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Playing Kingdom Hearts 2 Helped Me Process My Father's Death
By John Cappello
My father, Paul Nicholas Cappello, died last week on November 9, 2017 at age 59. He suffered his final years from a form of dementia, but was taken away from us by a sudden heart attack. He was my best friend.
That was the hardest week of my life. The first 2 days I spent in my bed crying. But I forced myself to get back to my regular activities rather than keep that up; watching movies, going out for lunch, working. But I felt broken. In spite of numerous friends and family reaching out, I just didn’t want to talk about it at length. I was softly crafting my thoughts and preparing a speech about my father that I would have to read at the funeral. I knew that it would be a process that could take my entire life. Being in a constant state of grieving is both mentally and physically exhausting (crying for more than 5 minutes completely dehydrated me and gave me headaches), and I needed distractions. I had to take a break from making art (which in itself requires a lot of emotional concentration) and I needed to put myself into another steady activity during those days.
So I decided to play a video game. And the game I played was Kingdom Hearts 2. And it helped me more than I thought with processing my father's death.
Always one of my favorite games, I've probably played KH2 about 10 times since I was 15. It is a weird game that only nerds could love. I've never had a strong emotional connection to the game compared to other works of art. The story and characters aren't too complex, and the series has rather light themes such as friendship and a typical hero's journey that makes it super easy entertainment. It’s just really fun to play. And it has one of the greatest soundtracks in history.
For those who don't know, Kingdom Hearts is a series made by Square Enix that basically combines Disney and Final Fantasy characters. You play a kid named Sora who joins up with Donald Duck and Goofy, and you go to bizarre worlds (with even more absurd names like “The World That Never Was”) modeled after popular Disney movies and fight villains and brainless monsters called Heartless. Most of the dialogue involves characters either speaking in generic philosophical platitudes or just saying each other's names ("Sora! Donald! Goofy!”). Second only to Donald Trump being president, it's the weirdest thing that exists on the planet at this time.
In the first game of the series, Sora is separated from his two best friends Riku and Kairi, joins Donald and Goofy in their quest to find Mickey Mouse, and battles the forces of Darkness while also trying to save his best friend, Riku, from being lost to the Darkness. Like I said, it's thematically pretty simple. The first game ends with the groups being separated between multiple worlds, some of them being trapped inside the world of Darkness, Kingdom Hearts.
When I picked up the game, I just did it to keep myself busy amongst all the other things I had to do while grieving, such as speaking to my family members, making funeral preparations, and all of the other bureaucratic procedures that need to be done when a person dies.
The story of Kingdom Hearts 2 begins with a character named Roxas who is an artificial copycat of the main character Sora. He is a Nobody, a being that exists without a heart, and is suffering from memory loss. After the events of the first 3 hours of the game, Roxas eventually has to confront that he is a shell of a human being, and that he only exists in order to eventually merge back with the main character of the game, Sora, in order to make Sora whole again. Part of me recognized similarities between this character's journey and that of my father, who often felt that he was a shell of the man that he used to be once he started experiencing the loss of his motor functions and memory from dementia, trying desperately to hold on to whatever was left of him as a person. Roxas quickly finds Sora's unconscious body (which is in a floating Sci-Fi pod for some reason) and concedes to merging back into him in order to revive Sora (and Donald and Goofy as well for some reason).
From this point forward, the main storyline takes effect with Sora front and center. Sora, Donald, and Goofy jump from a Disney themed world to another Disney themed world in search of their lost friends while keeping themselves from succumbing to The Darkness within their hearts. After 30ish hours of gameplay and defeating several villains, I made it to the final world in the story, which very much functions as the Purgatory of the game. It was the night before I had to depart for Massachusetts and hold my father's funeral, which I was secretly dreading.
While playing the videogame, I wasn't really thinking of the story. I was thinking of my dad and old memories.Throughout the game, the themes of forming strong bonds with friends is constant, and the protagonists are always on the search for their loved ones. Sora also learns more about Roxas, a sliver of him still lives within, and every time he encounters an old friend of Roxas's, Sora feels the sense of loss. But even though he is gone, Sora carries Roxas in his heart and remains a generally optimistic kid.
In the final hours of the game's story, Sora, Donald, and Goofy are shortly reunited with their lost friends and face off with the main bad guy of the game, and the themes of Lightness vs. Darkness come forefront. Sora admits at one point that he used to be afraid of the Darkness, but has accepted Darkness as being just as necessary as Lightness. Oh, The Feels.
The recently reunited group is separated again and now it is just Sora and his best friend Riku facing off against the main bad guy, who has become an avatar of Darkness or something. The main bad guy is defeated in an awesome laser light show finale, but Sora and Riku are trapped within Kingdom Hearts, the world of Darkness. They reminisce about old times while also accepting that they will probably be trapped inside The Darkness forever. Then the Door to Light appears before them, they escape The Darkness, and "land" back to their home world, the Destiny Islands. The beautiful theme song for the videogame, "Sanctuary" by Utada Hikaru, gently plays, and all of their lost friends, including Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, rush into the water to have a giant, adorable, and incredibly rewarding hug-fest. Sora looks into his friend’s eyes, Roxas flashes onto screen with a smile, and Sora’s friend tells him that they’re home. Then Sora grabs his friend’s hand, and the game cuts to black.
And then I started crying. Bigly, I might add. I don't believe in a god or an afterlife, but I imagined myself reuniting with my father again in some sort of Heaven, after spending the rest of my life fighting off the Darkness from overtaking my own heart, while holding onto parts of him within me. And that somewhere in another world, he is holding out his hand waiting for me.
I guess my point is that it is okay to find solace through unexpected sources. I set out to play Kingdom Hearts 2 during a difficult time just to distract myself from my grief, and it ended up helping me cope. If you know someone who is trying to process death, this game could be a good recommendation. Perhaps the makers of the game intended for it to be a secret allegory about the journey of life and death. As Sora says, we need Darkness in order to see the Light. And after playing Kingdom Hearts 2, I found myself ready to say goodbye to my father.
Here is a link to the ending of the game, if you want to visualize what I just explained in text, although in a more magical, Disney sort of way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6HIWp3wmj60