Confronting Calamity

Exploring grief through Breath of the Wild.

Content notification for cancer.

When grieving, well-meaning people will try and comfort you, telling you that your loved ones are with you always. The trouble is, even if this is true, you just can’t believe it until you’re ready to listen. There’s been a reasonable amount of buzz about videogames helping people navigate grief and loss. Especially concerning Spiritfarer and Loop Hero. In my experience, as a caregiver for my grandma after her Stage IV cancer diagnosis, the best teacher was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Though my loss is recent and this game is over 5 years old, I recognize the insidious muck of Calamity Ganon for what it is: an analog to cancer.

While caregiving for my Grandma, I started, stopped, and returned to Breath of the WIld more times than I can count. Link’s odyssey gave me a way to explore and meaningfully interact with a world outside my hopeless internal and external reality. Because of this newfound escapism method, I had the energy to provide compassion even when treatment after treatment failed. It’s important to note that even though I explored all over Hyrule, I never once entered a Divine Beast. Not after that first time when I saw the pink and black muck creeping all over Vah Ruta’s elephant-shaped machinery. Vah Ruta and Mipha struck me as an analog for my grandma. I knew it wasn’t healthy, but couldn’t stop myself from making the association.

Somewhere along the line, I got it into my head that if I explored Vah Ruta and destroyed Waterblight Ganon, I was also destroying Vah Ruta and Mipha. That’s why in the last precious months of Gram’s life, as her condition deteriorated, I put the game down for a span of eight months, the longest yet. I didn’t want any part in destroying a body and losing Mipha’s spirit forever. Some part of me knew that Mipha was dead and gone anyway, but I wasn’t ready to let go. I didn’t want to lose Grandma either. She was such an integral piece of all of our lives and so feisty and strong, so indomitable, that imagining she’d lose to cancer just wasn’t a reality. She could beat anything! This denial of the severity of the situation mirrored the way Princess Zelda thought the Divine Beasts and the champions would protect Hyrule from Calamity Ganon. As you find out in the first 15 minutes of the game, that isn’t what happened at all. Everyone lost. The way Princess Zelda was clinging for control in a situation where there is none, painfully paralleled the way my family and I were grieving the sudden loss of control: failure of immunotherapy and chemotherapy.

I don’t remember it at all. It turns out the fight wasn’t the important part.

She passed the day that Russia invaded Ukraine. It felt like with the passing of this matriarch, this powerful woman who played a special part in each our lives, we were left exposed and vulnerable to all sorts of evils. What were we going to do now? Who were we in the wake of this loss? Who were we without her to augment and listen and be there… in the way that she was for each of us?

Eight months later, I resumed playing and tried to gaslight myself into thinking if I could just enter Vah Ruta’s body and find a way to clear the puzzle, I’d be like the rigorous immunotherapy and radiation that my Grandma had received. No one else deserved to die from cancer literally or symbolically. The battle was over anticlimatically quickly. I don’t remember it at all. It turns out the fight wasn’t the important part.

“Hello, Link,” Mipha’s voice echoed, “Because of your courage, my spirit is now free. And Ruta as well. Thank you.” Then followed the line that triggered my understanding of loss and letting go: “For I am now allowed by this freedom to be with you once again.”

I did not cry. In my family, tears are seen as weakness. So I stayed stoic even though on the inside, I began to experience what I now know to be healing. By allowing myself to finally free Mipha and Vah Ruta, I allowed myself the space to understand that cancer and its outcome were never really within my control. How I allowed myself to grieve and define my grief, was. This scene allowed me to start redefining life after loss and to remember, through that elephant icon beside Link, that I’m not adventuring alone.

By Athalia Norman

Athalia Norman is a freelance writer, archaeologist, and toy store manager living in North Carolina. She has bylines in Unwinnable and Kotaku. Fascinated by spiders, androids, and balljoint dolls. She’s fine, absolutely fine. You can find her yelping at other Splatoon 3 players or on Twitter @AthaliaNorman

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