That Dragon, Cancer: An Essay On The Importance Of Grief

This post was written by Andrea who can be found here on Twitter or via her new blog, Hope, Play, and Love. She’s a Dyslexia teacher and an aspiring writer/storyteller who likes to look for everyday joys that God provides, whether that’s in the realm of media, or outside of it. 

Imagine, if you will, yourself in a doctor’s office. It’s quiet, and you’re alone, with no one to keep you company, except for your spouse, and your small child. You’ve been hoping against hope that nothing was wrong, that everything would soon be on the mend. The nightmare would soon be over, and the future would be nothing but smooth sailing ahead.

The doctor comes in, accompanied by the nurse who has been helping to treat your child. Their faces are downcast, yet they must remain professional. They sit down in front of you. The doctor clasps his hands together and sighs, wearily making eye contact with both you and your spouse. Your child innocently continues playing, oblivious that this doctor is about to drop a bombshell on his future.

“I’m sorry guys…it’s not good.”

That Dragon, Cancer: An Essay On The Importance Of Grief

This was the real-life scenario that Ryan and Amy Green found themselves in when they have relayed the news that their young son, Joel, had terminal brain cancer. No amount of radiation or treatment would stop the growth of the tumors that were slowly but surely destroying his life.

It’s a story that many families, unfortunately, experience on a daily basis. Regardless of age, gender, religion, political affiliation, country of origin…cancer is everywhere and affects everyone. Sometimes, people can recover from their individual diagnosis of cancer. Others are taken shortly after they are told they only have a few weeks left to live.

Joel’s story, in many ways, was not unlike many children his age who were suffering in their battle with cancer. What made his story unique, however, was that his father Ryan was a game developer.

Ryan Green is one of the indie game developers who created the vision of That Dragon, Cancer, along with his wife Amy, and the other team members that make up Numinous Games. The team is devoted to creating games with meaning and heart, and That Dragon, Cancer is definitely the epitome of that.

Ryan was inspired to create the game after a particularly rough night spent caring for Joel at the hospital. He was inconsolable, wrecked with dehydration and pain, and Ryan was distraught that there was nothing he could do to comfort him, no matter how much he wanted to. It was in this moment of desperation that he reached out in prayer, asking God to console Joel, to quiet him…moments later, that prayer was answered, and Joel fell into a peaceful slumber. Ryan, out of exhaustion, quietly thanked God for answering his prayer.

That Dragon, Cancer: An Essay On The Importance Of Grief

Nobody wants to grieve. It’s painful, it’s detrimental. It can be exhausting a lot of the time. Most of all, it’s the process we all go through when a big change happens; most of the time unexpected, but always unwanted. I know I’ve grieved many times in my own life: The loss of loved ones, the loss of opportunities, big changes on the horizon that I don’t want to occur…there are many different reasons why people may grieve, just as there are many different ways people can grieve (some less healthy than others).

That being said, I’m here to argue that we recognize the importance of grief, and not be afraid to express it when it happens. For some unspoken reason, people are afraid to grieve, more importantly, people are afraid to just let themselves be sad sometimes. I don’t think this is healthy, and if the recent headlines we’re seeing more and more are any indication of that, I think we need to address it and begin changing our views in order to change ourselves.

Ryan and Amy Green were open enough to share their feelings of grief with not only each other, but with the entire world, showing how they both dealt with the news that Joel would indeed die from his cancer, and there wasn’t anything anyone could do to save him.

Both of the Greens are devout Christians, but the game isn’t shy in showing the struggles they both undertake emotionally as Joel’s battle continues. Amy is more emotional, writing strong, flowery-detailed letters, expressing hope that Joel will be healed in the end, and that her faith will be rewarded. Ryan, on the other hand, is more logical – he knows he can trust formulas and equations, but putting his trust in a God that may or may not heal his son is terrifying for him.

There’s an emotional scene when the two of them are drifting off into the sea in the dark of night, symbolizing the ocean of grief they are experiencing and the murkiness of the future that is ahead of them.

That Dragon, Cancer: An Essay On The Importance Of Grief

Ryan is adrift in the water, while Amy is in a rowboat, holding Joel. They begin an eye-opening conversation that reveals just how far apart the two are slowly becoming, due to the different ways they choose to confront their situation:

Amy: Ryan! Ryan, get in the boat.

Ryan:  (sputters and coughs) …I can’t.

Amy: You have to, you’ll drown!

Ryan: (in despair) We’re already drowning… (gasps) …How can you sit there like that?

Amy: Despair doesn’t help anything.

Ryan …Neither does false hope. And I’m not despairing.

Amy: How can you say ‘false hope’? You’re drowning!!

Ryan: (shouting) Well you’re missing your oars! And you don’t even know where you’re going! And yet you’re so sure you’re going to get there!

Amy: It’s better than drowning!

Ryan: (quietly) Well…enjoy floating on the surface, like you always do.

Amy: There’s nothing deep about drowning. Just get in the boat!

Ryan: (shouting) You have to let me feel this!! (Quietly) …Someone has to.

Amy: (hurt) That’s not fair! I love him as much as you do! I just really believe we’re going to be okay!

I don’t know about you, but when I go through seasons of grief, I tend to think more like Ryan does than Amy. My doubt grows and gnaws at my soul, wondering why and how this could be happening, and my heart just doesn’t have it in me to be hopeful. In fact, when I’m around people who are like Amy, people who just seem so happy despite the hardships that grief brings, it just irritates me.

Yet, Amy isn’t wrong in her hope. She is just as terrified of losing Joel as Ryan is. The difference is that through this trial, she clings closer to her faith and hope, almost to an obsessive degree, and cannot understand why Ryan isn’t also clinging to his faith. He’s become dark, moody, and distant, surely these are not the attributes someone of faith should show!

