This is a story about the juxtaposition of joy and sorrow. It’s a story about how games bring people together, bind them in ways that far transcend sitting around a table rolling dice, and reveal the stinging absence of an empty chair. This is also a story about how games can heal those voids.
This is my family’s story.
Loss is traumatic. It changes you physically, emotionally, and mentally. People talk about the emotional effects of grief: the agony and anger you feel. But the physical effects are often overlooked. How the shock of not seeing that person daily punches you in the gut and causes a loss of appetite, how weak your body feels from the crying and tension, and how exhausted you are from the smallest tasks.
Scientists have found that grieving takes an enormous toll on our brains.
You experience a profound response to grief biologically; your brain is in survival mode, trying to recover.
In her article about the brain and grief, Barbara Fane explains:
The parasympathetic nervous system: This section of your autonomic nervous system is in the brain stem and lower part of your spinal cord. In this system, which handles rest, breathing, and digestion, you may find that your breath becomes short or shallow, appetite disappears or increases dramatically, and sleep disturbance or insomnia becomes an issue.
The prefrontal cortex/frontal lobe: The functions of this area include the ability to find meaning, planning, self-control, and self-expression. Scientific brain scans show that loss, grief, and traumas can significantly impact your emotional and physical processes. Articulation and appropriate expression of feelings or desires may become difficult or exhausting.
The limbic system: This emotion-related brain region, particularly the hippocampus portion, is in charge of personal recall, emotion and memory integration, attention, and your ability to take interest in others. During grief, it creates a sensory oriented, protective response to your loss. Perceiving loss and grief as a threat, the amygdala portions of this system instructs your body to resist grief. You may experience strong instinctual or physical responses to triggers that remind you of your losses.
Two years ago, my older brother, Michael, passed away from a rare form of brain cancer. He was diagnosed a few years before, and his health deteriorated dramatically between that time and his death. Grieving wasn’t a new thing to us; although hopeful he would improve, we had been grieving his health and illness from the moment he was diagnosed. His death was a culmination of years of struggles, surgeries, and prayers. The week of his death, spent in the ICU watching him fade away, was shocking and traumatic. Because of this, my family had to overcome not only significant grief but also PTSD. One of the major ways this happened was playing board games.
Games were an escape, a distraction from the real world, a way to have different problems and be in different situations.
Gaming was joyful, playing with the people I love and removing the pressure of our grief. Gaming allowed interaction without exhausting small talk, allowed me to have company without them feeling the need to fuss over me.
Grief is confusing; you want to feel better, to feel happy again, but as soon as you do it is immediately eclipsed by guilt that you are moving on too quickly. How do you navigate the complex feelings that come with grief? You don’t, not really. But you can distract yourself like I did, with gaming.
I’m a people pleaser, I want people to be comfortable around me, especially in my home. Obviously, this wasn’t easy after my brother died because I was exhausted and stopped caring and people didn’t want to be happy. Playing games took the pressure off me, I could host and be around people with very little work. Gaming allowed me a time where no one would stare at me with pity, where people would stop thinking about my dead brother.
Gaming was a pillar of my relationship with Michael. He taught me to play poker and was thrilled when I beat his friends at the age of eleven. We played card games as a family growing up. He was one of the first to know we wanted to open a game cafe. As his health and memory declined, we played simple games like Tsuro and Qwirkle to keep him active. And then, when the tumor grew around his brain stem and he lost his ability to communicate and move almost completely, he would fiddle with pieces mindlessly. Some of my sweetest memories with him involve playing games.
Being with him and watching him deteriorate was hard. I selfishly didn’t know how to act around him, especially when he stopped communicating. This was my big brother, a man I looked up to, someone who was strong and confident. And now, I had to help him communicate and perform daily tasks. I felt helpless, uncomfortable, and embarrassed for him. Gaming broke down this barrier. We weren’t able to play often, especially since he regressed rapidly, but when we did, it felt normal and enjoyable.
The three days he was on life support before he passed were paralyzing and raw. I remember moments where my entire family would be around his bed weeping, watching him, willing him to wake up. We would take breaks and sit in the waiting room, unsure of what to do or say. By the second day, we brought games to play in the waiting room. We ended up playing with another family who also had a relative in ICU. It was a healthy distraction, especially for my 11-year-old niece who was tired of being asked: “are you doing alright?” Gaming distracted us from our grief, connected us back to reality, and gave us something to talk about. They were opposites, the waiting room and his hospital room, but both important for us to process losing him.
While playing games didn’t heal our grief, it provided a healthy outlet to ease the burden and encourage movement towards normalcy. It gave us purpose and hope. And as we play on and reminisce about our heritage of family gaming and good times, it lets us keep my brother close at hand as he is remembered and remains a part of our story.
Do you have a story about how gaming has had a greater impact on your life? Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.