit such as by Konata’s mother during one episode of Lucky Star. Here, I’m referring to the many ways that our deceased parent’s influence lives on in us (for better, or possibly worse).
In Fruits Basket, Tohru’s deceased mother, and to a lesser extent, her late father, still plays a huge impact on Tohru’s actions, and how she believes she needs to treat others. Moreso, Tohru eventually has to come to terms with the feeling that letting herself be in love with someone else is okay, even though it feels like betraying the memory of her mother by no longer having her as the most important person in Tohru’s life.
The perverse flipside of that coin is when the deceased person leaves a negative lasting impact. In contrast to Tohru in Fruits Basket, in addition to his outsider position in the Zodiac, and the abuse he’s received as part of it, his mother’s suicide, and the belief (in large part instilled by his father) that he was responsible for it, lays a huge burden on Kyo that he too must learn to shake off.
And as bad as that situation would be, in my opinion, worse are those times when a parent’s death leaves someone feeling bound to a specific path, in order to try to “honor” them, or finish what they started, accomplish what they couldn’t, etc.. A classic example here is Shirou Emiya from Fate, who is determined to become a “hero of justice,” taking on his adoptive father Kiritsugu’s ideals, or at least, what he interprets them to be, even knowing that walking such a path will eventually lead to his own sad ending.
I would certainly hope that the vast majority at least of the worst influences are limited to fiction. But I think that most people at some point in their lives will meet someone who has made life choices based more on parental wishes than their own, for good or ill — even if those parents aren’t deceased.
More realistically, for many of us, our parents’ lessons, sayings, morals, and behaviors stick with us, or at least influence us, in ways we don’t always understand, or perhaps consciously recognize.
When we miss them the most
I initially wasn’t sure about the idea of posting this on Christmas Eve, but it’s a key point I wanted to discuss. Exactly what days we miss our loved ones most are obviously individual to each of us — major holidays, such as Christmas? Birthdays (ours or theirs)? Their favorite holidays?
This Christmas will be our first without my dad. Somewhat like Kukuru and Misha’s desires to keep things just the same, part of me wanted us to celebrate by keeping things as close to “normal” as possible. My mom, on the other hand, is looking for us to change things up this year. We’re somewhat compromising, with a family gathering Christmas Day, including a trip to the cemetery to visit my dad, then all of us leaving for a mini-vacation the next day, instead of trying to keep too much “the same, minus Dad.” What new traditions will we create going forward, and what old ones will we keep or modify? I don’t know. That in itself is scary enough.
I would have loved to be able to title this article “How Anime Is Helping Me Process My Grief.” But sadly, that would be a lie. I do recognize certain similarities to my own feelings in various shows. But watching fictional characters attempt to work through their feelings is different than working through them yourself.
One of the worst things is stumbling over those times when the emotions just come flooding back. I mean, re-watching that scene above from Yorimoi with Shirase and her mom’s computer? Obviously, it brings all the feels, and I’m ready to cry with it. And I expect that. But I was looking through Amazon for like, Christmas ornaments, and then picture frames that were for remembering loved ones a few weeks ago, and I had to just stop for a while, because even the schmaltzy sayings on all the picture frames were making me tear up. Driving the other day, thinking about one or two things I’d love to be able to do to help memorialize him, such as car window decals, or a specific donation, and again, realizing I needed to stop and get my head into a different space before I started crying right there on the interstate.
I don’t know if it’s simply confirmation bias that I haven’t run across a lot of shows that feel more like my own situation, or if it’s just easier or makes a better story to have younger characters at some distance from their loss. Despite the differences between him and me in our relationships with our fathers, Souta from Poco’s Udon World feels closer in many ways to me than most of the other characters I’ve discussed above, due to him being older, and coming home to help deal with handling his father’s estate. In my case, my brothers and I helped our mom to plan the funeral service, pick out a burial site, etc. It almost feels ghoulish, being sent home after the funeral with some of my dad’s things that fit me, like one of his sports coats, even though logically, you know he doesn’t need it. It’s that same kind of acknowledging change that means having to deal with the loss some more.
“I don’t know how it’s going to go in the long run. When I lost my mother . . . I was older, and we knew it was coming, but it was still a shock, that day, that hour. I always thought there would be more time.”
“I’ve not yet lost a parent,” said Vorkosigan. “Grandparents are different, I think. They are old, it’s their destiny, somehow. I was shaken when my grandfather died, but my world was not. I think my father’s was, though.”
“Yes,” she looked up gratefully, “that’s the difference exactly. It’s like an earthquake. Something that isn’t supposed to move suddenly dumps you over. I think the world is going to be a scarier place for [him…]”
(Komarr, Lois McMaster Bujold)
My father was my role model, and a solid rock, a foundation I could turn to, one of the first people I would look to for advice, one of the first persons I still want to share my accomplishments with. Working through all these feelings is just going to take me some time. The pain never really leaves, I’m sure, but I have to hope that at some point it recedes to a level that’s at least less likely to trip me up in a minefield of emotions. Neither anime, nor other media, is really going to be a therapy, let alone any kind of panacea for that process. It can serve as something to point out to other people — “it’s like this part here.” It can absolutely help to serve as an occasional escape. My dad never got into anime or anything, so it’s a time when I’m much less likely to run across yet another “ohhh, I bet Dad would’ve gotten a kick out of this” moment. These moments are only now, 4+ months on from his death, just starting to become less prevalent for me. But in some ways, I’m not sure I want to lose them entirely — it would be almost as bad as forgetting him entirely.
If there’s one philosophy I’ve encountered in pop culture that I do take some comfort from, it’s an idea that I’ve seen expressed in several places, in a few variations, but which I think is perhaps best stated in one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels: “No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…” My father worked in a pediatric hospital for over 30 years. Between his family, the co-workers he trained and mentored, the people that THOSE people teach and mentor (and so on), and all the patients and their families he helped… it’s a lot of ripples, that I hope continue spreading for a long, long time — perhaps even long after we’re all gone.
This was originally written for Day 11 of my 2021 “12 Days of Anime” writing challenge, in which I look to have an article a day for 12 days leading up to Christmas, all centered in some way on anime or anime-related topics. You can find last year’s stories at this link over on Anitay, as well as re-posts of my 2018 and 2019 series here on Medium. Big, big thanks to Stanlick for creating the header image outline template.
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