Grieving, Healing, and New Horizons: How Animal Crossing Helped Me Through Baby Loss
In the past year, dates have become increasingly important to me. On March 20th 2020, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, my most anticipated game in recent memory, was released. On March 23rd, the UK went into the first of what would become many national lockdowns as a pandemic ripped through the world, driving loved ones apart as we were implored to “STAY HOME, SAVE LIVES.” On April 27th, my fiancée and I—childhood sweethearts, together since high school—found out the incredible news that we were expecting our first child. On July 2nd, at what was our 12 week scan, I was brought down from a waiting room to learn that our baby’s heart had stopped beating a week earlier. On July 10th, with COVID measures forcing me to stay at home, helpless, my future wife gave birth alone on a maternity ward to a baby I had never met, will never meet, and will always love. And then, for a little while there, all sense of time and place slipped through our fingers.
One of the few things I have learned in the time since losing my little one is that grief, unsurprisingly, is tiring. It’s not so much the physical exhaustion that gets you, though sleepless nights and low energy are tough to contend with, but rather the loss of purpose. One minute, you’re planning a future, preparing for a whole new way of living, and the next you’re packing your hopes and dreams into cardboard boxes and trying not to stare too long in case the next onslaught of tears brings on another throbbing headache. In the absence of that little spark of life I was yearning to meet, the world turned so grey so suddenly that day and night were no longer relevant to me, and time wasn’t so much passing as threatening to leave me behind entirely.
As friends and family—at a social distance—tried in vain to provide comfort to my fiancée and I, the weight of what we were going through threatened to crush us completely. To us, we now existed on the other side of a glass wall, watching a world continue to turn and people continue to go about their day when all we could do was cling onto each other and try to stay afloat. As reality became increasingly hard to live with though, escape in whichever form we could find it became an elixir of life to us two lost souls. And while it had spent a few months already providing us escape from a global pandemic, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, with its therapeutic melding of life simulation, anthropomorphic tomfoolery, and designing/pruning/preening encouragement, would grow to become a vital source of escape from the pain of loss that eventually, gently encouraged us to engage with the world again.
For me, the first thing I found New Horizons giving me in the wake of losing my child was the re-establishment of a routine. While day and night remained foreign countries to me with curtains regularly left closed and sleeping patterns completely askew, the game’s adherence to a real-time day/night cycle helped me mark the passage of time again. The 10am jingle and the 5pm theme became comforting sounds to me, coaxing me into the day and congratulating me for making it through til evening respectively. Whilst the dynamic weather system would occasionally throw a rainstorm my way, the gentle transitions from sun-rise to mid-day glow, from magic hour golden hues to late evening’s navy curtain adorned with twinkling stars, gave me an admittedly basic but absolutely appreciated grasp on time at a point of genuine crisis. On the nights where I just couldn’t settle at all, I was thankful for the ethereal green skyline that would wait for me in the wee small hours to gently light the way through to morning.
The routine element of my journey towards something resembling recovery went beyond the literal markers of the passage of time. As well as having Daisy-Mae’s turnip-selling shenanigans to look forward to on a Sunday, I had the chance of encounters with crooked art seller Crazy Redd, cute island spook Wisp, and luckless travelling seagull Gulliver. Looking forward to seeing them helped time to move a little more fluidly again, and being able to tell myself “it’s been x days since you last saw y character” or “it’s only x days until y event” gave me reason to re-engage my brain with what it was like to see a future. That sounds incredibly dramatic, and not at all comparable to “the real world,” but I have found that video games at their greatest illuminate the universal truths and human qualities that make us, well, us. And in the hole that I found myself in, or that anyone reading this may find themselves in, sometimes selling turnips for a lucrative profit or getting excited for a fishing tournament will do nicely to simply help get you through.
I can’t write about what New Horizons did for helping me heal without also mentioning my villagers, whose quirky personalities and blissful unawareness of my situation coaxed me into caring about social connections again. This isn’t to say that I shut out my friends and family who tried their best to support my fiancée and I, but grief and loss often translate into awkwardness and uncomfortability—I knew I was inconsolable and my pain was impossible to accurately communicate, and they did too, so the “How are you?” “Doing my best” tête-à-tête was heavily loaded with visible discomfort from both parties. But heading out on my way around the island, eavesdropping on fitness mad Al and adorable koala Ozzy getting into it over their favourite junk food, or checking in with colourful eagle Celia who lovingly calls me “Feathers” made me feel safe, made me feel needed, and most importantly, reminded me how to talk about something that wasn’t the giant hole in my life that had suddenly been put there. While outsiders may see the characters of Animal Crossing as a cluster of polygons and sprites with coded call-and-response characteristics, being able to help a fictitious friend out by fetching them medicine, or receiving a letter in the mail from a peppy hippo called Bubbles telling you that you’re a great pal can mean a hell of a lot to someone who has found themself cauterised from the simple pleasures of conversation.
Because I continued to care for and about my villagers, I also continued to care for my island. The clever way the game encourages your commitment and continued relationship with nature and people (or sassy horse-people *cough* Reneigh *cough*) through the explicit acknowledgement of time away is incredibly handy at a time where finding motivation is hard. The desire not to see Yoihi Cove overrun with weeds, not to have my residents asking where I’ve gotten to, gave me a sense of focus that eventually spilled into my day-to-day. As time inevitably began to carry my partner and I farther and farther from the worst day of our life, and as summer gave way to autumn on my island escape, seeing what we were capable of building virtually even in the face of great trauma in reality reminded us that, while we would never move on from losing our little bean, we could still find ways to begin to move forwards.
Because of Animal Crossing, I was able to learn in many ways how to live again after loss. Because of Animal Crossing, my fiancée was able to build a beautiful memorial to our baby that we couldn’t otherwise have with the pandemic raging on. And because of Animal Crossing, I truly believe that I was able to gleam some fleeting but powerful moments of joy that, like a ray of sunlight, pierced the clouds of depression that had formed over me. Through encouraging routine and care, and the nurturing of relationships with nature, those around you, and ultimately yourself, Animal Crossing encourages and guides you towards your better angels and best self. And, while the game will always be just that, a game, what it has given to me and to my fiancée is as real and as meaningful as it gets. So, as I sit typing this, preparing to welcome a healthy little girl into the world while remembering my first child and all the love that they grew in my heart, I feel I owe Animal Crossing the deepest of thanks from the bottom of my heart. Through the stormiest seas of my life so far, Nintendo’s creation lived up to its latest iteration’s title, giving me and my fiancée new horizons to look towards as the future once again begins to look bright.
And to my little bean—dad loves you, always.