Grief at a Distance I Can’t Defeat My Grief, But I’m Learning to Carry It
In video games, dead parent storylines give a character depth. Their grief becomes a plot point, something to overcome.
This is Grief at a Distance , a column by Matt Ortile examining his grief over his mother’s death in the Philippines during the Covid-19 pandemic.
I bought my Nintendo Switch in 2019, while visiting Sydney. At the airport duty-free, the week before Christmas, I picked up the gaming console and a copy of Pokémon Shield . It had been a tough year; I resolved to make 2020 a fun one. The salesperson smiled at my excitement. Neither of us were wearing masks.
On the plane, I connected the Switch to the TV in my suite . I picked my Pokémon (Sobble, who loves to cry) while eating nasi lemak for breakfast. A flight attendant laughed as she poured my champagne. Her son loves Pokémon too, she said, and asked why I was visiting Singapore. I’m passing through for twenty-four hours, I replied, en route to Manila and my mother. But it was on my list to someday bring Mom to Singapore—to Milan, Lisbon, Kyoto—perhaps in first class like this. The FA was touched. She poured more Dom into my glass.
In Manila, I played video games as I sat with Mom for her chemotherapy. That summer, she was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. When I visited her in the fall, she told me she wouldn’t do chemo again. It was too painful the first time around, she said, in 2015 and 2016. But that winter, an oncologist friend of Dad’s insisted she try it; he and God could save her.
We sat quietly that morning, an IV in her arm. She was apologetic. She didn’t have much energy to chat. We agreed: While she rested, I’d become Pokémon Champion.
That was the last time Mom sat for chemo. At the end of my stay in Manila, we said our goodbyes at the hospital. Her body was rejecting the poison meant to be her salvation, so Dad had checked her into Cardinal Santos, where his colleagues could help him take care of her. When our driver arrived and it was time for me to go, Dad gave me and Mom a few moments alone together.
She must have known. As I gathered my luggage, she mentioned how worried she was about Dad, what will happen to him when the time comes. After all, she’s taken care of him, sorted his pillbox and his estate, for so long. As for me: “I’m not worried about you,” Mom said. I have my friends in the United States, my two fathers in the Philippines, my career, my competence. “You can take care of yourself.”
Before Dad walked me to the car, I hung by the door to Mom’s room and took in the scene. Her nurses brought her dinner, gave her water, put away her prayer rosary in her purse. I was planning to visit from New York, hoping I could make time in the spring of 2020, maybe March. But still, I told myself, it could be the last time I see her in the flesh.
It was. Mom died on June 13, eleven days after my book came out . That morning, when I heard from Dad, the guy I was seeing read me a few lines by E. E. Cummings. I can’t recall them exactly—something like, i who have died am alive . But I remember clearly, that week, I’d been playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses . In the game, I’d just lost a parent too.
Dead parent storylines in video games are meant, for the most part, to give a character depth. The loss of a parent, whether distant or recent, illuminates a protagonist’s motivations, their traumas. Their grief becomes a plot point, an emotional state to overcome or from which to grow. It gives a character dimension. It makes them, ostensibly, more interesting.
In Fire Emblem: Three Houses , your avatar character Byleth grows up without a mother and loses their father, Jeralt, in the game’s first act. Jeralt is killed by the antagonists, and his death affects everyone at the monastery-slash-magic-war-school where Byleth teaches. The students try to comfort their favorite professor. Two girls bake desserts for Byleth; another offers to help them get revenge.
I cried on the subway when Jeralt died. I first played Three Houses in February, when I still commuted to work. His death is unsurprising; the dagger sits on the mantelpiece the whole time. But as I watched the normally stoic Byleth weep over their father’s body, some primal part of my brain knew I’d soon have to do the same.
Three Houses is about grief and how we carry it. How you help others through theirs determines the game’s arc. Your choices affect the narrative; the four possible storylines depend on which students you choose to teach. (Two characters, grieving their own murdered families, do not fare well without your help. One turns feral, the other to fascism.) But in all four routes, Jeralt always dies. As Byleth, with the power of a god, you try to turn back the hands of time to prevent your father’s death, but to no avail. This loss is fated.
