Spiritfarer, Dementia, and Finding Closure in Death

When I first saw Spiritfarer, I was immediately captivated by its vibrant, hand-drawn visuals and unusual premise: “A cozy management game about death.” As someone who’s invested an embarrassing amount of time into management sims and has an unusual preoccupation with death, it didn’t surprise me that Spiritfarer landed right at the top of the list of games I wanted to play. What wasn’t so apparent to me was how it would, in its own small way, help me process the loss of my grandmother.

That might sound grim but the way death is handled in Spiritfarer isn’t the depressing affair I’ve grown accustomed to seeing in games, movies, and other forms of media. It takes inspiration from Greek mythology, placing you in the shoes of a charming girl named Stella who takes over Charon’s role as “the ferrymaster to the deceased”, or the “Spiritfarer.” She inherits Charon’s ship and sails the world in search of spirits in need of help with their transition to the afterlife. Helping these spirits means forging bonds with and supporting them as they find closure, and that includes processing some of the darkest moments of their life. When a spirit is ready to move on, Stella brings them to the Everdoor, a portal to the afterlife where they can finally pass on.

Yes, many of these stories have moments that are especially sad, and some are even triggering, dealing with themes of depression, loss related to disease, and even suicide. But it’s how Spiritfarer treats the processing and acceptance of unresolved grief as a necessary step to moving on that makes the ending to these stories feel a little less tragic. It also reinforces the idea that death is a natural and sometimes even cathartic part of life, no matter how you get there.

Some of these journeys may make you evaluate your own feelings about life and death. For me, one character’s story hit particularly close to home, and that character’s name is Alice. Charming, kind, and sugary sweet, Alice is an incredibly loveable hedgehog that dons a sunhat decorated with peace lilies and a necklace made of pearls. When in a good mood, she can be found picking fruit in the orchards, or in the kitchen baking desserts and comforting food for you and the other spirits. Most interactions with her left me feeling warm and fuzzy, quickly making her one of my favorite characters on the ship. But as her journey nears its end, I felt a not-so-gentle tugging at my heartstrings as her health took a turn for the worse.

It starts when Alice begins to have difficulty moving around on the ship. This is accompanied by a very radical change in personality as she starts to lash out at people who try to assist her. Another spirit comes to Stella and suggests to move Alice’s home to deck level to accommodate her. Shortly after that happens, Alice loses her ability to walk. Stella begins to accompany her to and from the prow of the ship every morning and every night so Alice can continue to enjoy the fresh air and company of her shipmates. Then, Alice begins to show signs of memory loss, forgetting where she is and who Stella is.

When Alice begins to show symptoms that align with Dementia, I was immediately reminded of my grandmother. Just like Alice, my grandmother’s illness revealed itself in small ways, like when she struggled to remember the names of the people around her or the answer to a question she asked you only moments before. Just like Alice, my grandmother’s illness slowly stripped her of the ability to things on her own, forcing her to rely almost entirely on the support and care of the family and caretakers around her.

It’s a strange coincidence that I’m playing a game that touches on the hardships of a disease like the one my grandmother died from exactly one year ago. But I’m glad I picked up Spiritfarer when I did because Alice’s story was a necessary reminder, even if it started with memories of when my grandmother’s presence in my life felt mostly defined by the disease she had rather than who she was, or who she used to be.

Stuck Somewhere Between Death and Dying

When I started to write this, the first sentence I typed was, “I lost my grandmother last year to complications with Dementia.” But that isn’t true. I really lost my grandmother a long time ago. And that fact used to make me bitter. More than that, it used to make me angry.

When my family and I first learned about my grandmother’s diagnosis, it was long after it actually happened. She showed signs and symptoms for many years, but she and my grandfather insisted there was nothing wrong. The truth was, they had learned of my grandmother’s illness when it was still in its early stages but had brushed it off. They carried on like this until the symptoms became too obvious to ignore and my family had to step in.

It was infuriating to learn that I could’ve had more time with my grandmother. I would constantly ask myself, “Why weren’t we more involved with her health before this disease dug its claws into her?” I blamed myself for not asking more questions whenever I found she had forgotten about a pot of boiling water on the stove or talked to me as if I was my mother. I blamed my grandfather for not telling us about her illness until it became too much of an inconvenience for him. I blamed my family for constantly leaning on my grandmother for everything but not caring enough to consider the ways she could’ve needed our help in return.

I forced myself to let go of my petty grievances because I knew holding on to them wouldn’t change anything or help the situation. Instead, I focused on enjoying the time I had left with her, putting on her favorite music whenever she was around, and entertaining her confused ramblings with undivided attention and enthusiasm. But the same couldn’t be said for the rest of my family. My grandmother’s illness exposed the weakest point of all of our relationships: communication.

That weakness was inflated when the discussion of power of attorney over my grandmother came up, driving an even bigger wedge between my grandfather and all of his children. This lead to disagreements over what to do with my grandmother’s money, how to handle her treatment, and even conflicting opinions about late-stage care. Eventually, family members simply avoided talking about the situation because it became “too much to handle.” This put the brunt of my grandmother’s care on my aunt, who, despite the challenges, lack of support, and emotional weight of the situation, handled it far better than I think either of her eldest siblings could’ve ever had. That said, the situation was not only unfair to my aunt but a slap in the face to my grandmother who spent her final years without all of her children by her side.

