Games that Changed Our Lives: Exploring the Grieving Process in ‘What Remains of Edith Finch’

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When someone says, “that game changed my life,” the first thing some people think of is that it changed their life in a grandiose way—in a way that stuck with them well into adulthood. Or maybe in a way that changed their perception of a certain kind of game or games as a whole. I wonder how many people people think of that statement on a smaller scale, a scale that registers for only a brief moment on someone’s timeline, but powerful enough to have a lasting, cathartic effect.

What Remains of Edith Finch is that kind of game for me: my catharsis. It came out at just the right time when I needed a gateway into the grieving process. On May 4, my grandmother, my last living grandparent, died. I’d experienced loss before, but not that of a close family member.

We knew it was coming. Ever since her bowel obstruction operation in March she refused to eat. To drink. To do anything. My mom was able to get her outside once, and I was lucky to get her to take a bite of orange sorbet. But, then she started getting irritable. Not in the usual way that was part of her personality thanks to her Brooklyn upbringing by two “old-country” Italian immigrants. She started swatting at the nurses, their arms, their faces, at any part of their body within reach. She started to cry hysterically without prompting. After a day or two of that, the nurses started my grandmother on a regiment of morphine and Ativan.

My grandmother covered the walls of her stairway with decades of photographs, too.

The last time I saw my grandmother, the robotic whirs and hisses of the breathing machine did little to mute the rattle that escaped her lungs when she exhaled. Her eyes were unfocused, drifting off to some point in the room, her mind focused on breathing. I held her hand while it was still warm. I told her I loved her. Her hearing aids were on her nightstand.

A few days later she was gone.

I cried a little bit during the 48 hours we were in Santa Barbara for her rosary and funeral, but it was mostly reactionary crying: when I looked over at my mom. I didn’t really start grieving until I played What Remains of Edith Finch about a month later. When you play a game that’s all about death and you’ve just lost someone close to you, I imagine it would hit anyone hard. But, What Remains of Edith Finch paralleled my life in a few unexpected ways: how Edith knew stories about family she never met, and her family cemetery. I can visit my relatives and ancestors in a similar way that Edith could walk into the backyard of her childhood home and see it sectioned off with headstones. This is how I learned stories about the family I never met. My first memory is in the cemetery where my grandmother is now buried, in the same plot as her husband, my grandfather; I was a two-year-old in the middle of a frolicking euphoria, not paying attention to where I was skipping, and I stepped right into my grandfather’s in-ground, plastic vase that my mom just filled with water.

Perfectly sums up the feeling of every trip to the cemetery in my family.

Twice a year since then, my grandmother, mother, brother, and I made what my mom called “The Graveyard Shift” to Santa Barbara to put flowers on his grave, stopping in Glendale first to visit my grandmother’s sister, who died six months prior to my grandfather. Every trip my grandmother had the same things to say to them. To her sister, she’d say, “Lu, I hope you’re watching over us,” and to her husband, “You better save some room for me.” Or point out that my great Aunt is the reason I was able to go to college, and how she convinced my mother to put that inheritance away so I could go to college. My mother would generally bring up how she remembered the two sisters fighting all the time while growing up. Va fungool-this and stunado-that; the first foreign language I learned was Italian.

I didn’t get to know much about my great Aunt, aside from how she loved gold, gaudy jewelry and that my grandmother never liked either of her husbands. I got to know my grandfather well, though: how he and my grandmother compromised on getting dogs if they stayed outside in the yard; how my mother developed her love of jet skiing because he took her out on the lake as a kid; how he loved to spend a bit of time at a local cafe after work, drinking and smoking with the men he worked with from the newspaper press—a classic, mid-century man.

My grandma should have had a book on her gravestone; she loved to read.

Because of these bi-yearly trips, I grew up thinking everyone went to the cemetery to visit their dead relatives and ancestors. Turns out, they don’t. Most people think it’s weird. Most people would do what Edith Finch did for their kids: write everything down in a journal—a written record of the Finch family history instead of passing stories down orally. Not my family. We tell stories around gravestones like they’re campfires. Although, it would have been cool to have a house like Edith’s, even if I were to find it more unsettling than the cemetery.