I had just watched Jeralt die for the fourth time when Mom died. I wished I could control time, too. I wished I could at least cry over her body; Covid-19 kept me confined in Brooklyn when she passed away in Manila. How would I get revenge on cancer?
When we moved to the US, Mom bought me a GameBoy Advance and Pokémon Sapphire. They were my transition objects.
Maybe nine days after she died, Mom’s brother called me over Facebook, to see if, tick-tock , I’ve overcome my grief yet: “Are you OK na?”
My birth father heard me sniffling on the phone and asked if I was sick. “No, Tatay, I’ve been crying because Mom is dead.”
“Don’t push yourself too hard too soon,” the students tell Byleth in Three Houses . “It’s OK to allow yourself to be sad right now.” I ran with this advice, all the way to Hyrule.
In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild , Zelda loses her mother at a young age, just as an ancient evil threatens to destroy the land. To banish this malice, Zelda must awaken her goddess-given abilities, but cannot without her mother’s guidance. Her father is more king than parent, and so her oppressive insecurities, her abandonment issues, and Hyrule’s Great Calamity are directly tied to her loss.
When the life of her appointed knight, Link, is threatened, Zelda’s power awakens. She throws herself between Link and death, and golden light erupts from her outstretched hand, protecting them both. Fan theories differ, but perhaps love or an act of sacrifice catalyzes her evolution. By transcending an emotional block, Zelda becomes a fully-realized Princess of Hyrule.
I started Breath of the Wild in July, just weeks after Mom died. It’s a mammoth of a game. I finished it in a month. My friend Ahmed was impressed; it took him two years. I’m good at video games, I said, and I’m depressed. I lost nights and weekends to my grief, exploring post-apocalyptic Hyrule from my bed. One day, I met a young villager who vowed to honor her dead mother by mastering her recipes. I sobbed uncontrollably.
“You’re grieving,” my therapist reminded me. I worried I was gaming in excess, but she insisted, “You need comfort. Allow yourself to play.”
Mom didn’t share my love of video games, but she never discouraged it. Moderation was her word when I was a kid. I was permitted my GameBoy Color only on weekends, never past nine o’clock. But in Manila, on my last visit, I once told her to not worry, that I can turn off the lights: “You and Dad go ahead to bed. I’m staying up to play.”
She kissed me goodnight and said, “Good. Do what is comforting. Wag mo kalimutan yan.”
I hadn’t owned a video game system in years until my Switch. Games were a distraction, I had believed, from my writing career. After submitting my book’s final draft, I relished again these virtual worlds, came upon oases and realized I was parched. Mom knew what video games meant to me in the end—perhaps always did.
When we moved to the US, Mom bought me a GameBoy Advance and Pokémon Sapphire . They were my transition objects. They kept me, her eleven-year-old son, safe and occupied with the familiar, while she built our lives in America. Ten years later, when she moved back to the Philippines, she cleaned out my teenage bedroom in Las Vegas and threw away that GameBoy, among her other gifts.
I’ve so little to remember her by.
As for Zelda, it’s revealed in Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity that her mother leaves her a sentient machine companion christened Terrako, a symbol of the short time they had together. Terrako plays Zelda’s lullaby whenever she’s distressed, and travels through time to rescue her from danger, creating alternate universes and averting catastrophes. Such is the fruit of their love. The bond Zelda shares with her mother—teacher, queen—saves the world.
To seek a similar grand purpose in losing Mom is a fool’s errand. My foolish theories: 1) I published my first memoir too young, at twenty-eight, and God wanted to give me more material. 2) My guardian angel was laid off and God headhunted my mother. 3) God wanted her all to Himself, so He took her away from me. (I’m a lapsed Catholic. She’ll be happy to see me acknowledging His existence.) But 2020, that persistent antagonist, taught me that people die—randomly, senselessly. The fatalistic side of me says, given our family’s medical history, this was always going to happen. Mom always believed everything happens for a reason. I’ve yet to be clued in.
