David Seelow,© PhD
During my graduate student days, I worked for several years as a community social worker specializing in youth. The more time I spent with adolescents outside the formal classroom, the more I realized how much their emotional lives, and family situation impacted their academic performance. Grief is something one does not expect to find with youth, but, as I discovered, grief has many occasions in addition to the death of a loved one: a break up, parents divorcing, a close friend’s departure to a school far away or the end of a close friendship. The impact of grief led to struggles in school and various emotional or behavioral problems, but rarely was grief attributed as a cause of a young person’s struggle. In one case, a high school senior’s use of alcohol and his poor attendance ended up rooted to the family’s frozen existence. A child had tragically died at age seven from an unexpected illness. The family appeared frozen in time at their daughter’s premature death, and the older brother drifted into unhealthy areas seeking attention. He ended up in a one year residential program as mandated by family court. However, Bill’s (disguised name) placement had a very positive outcome. He voluntarily agreed to have his placement extended (typically the facility requests the court extend placement because of an adolescent’s problematic behavior), so he could graduate high school. He became the school’s first actual graduate (usually youth would be returned home because family court jurisdiction ends at age 16). Attending his graduation was a proud moment for him, his family and myself, but such good results are not common. Most youth suffering from bereavement issues internalize their feelings and, if they don’t act out in a destructive way, the grief carries on its often corrosive effects along many unacknowledged tributaries.
A game, video or board game, can be an unexpected but valuable tool working with youth. Kids love to play games, and the safe environment, especially for males, will allow them to informally talk about what matters to them outside school during game play. This hit me strongest when tossing a football outside the counselling center with a fourteen year old boy. He unexpectedly disclosed that one day when he did not mow his grandfather’s lawn as was his normal practice, the grandparent decided to mow himself and died of a heart attack. The boy had never spoken about his grief or his guilt. The informal play provided a platform for open, informal discussion leading to a counseling breakthrough.
Reviewers have drawn attention to how GRIS’s protagonist copes with grief. After all, she begins the game in the hand of a giant female statue. She has lost her voice, i.e. her joy or reason for living. The environment is desolate and hostile (a vast desert beset by windstorms). Beginning play requires the player to simply help Gris stand upright and then move a few steps. All the landscape ruins are female statues so one can assume that Gris lost a mother figure. I prefer to think of the mother figure as a version of Demeter or an archetype for women and the principle of nourishment and life giving such archetypes represent. What happened to the self when that nourishment that life giving force disappears?
In talking about grief; however, I do not find attaching Gris’s progress to Dr. Kübler-Ross’s 5 stages of grief as reviews have done very fruitful.1 Yes, every mental counselor should be familiar with Dr. Kübler-Ross’s pioneering work, but her 5 stages were never meant to be linear or fixed despite often being read that way. Not every mourner goes through 5 stages and people progress or move at different rates. What I would stress at the outset of any counseling contact is that mourning does not have an end point. We never truly stop mourning those we love, but what does matter is moving on with your life because the alternative is death- figurative and/or literal.
How does one begin to help the mourner through this game? Precisely to note the importance to moving on, but in one’s own time and fashion. Like Gris, first get up and move about, leave the house and begin some daily activity. A counselor can play alongside the grieving youth and talk about the game and how the person feels as she or he plays. What color is grief? How does loss affect her inner world and her outer world? That the protagonist’s movement brings positive changes to the outer world allows for observations and dialogue about how rearranging one’s immediate environment, perhaps, the adolescent’s room, can improve his or her mood.
A good way to help someone is to talk about the game’s challenges in terms of the mourner’s emotional state or situation at the time of play. Although challenges and abilities are tied to levels they do not need to be fixed to a psychological stage. For instance, the opening sandstorm continually pushes back as Gris tries to move forward. It is an obstacle to her progress. Ask the youth about what is pushing back against her doing an activity, such as resuming a sport or socializing with friends. This way the game’s challenges act as a metaphor for the mourner’s psychological challenge. In one of the game’s boss battles, a giant black bird- perhaps a crow-blows Gris across the platforms. The eel in Level 3 presents a similar challenge. What are the “monsters’ the youth must overcome to move forward? What is her biggest battle in trying to return to school? In the case of the 14 year old boy, his simple acknowledgement about how he felt about his grandfather’s sudden death proved liberating. Guilt that crippled the boy could be let go of and like, a young Peter Parker, he could now help others as he helped himself. In the case of the older boy (age 17) that crow turned out to be alcohol. He came to family court after being arrested from carrying an open bottle in a public park. Addressing the problem by focus on the legal consequences did not and will not help kids very often. Also talking with a 17 year old about being too young to drink will most likely not be helpful; however, exploring how alcohol can contribute to other serious unintended consequences can be fruitful if the emphasis is on logical or natural consequences not the “you are bad” approach. Admonishing an older teen for drinking? Think about your own youth, that approach goes nowhere, but tracing out with his or her help how often she drinks and what that drinking has resulted in can be powerful treatment. I was quite surprised, not being specifically trained in counseling substance use, to discover through my 6 years working specifically with teens how many genuinely suffered from alcoholism or alcohol abuse.
Just as challenges and boss battles help anchor problems the protagonist’s developing abilities help recovery. In Level 2 Gris can turn herself into a solid block. This heavy block helps her resist the sandstorm and make steady, if slow, movement against the storm. Sometimes you must walk before you can run. The block is her inner fortitude and strength. Help a client find that inner strength. Moreover, as a block (later an ice cube), Gris can also smash through platforms Mario style and unlock valuable treasures and assets. This is another metaphor to help people find inner strength and self-efficacy skills to move forward and cope with loss. In the case of the older teen, his skill as a guitarist and member of a rock band (ironically death metal), helped him focus energy in positive direction. The youth’s strengths need to be encouraged, nurtured and directed in a healthy direction. Just as the wind can push Gris back, she can also use the wind at her back to run forward and glide easily around and over obstacles.
In addition to finding internal strength, Gris’s journey brings her many natural helpers. The crow as enemy becomes the crow as friend when his breath propels Gris upward. Her help also comes in the form red birds who carry her past obstacles. In Level 3 (the Blue Level), an upside down world, Gris is carried upward by a turtle of light. These game play moments are great for counseling sessions. Mourners need others to help move forward. Identifying, reaching out to, and accepting others’ help and support are transformative aspects of getting through grief successfully.
In conclusion, video games, like other art forms, can itself be therapeutic, whether through playing or designing, but they can also be used in a more direct counseling fashion to help students cope with the complex social-emotional aspects of growth that the academic oriented classroom too often neglect.
1. “Gris: Five Stages of Gris,” NeoSeeker: Guides: GRIS Walkthrough and Guide, retrieved fromhttps://www.neoseeker.com/gris/extras/Five_Stages_of_Grief.
This article makes explicit connections between GRIS’ levels and the stages of grief, Prologue- Denial/grey, Desert/Stage 2-Anger/red, Forest/Stage 3-Bargaining/green, Water/Stage 4-Depression/water, and The End/Stage 5- Acceptance/yellow.
A somewhat more fluid and personal description of GRIS from a therapist’s perspective would be Nicolucci, Viola. “GRIS: The Power of the Unsaid,” CheckPoint, retrieved from https://checkpointorg.com/gris/, 12/19/19. Web.
Kübler-Ross, Elizabeth. M.D. On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families, Reissue, Scribner, 2014, originally published in 1969.