My stepfather died five years ago after months of terrible suffering that put my mother through the wringer. She suffered from both the physically demanding nursing required while he was still at home and the horrible, futile waiting game as she watched him die in the hospital. I was living in Houston at the time, and I drove to Arizona as soon as the news came. I took my mother home, bought her groceries, cooked for her, listened to her grieve, and held her. But after a week, I had to go back to Texas. My mother was left in a small rural community where she didn’t have any close friends. But despite that, she wasn’t alone.
A year or so before, I had introduced my mother to World of Warcraft, of which I was an avid player at the time. A longtime lover of fantasy worlds, she enjoyed the game tremendously. And after my stepfather died, gaming gave her a safe place to retreat from her grief and post-traumatic stress symptoms. She would log in and leave behind everything she wasn’t ready or able to process, focusing her energy on some basic task as though it were the most important thing in the world.
We played together with a close-knit group of friends who made my mother welcome in our little virtual world. Talking and playing with people she’d never met gave her a means of connection that was completely lacking in her life at that time. It gave her something to be interested in and something to think about other than a too-empty home filled with reminders of her loss. It created a way for us to be together when I was a thousand miles away.
I still vividly remember the weeks we spent traversing the fictional lands of World of Warcraft, trying to collect every piece of a special item for my in-game character. The names of places in the game still bring a smile to my mother’s face as she remembers us tackling virtual obstacles together. We died so many times. We died over and over and then ran back to do the same thing all over again. Theoretically, the odds of getting the item I wanted were supposed to be 10 percent. I can’t say whether our luck was exceptionally bad or exceptionally good, because it took us an absurdly long time to get that final, precious piece. And we did it together. Sometimes we’d talk on the phone while we played; other times we just battled together in companionable silence.
My mother didn’t feel strong at that time—she felt helpless. But when she logged in to World of Warcraft, she wasn’t helpless anymore; she was a powerful warrior who could take down the bad guys with a big sword. Death was only a setback—we could always return to the start point and try again.
Not everybody was sympathetic to my mother’s coping strategies. When she talked about gaming, my uncle condescendingly said, “You know that’s not real, right?” She knew that all too well. But she also knew what was real. Connecting with her daughter was real. Reality hadn’t done my mother any favors, but fantasy did—it helped her celebrate small accomplishments, connect with sympathetic friends, and spend time with me. It helped her put aside the grief until its edges had dulled to something a little less traumatic.
People use escapism as a dirty word. Face your troubles, they’ll say. Get over it. These people offer “tough love,” completely devoid of meaningful coping strategies. What does facing your troubles look like when you awake in the middle of the night, devastated from another traumatic nightmare that has already come true? How can you fight those phantasms? My mother intuitively knew there was no victory possible in those dark hours. Turning on her computer, she found a safe place waiting for her—an escape just when she needed it most.