The last time I saw my grandmother was a few months before her passing. I went with my aunt to visit her at the long-term care facility she was staying at. We arrived just around dinner time and took the food back to my grandmother’s room so we could spend alone time with her. She didn’t recognize us but it had been some time since she did. The medication she was on made her very drowsy, so she wasn’t fully aware. Considering how agitated folks with Dementia can get, that was probably for the better. All things considered, I was at peace being next to her. I was simply happy being able to see her, touch her, and reminisce about the old days with my aunt as she fed my grandmother and got her ready for bed.

I truly savored those moments because I knew it was going to be the last time I’d see my grandmother alive. I knew this was the last time I’d hold her hand, kiss her, and tell her I loved her. I hoped that, despite the fact she was not all there cognitively and already fast asleep, that somewhere deep down, she knew exactly how I felt about her.

From Purgatory to the Afterlife

One day, when Stella goes to pick up Alice from the prow of the ship, Alice cannot remember who Stella is. Alice begins to ask Stella where her daughter is, describing her as a girl in a blue beach outfit in a red hat. In order to get Alice to come with you, Stella must change into a blue beach outfit with a red hat. When you do, Alice with ask you to take her home and you’ll be prompted to bring her to the Everdoor.

As you row Alice to the Everdoor, she continues to talk to Stella as if she’s her daughter. At some point, she becomes aware that she’s confused and realizes that Stella isn’t her daughter. But just as they reach their destination, Alice slips back into confusion and asks Stella to tell her father about the beautiful trees when she gets back home.

This scene left me in a sobbing, crumpled heap on my sofa. It reminded me of similar moments with my grandmother, where I was just as patient and understanding as Stella, knowing that my grandmother’s forgetfulness was not her fault and nothing to take personally. That fact never took away from how saddening and downright painful these moments could be. But seeing Stella give Alice one last hug and then watching her pass through the Everdoor gave me a sense of closure I wish I had when my grandmother died.

I remember the day she died vividly. I was laying in bed, watching daylight break through my bedroom window after a long night of restless tossing and turning. Nights like that are customary for me, but it was different then. It felt like I was waiting for something bad to happen.

I picked up my phone to check the time, and it began to vibrate. It was my mom calling me at five in the morning. I immediately picked up the call, saying hello as quietly as I could so I wouldn’t wake my still-sleeping partner.

“Hey… Nani called. Grandma died.”

I immediately started to sob, waking up my partner and sending him into a panic. “What’s wrong? What’s going on?” I didn’t have the words to tell him. There were only tears.

The days leading up to the funeral were tense. My mother, uncle, and aunt were on their best behavior even though there were clearly unresolved feelings about how everything regarding my grandmother went down. To make matters worse, my grandmother’s services were in limbo as we struggled to get a hold of my grandfather who was the only one that could sign the paperwork authorizing her cremation. My aunt, the only one who had a direct line of communication with him, told us she didn’t know if he would come through for us because even their relationship was on shaky ground.

Eventually, we did have a small service for my grandmother, and we were able to cremate her with my grandfather’s blessing. Instead of giving any energy to my family drama, I tried my best to focus on saying goodbye. While I accepted the reality of my grandmother being gone, I fought with myself about letting go. There was a storm of feelings bubbling up inside of me: Resentment, anger, sadness, relief, guilt, helplessness… I wondered if I would ever truly be okay with the circumstances in which my grandmother died. Would I ever be able to let go of the weight of my grandmother’s disease, the thing that I had held so close to my heart for so many years? At the time, I wasn’t so sure I ever would.

Almost a year later, I’m reminded of those unresolved feelings I had about her passing. And while I’ve dreaded my grandmother’s death anniversary and the grief it would bring, some reflection and long overdue reading brought on by that moment of sadness I had with Spiritfarer has given me some perspective.

I’ve learned the grief I experienced with my grandmother isn’t unique to me. In fact, many of the feelings I’ve wrestled with are so common there are terms and explanations for them.

Alzheimer’s families often use the phrase “two deaths” to describe the initial grief I felt losing my grandmother to symptoms of Dementia and the subsequent grief I felt when she physically died.

The overwhelming anxiety I felt during her several-years-long struggle was a result of the compounded loss my family was experiencing because people can have trouble processing or accepting so much change in such a short amount of time.

And the family conflicts that arose when my grandmother became too ill to take care of herself might’ve been alleviated if my family had sought some counseling. And while I’m still working through my feelings about that, I feel a little bit better knowing I can pass on my knowledge and these tips for resolving family conflicts, in hopes that it will reach someone who needs them.

Reflection, perspective, closure… these are all things I didn’t have a year ago. But they are also things that didn’t come to me passively. It required introspection and a genuine effort to understand my feelings so I can reach a place where I feel better about them. This isn’t to say that I’m finished with the internal work, but I no longer feel weighed down by debilitating, self-inflicted grief.

I can’t definitively say I would’ve never gotten around to processing my feelings about my grandmother’s final years, but I do think the timely impact of Alice’s story in Spiritfarer gave me the nudge I needed to start.

As for how I feel heading into my grandmother’s one year death anniversary… I think I’m finally ready to see her through the Everdoor.