How Video Games Help Us Process Grief

Playstation controller video games

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My mother was a strong woman. I was a child when she found the first lump in her breast back in the late 1980s. She was young, she got to it early, and she won the fight. When the cancer returned with a vengeance many years later, she defeated it once again — and for a time we believed that it was gone for good.

But in 2013 this insidious disease returned. This time, it was stage 4, and had metastasised to her liver. She was still a strong woman, but the years of chemotherapy and post-chemo drugs had taken their toll. She fought hard and bore the scars of this battle on her body. She was getting weaker, and the cancer was growing stronger, and in 2015 she passed away surrounded by her family. She was only 63.

The Loneliness And Constance Of Early Grief

Nothing could prepare me for the overwhelming feeling of loss that I was to experience. My family is very close, and together we grieved. But internally I withdrew and found myself becoming isolated. For a time, I embarked on a melancholic journey, fuelled by my inability to fully accept what had happened and my overwhelming despair.

As we all know, grief is a normal and natural response to death, loss and bereavement. It’s a healthy emotional function, which allows us to identify, accept and process the loss we have experienced. It’s perfectly normal to feel anger, despair, confusion, loneliness, guilt and fear, and it takes time for these feelings to ease.

We need people and activities that gradually help us learn to regain control of our lives and live with grief.

I was feeling overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of emotions. It felt like they were never going to leave me alone. I couldn’t escape their grasp.

Sociologist and well-known Sydney psychotherapist Dianne McKissock, says that early stages of grief lonely and constant, however, this soon will ease over time as we surround ourselves with people and immerse ourselves in pastimes that make us feel safe so that we may rebuild our life around the grief.

“Initially, grief tends to be in the foreground 24 hours a day, but none of us can continue like that forever. We need people and activities that gradually help us learn to regain control of our lives and live with grief.”

Who You Were Impacts Who You Become

Living with grief was a scary and impossible task. A naturally anxious person, when I’m under a lot of stress I struggle with crippling panic attacks. In my grief, I ate myself up inside, devouring any good feelings or positivity, replacing it with self-loathing and fear.

I would tell people that I was fine. In reality, I had become a shadow of myself. Retreating from the person I was, I embraced the anxious and frightened mess that I was to become. It was easy to take this dark road. I walked it willingly.

I was easily distracted and irritable and found it hard to focus on even the smallest of tasks. I was plagued by obsessive looping thoughts that focused on negative and toxic things. I would burst into tears while driving, have panic attacks while shopping and be constantly scared and fearful of tomorrow. I began to doubt myself in everything, fearing that I was losing control and unable to keep a sense of order in my life. Often my mind would flick back to my mother, and I would feel frustrated and even angry that she had been taken away from us so early.

Dianne McKissock says that people’s reaction to grief is determined by the type of person they were before the event.

“Grief following the loss of anything we value is inevitably painful, and particularly so when the loss is death related…the time people can stay in that ‘dark place of the soul’ varies and is determined by who we were before the event.”

Help, Comfort & Video Games

I began to see a therapist. We would talk about and troubleshoot my feelings, then as soon as I walked out of that room the same negative thoughts would come creeping back. And I allowed them to. My mind needed a break from the constant grief. It needed to be immersed in the things that used to make me happy.

We need a distraction from grief, something that has the potential to re-connect us with life.

I was confused, not understanding why I was struggling, so my natural instincts sought comfort and enjoyment. In every spare moment, I tried filling the time with activities — reading, comics, watching movies — and playing video games. Dianne McKissock says that distractions and activities that interest the individual help when trying to overcome grief.

“We need a distraction from grief, something that has the potential to re-connect us with life. For some, video games can serve this purpose. For others it may be strenuous gym workouts, work, eating, drinking, walking, gardening and so on.”

The Witcher 3

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt quickly became a form of escapism that my grieving mind needed, a break away from my internal torment, an escape into the most wondrous adventure with Geralt.

I quite literally fell in love with this game; its world and the characters that inhabit it. Every night I would settle down, switch on the PlayStation and venture forth into this monster-infested, war-ravaged fantasy world. For the first time in a long time, I was feeling passionate and excited about something again, and each night I couldn’t wait to sit down and hang out with Geralt, Ciri, Dandelion and yes, even Yennefer and her stuffed white unicorn.

After months of feeling adrift in my mind, I finally began to notice a change within me. This game and these characters weren’t curing my grief, but they were helping me to deal with it, to escape it each night briefly — to have a break from my overactive mind. Dianne McKissock says that for some people, especially those who prefer solitary activities, video games will provide the comfort one is seeking during grief.

Despite the positive impact my gaming was having, I was conscious of watching out for signs of emotional dependence.

“All of us become an exaggerated version of our former selves when we are grieving – so, if we were a person who withdrew into solitary activities when we were distressed, we will tend to do so more often now…we all regress — that is — feel younger on the inside than our chronological age. For some, regression will take them back to playing games, just as they did when very young.”

Despite the positive impact my gaming was having, I was conscious of watching out for signs of emotional dependence.

Brad Marshall, Principal psychologist from Kidspace, an internet addiction clinic and The Unplugged Psychologist believes that while there can be benefits to gaming, one must still watch out for its addictive side, especially if it begins to impact their lives detrimentally.

“Can gaming assist in providing an excellent distraction and social platform to get respite from grief? Sure. In a similar manner to many hobbies or activities. If someone were gaming for hours or days on end while grieving and started neglecting other aspects of their life (work, study, health, friends), then I would suggest this not such a healthy coping mechanism.”

Everything Is Going To Be OK

While video games didn’t cure my grief, or even make it go away, they gave me a healthy outlet to distract and ease the burden on my overactive and melancholic mind. Now, whenever I’m feeling a little stressed or sad, or even just uneasy, I’ll turn on the PlayStation, fire up The Witcher 3 and go and kill some monsters with Geralt.

I liken it to hanging out with an old friend, who gives me a warm, comforting hug and tells me that everything is going to be OK.



Feature image by Pixabay used under Creative Commons Zero license.