To cope, sometimes I’ve tried levity. I asked my friend Krutika, “Does my dead mom make me more interesting?” I was joking, even though I knew thinking of her death in terms of my story—giving me, a character in the simulation that is the United States, depth —risks flattening her, diminishing the fullness of her own life.
“You were already interesting before your mom’s death,” Krutika said. Then, a joke of her own: “If anything, it’s made you more boring.”
She’s right. There’s a mundanity, I find, to grief. It and death are dull, quotidian—they’re felt by so many. I speak to friends who have lost parents; each loss feels unfair. It’s that sense of injustice I try to palliate by grasping for logic, narrative, reason. In losing Mom, where do I find meaning? Not inspiration, not a purpose. Not the who (Mom) or how (cancer) or when (too soon), but why . Why is my mother—teacher, queen—gone?
My therapist has inferred that I need “closure.” Certainly, there’s no finish line to this kind of grief. But it does feel like there’s a step I’ve yet to take, a box unticked on my mourning to-do list only because there’s a global pandemic. I haven’t been able to visit Manila since January 2020, since I last saw my family together in person. Now, whether I’m there or not, the fact remains: Mom will never be. I’ve moved into a new apartment; she’ll never visit . I’ve started dating again; she’ll never see me married . I hope to keep learning, changing, growing; perhaps she still sees me, always will.
Mom’s birthday is February 22. For the occasion, Dad said he will bring her roses where she rests. I wiped my tears on the skin of my arm, and realized I don’t know where she is buried. This grief—somehow at a distance, delayed—is already so difficult to carry. What will happen once I can finally go home, survey the epicenter of my loss?
For now, I cannot despise this heavy thing, try as I might; why hate what will stay with me forever? Instead, I’ve been curious, poked at it, studied it against what remains—my life’s clutter now in possession of a novel shine, or glow, or film of dust—in the wake of my mother’s death. I’ve been baking, decorating the apartment, playing video games. They’re my coping mechanisms, lenses into my grief—ways to process my loss, to touch it with gloves.
My working hypothesis: Grief is not something to conquer, to defeat; after you lose someone, the goal is not to win . Mom’s death doesn’t make me “more interesting,” and there’s no neat answer as to why it happened. But my choices still affect my narrative, the one storyline I get. For now, at least, I choose to walk ahead with grief alongside, to accept its companionship, for it stands where she once stood. I choose to ask it questions, to welcome comfort when I find it.
Grief is not something to conquer, to defeat; after you lose someone, the goal is not to win.
And at times, when the grief waxes, or blocks the path forward, I can choose to rest. As she once advised, I can indulge and play.
Recently, I spent nights staying up until three playing Ori and the Blind Forest. ( The protagonist’s mother dies, then comes back to life and protects her child from the antagonist. The antagonist is a mother too, who ultimately sacrifices herself to protect her own child. Fun!) I thought of Mom and moderation, so I switched gears. I’ve restarted my Pokémon game, playing only in one-hour bursts. While she rests, I’ll become Pokémon Champion.
For what it’s worth, there are no dead mothers in the Pokémon series. ( Not human ones, at least .) In every generation, you begin your journey with a mom. She sends you off on your Pokémon adventure, though she hates to see you go. But in that space between you and her, she says, you have room to grow.
“When you’re exposed to new things, and experience new sensations,” says one mom , “it makes your mother happy, too.”
I remember getting Pokémon LeafGreen in September 2004, a year and change after Mom and I immigrated to the US. (“Happy birthday, anak! I love you!”) My in-game mother gifted me a pair of running shoes. Newly thirteen-year-old me was moved to tears by her note for “my beloved challenger.”
(I have always loved my mother, seen her reflection in all things.)
“Remember,” her note reads , “I’ll always cheer for you! Don’t ever give up!”