‘The Last of Us’: How a video game helped me to cope with my grief

“To the edge of the universe and back. Endure and survive.”

It’s the words spoken by Ellie, one of the main protagonists from a survival video game called ‘The Last of Us’. It was the first video I played after my brother Elliot passed away in 2013, and in many ways, it helped me cope with my own grief.

It sounds absurd that a video game could do this, but hear me out.

Growing up, gaming became a form of communication between my brother and I. 

It was a language you could speak with very few words, a universal form of speech where the only barrier you would face was a computer-controlled enemy at the end of each level. 

Recently, I started thinking about what a big part video games had played in my childhood and the impact they’d had on the friendship between my brother and I. 

There are pivotal moments in our lives we can re-play like a projector in our minds when we hear a particular song or see a scene from a film. The same stands for video games. They sit like hardback books in the library of your memories.

I can still remember losing myself in the imaginary world of a computer-animated game whilst sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, my brother by my side. 

Like most siblings, my brother and I would argue.

We’d argue about what to watch on telly. We’d argue about who ate the last Belgium bun from the two-pack I’d saved to eat after school. We’d even argue about the colour of the sky if given the opportunity to do so. 

But one thing we always had in common was our love of video games.

We had been introduced to the wonders of the gaming world from a young age.

One of my earliest memories was how my grandad would let us play his Sega Mega Drive with it’s 8-bit Sonic the Hedgehog game. We’d race that little blue hedgehog round in circles, collecting rings and fighting off  “Eggman” before our eyes grew square and we had to go home, the repetitive soundtrack ringing in our ears. 

When we were a bit older, my dad brought a PlayStation. I don’t think he had much knowledge of gaming, so a friend had lent him some of his games to try. It wasn’t long before my brother and I had booted my dad off his own console, claiming it as our own. 

My older cousin James showed us how to play Tomb Raider II with a boxy-looking Lara Croft running and diving around a pixelated landscape. We tried so hard to kill that tiger in the cave, but my brother and I would just end up back at Croft Mansion, laughing maniacally as we locked the butler in the freezer for the 100th time. 

As we grew older, our interests changed. And yet, our love for gaming was still strong.

Most of the time it was Elliot who would have the controller in his hands, but we’d work together to solve difficult levels or challenges, communicating with each other to complete the game.

Sometimes we’d talk about other stuff whilst we played. It became a prompt for us to speak about how our day had been or any worries we had about the world.

Most of my memories with Elliot included video games. I still remember the excitement on his face when I’d gift him the video game he’d wanted for ages, brought with money from my part-time job. 

After Elliot died, I lost interest in gaming. It didn’t feel right to play video games anymore. That was our ‘thing’, and he was no longer here.

The Xbox console we shared began to collect dust like a decrepit tomb, wasting away in the corner like it was forbidden to be touched or looked at. 

I tried hard not to think about it as the next two years went by in a blur, but I soon had a sudden urge to buy a PlayStation console.

I had a need to connect with those memories again and I wanted to embrace them without the overwhelming sadness I felt on an almost daily basis at that point. 

When I brought the PlayStation, it came with a pre-installed game called ‘The Last of Us’.

I’d seen a few posts about it online but I didn’t know a lot about it.

All I knew was it was set during a zombie apocalypse and it followed two characters, Joel and Ellie, as they navigated a post-apocalyptic world where humans were just as dangerous as their undead counterparts. 

At the time, it seemed like the distraction I needed. Who doesn’t enjoy a zombie game!?

However, it wasn’t long before I realised this video game was a lot more than what it seemed, and it had a much deeper message behind it. 

Like a book you lose yourself in from the first chapter, the game leads you through a narrative you can’t escape from. You are drawn in from the opening sequence.

Just a warning, there are spoilers ahead!

‘The Last of Us’ begins 20 years before the pandemic journey which follows. 

The main character Joel is bringing up his 12 year-old-daughter Sarah in Austin, Texas, and it’s not long before Joel has to flee from his home as the zombie outbreak begins.

In the first scene, we see Joel trying to escape across as he heads towards the highway. A soldier begins to shoot at him in an attempt to prevent them from crossing whilst potentially infected with the virus. Thankfully, the soldier is shot before he can kill our main protagonist, but as Joel looks down at his crying daughter, he realises she has been shot in the abdomen.

As Joel pleads for his daughter to stay with him, she slips away in his arms.

For the next 20 years, Joel barely speaks of his daughter as he struggles to come to terms with his loss. He carries the weight of his loss throughout the game, much like our journey with grief in the ‘real world’. 

In those first 15 minutes, I was torn. My heart felt like it has been ripped out. My own grief rose to the surface like a ripe tide trying to pull me under. That scene fucking hurt.

And yet, for the first time in two years, I felt my grief was reflected back at me.

I saw my feelings and emotions portrayed in the rawest and most honest way I had ever seen since my brother died. And so, I continued the game, and I’m so thankful I did.

I wouldn’t be exaggerating when I say this game helped me process my loss. 

Throughout the game, you watch a unique friendship unfold between the two main characters. Joel sees his own daughter reflected in Ellie’s character. Both are victims of a cruel and unpredictable world.

Joel, now a smuggler in a world where survival is the only answer, has been tasked with accompanying a teenage girl, Ellie, across the United States and must hand her over to a revolutionary militia group called the ‘Fireflies’.

Throughout this journey, they lose friends. Many of them fall victim to an infection that turns everyone into cannibalistic mutants with a single bite. It hurts as you have grown close to them throughout the game, like characters in your favourite novels.

You feel the loss of these animated characters, as silly as it sounds. 

Like most video games, The Last of Us has a level of strategy. You have to use firearms and improvised weapons to take on enemies in cinematic landscapes. 

There were many times I had to put the controller down, walking away when it all got too much and my frustration got the better of me. The Hotel Lobby, I’m looking at you!

Unfortunately, gaming is not for everyone. Some people just don’t ‘get it’. And that’s okay.

However, I wish more than anything I could share the message this game conveys to anyone who if grieving, trapped in unimaginable circumstances and struggling to understand how they’ll survive their worst nightmare. 

In ‘The Last of Us’, Joel and Ellie find each other when they need it most.

Both of the protagonists are lost souls, learning to navigate and understand a world that has caused them unimaginable pain by taking away the people who meant the most to them. They develop a bond in their grief. Each one understands the other’s pain, yet so few words about their past experiences are spoken between them.

I don’t think I’d ever completed an entire game before I played The Last of Us.

I certainly haven’t cried as hard as I did at the scene in which Ellie and Joel see a herd of giraffes trudging across the deserted ruins of the city. Ellie reaches out to stroke the giraffes face before the two of them watch over the landscape, the herd disappearing into the horizon. Who knew a video game could destroy you like that?

Like many of the scenes in this video game, it’s a beautifully symbolic moment.

In the midst of all the pain and darkness the characters have endured, there is a moment of pure joy, a moment where the full weight of their grief is lessened.

When you feel all hope is lost, you can still find happiness.

‘The Last of Us’ gave me hope in a time I felt I had little strength to cope with the magnitude of my brother’s loss. And for this, I will always be eternally grateful to Naughty Dog and their best-selling game.

It’s a tale of resilience and connection, and it shows the power video games can have.

So next time I start banging on about how excited I am for ‘The Last of Us 2’ like a crazy gaming nerd, you’ll know why it means a lot to me and so many other players.

“No matter what, you keep finding something to fight for.” – Joel