When I first played What Remains of Edith Finch, the most striking thing to me about the game was how connected Edith was with her family history; I had, for a few years up until my grandmother died, been getting more and more into genealogical research. My grandmother was my main source of information, and as she got older it became more important to me to hear about her life: growing up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression; how a cup of coffee used to cost ten cents; how her mother, an Italian immigrant, hated to cook. My grandma was to me in the same way that Grandma Edie was to Edith. And, like Grandma Edie, my own grandmother outlived every single member of her family.

I don’t have a family cemetery in the same sense as Edith, but a good chunk of my relatives and ancestors from my mom’s side of the family are buried in the same cemetery in Santa Barbara. There are a lot of them, and I learned some of their stories from my grandmother while we searched the cemetery for their burial plots. Yep—What Remains of Edith Finch sure did draw some uncanny parallels to my own life.

I don’t know if I would have had as a visceral reaction to the game had my grandmother not recently passed away when I played it. I definitely would have still seen the parallels, though—kind of hard to miss when you grow up visiting a cemetery filled with your ancestors. But, if I could only take one message away from What Remains of Edith Finch it’s that stories, photographs, and maybe a gravestone are all we’ll have left after our loved ones pass away. And when we do leave this mortal coil, the stories that are told about us will more or less be a reflection on how we lived our lives. Here are a few of my ancestors’:

My Family Tree

Great grandpa and grandma

Aniello, my grandfather’s father, was an Italian immigrant who owned his own furniture and upholstery business, but that wasn’t his claim to fame. His wife, Maria, was odd. There was something mentally wrong with her. She would do odd things and had to be watched over all the time. She was incapable of doing basic things like cleaning. It got to a point where she needed to spend some time in a sanitarium, but whether she was there or at home, that didn’t stop my great grandfather from having an affair with a woman who worked for him… who also lived in the garage of their home. The mistress helped cook and do laundry, things my great grandmother couldn’t do. But, Maria was so far gone that she had no idea her husband was having an affair with this woman. All the kids knew, and my grandmother hated Aniello. According to my grandmother, her father-in-law married Maria to get out of registering for the WW1 draft, so seems like he never loved her.

Great-great grandpa and grandma

Raffaele and Gabriella were Maria’s parents, and my great-great grandparents. My grandmother wasn’t entirely sure what their story was, but if you look at the days they died, they died within two days of one another. Were they in an accident? Did Gabriella die of a broken heart? Was is some weird coincidence? I’m not sure. I’m still looking for their death certificates. If I could create a What Remains of Edith Finch-style game out of their story, I’d tell it on the ship that carried them to America and their first days in New York. Raffaele was a bootblack, or a shoe-shiner in today’s terms, and I imagine he would have immediately started looking for work upon his family’s arrival.

Grandma and Grandpa

Grandpa came from a long line of carpenters and upholsterers, but he went to work for the local newspaper. His grandfather, my great-great grandfather, Joseph, brought his trade from Italy to America, where it eventually blossomed into a family-owned business that has been around for 100 years. My grandma moved out to the West Coast with her sister and met my grandpa in Santa Barbara. When her sister was about to move to Los Angeles with her husband, instead of going with her my grandmother married my grandpa and stayed.

I’m not sure what What Remains of Edith Finch-style game I’d make out of their story. Perhaps, for my grandfather, the last night of his life, which was Christmas. He had a fatal heart attack in the first house I grew up in, in the extra room that later became mine when my brother was born. My grandmother would have a story more like Edie: resilient, stubborn, a woman who was determined let go from life on her own terms.

Joanna Nelius is a Southern California native who was raised on age-inappropriate games, yet somehow turned out alright. She has been an editor and contributor for several small gaming publications, as well as speculative fiction and academic magazines, for the last few years. When she has some free time, she usually spends it exploring abandoned buildings or watching Unsolved Mysteries—and finding good homes for her twisted horror and sci-fi stories.

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