And yet, can we really blame Ryan for feeling as he does? When we’re so afraid to be disappointed, that we hold back on our expectations and dive into doubt and despair instead?

Ryan expresses his frustrations internally, both with his wife and with God, wondering why he isn’t being given a helping hand.

Ryan: Ugh! Her expectation is so maddening sometimes! Do you know what she wrote on the eve of Joel’s first surgery? The one back in January when we first found the tumor? “I seriously feel like a kid on Christmas Eve.” …I’m pleading with God to spare his life, and I’m tempted to despair because self-inspection leads me to conclude that I shouldn’t expect much of anything. (Sighs) …And yet my wife is expecting a surprise party from the Lord, replete with presents and supernatural miracles. (Sighs) …I envy her.

Although Ryan and Amy both disagree and argue about how to face this oncoming tragedy, no one is seen as better or worse for the other, and I appreciate that from the developers. We shouldn’t judge someone on where they are in their emotional journey with grief. The saying that there is no one way to grieve is true – everyone is different and multi-faceted, and we are not guaranteed to grieve in the same way, or even similar ways. For Ryan, it’s diving into his work and looking at the situation logically, hoping to find a solution that someone may have missed. For Amy, it’s writing notes and letters in prayers; she pours her heart out to the Lord, in deep anguish yet also with hope for a better tomorrow, and that in the end, all will be well.

There are definitely unhealthy ways to grieve, and I feel comfortable sharing a situation that I personally went through about almost six years ago.

Our senior pastor at my church was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in late October of that year, the same kind that took the lives of Senator John McCain recently and Joe Biden’s son Beau. It was a total shock to the entire congregation, including myself: Our pastor was an avid outdoorsman and incredibly active. It didn’t make sense to us that he could develop such a debilitating illness. When the news first broke for us in that morning service, I just remember feeling crestfallen and was crying on the way to my Sunday school class afterward. It just felt like the end of the world – I couldn’t imagine going to another service without my beloved pastor.

To make matters worse for myself, my dog Lucy had gotten very, very ill earlier that summer with a terrible autoimmune disease and passed away in early September. As you can imagine, I was still trying to get through the loss of my pet, and now I had to face the oncoming loss of the pastor that I had grown up with; the man that had personally baptized me, and knew just about every name of each congregant, as impossible as that sounded.

I didn’t take it well; I started having panic attacks. I lost quite a bit of weight (to give you an idea of how bad that is, I’m naturally very thin and petite, so the weight loss was alarming for me). I had a harder time concentrating on my college courses, and so my grades naturally began to drop a bit. I didn’t have the energy or the heart to work as hard as I did before. In other words, I simply slowed down and stopped living life. This was not a healthy way to deal with grief, but it is the way I ended up choosing to.

Fortunately, this period only lasted only a few weeks to a month, and slowly but surely I began to move on and start feeling more like myself again. My pastor did end up passing away that December, but I ended up not feeling terribly heartbroken by that point – I was grieving with the inevitability that he would soon be gone and not be around anymore, and once that process was complete, I was at peace with that future.

I am glad to have gone through that, in a way; although it felt like a lot of pressure, it reminded me that God never abandoned me or my church, just like he didn’t abandon Ryan and Amy Green. In fact, towards the end of the game, the two come together in peace; even though they still don’t entirely see eye to eye, they recognize that this is part of their individual journey and that all hope isn’t gone.

That Dragon, Cancer: An Essay On The Importance Of Grief

Amy: I’m sorry. I should have known we’d both end up in the same place. We always do. It just scares me every time. I just really believe he’ll be healed. I-I know you believe too, it’s just when you act like that, I get all unsure.

Ryan: (quietly) …I don’t know that.

Amy: What do you mean?

Ryan: …I just hope that. But I don’t know.

Ryan does get a moment of respite, however, that night in the hospital. It’s just him alone with Joel, and he has to face the agony Joel is going through head-on, with no escape and no means to turn away. As a parent, this is his worst nightmare. Joel’s screaming becomes worse and worse; Ryan knows Joel is dehydrated, yet when he attempts to give him juice to drink, Joel only vomits it back up, unable to keep it in. It’s only in final desperation that Ryan reaches out to God, sinking deeper in despair, yet with arms outstretched and hoping for mercy. God at that moment shows Ryan that He is with him and watching over Joel and the rest of his family, through both the good and the bad.

I remember a commenter saying that they believed that the player character was essentially playing God Himself, watching over Ryan and Amy Green and listening to their internal thoughts and frustrations. I have to say that I’m very fond of this idea; it highlights the idea that for all their grief, Ryan and Amy were never truly alone in their journey together, and that God was with them every step of the way.

That Dragon, Cancer: An Essay On The Importance Of Grief

Joel does eventually pass away from his cancer, leaving behind an empty void in his place. Amy’s hope is dashed, and she is instead faced with the reality that Joel had not been healed, but instead, his body is buried and his spirit is in Heaven. Ryan’s skeptic nature prevents him from being as hurt, but he still has to deal with the reality of losing his son and comforting his grieving family. Yet, the ending of That Dragon, Cancer paints a hopeful picture. Although Joel has passed on, the Green family can rest easy knowing he is in a better place and not suffering anymore. The ending of the game imagines Joel healthy in Heaven, enjoying a picnic with his very own dog, an overabundance of oversized pancakes for the two of them to eat, and bubbles to blow. It is a peaceful, joyful conclusion to what can at times be a very rough game to play through.

That Dragon, Cancer: An Essay On The Importance Of Grief

Right before that very scene, though, we see Joel on a boat journeying to what we presume to be Heaven. In the boat is a note addressed to Amy from Ryan, and this is what it reads:

Ryan: So here we are. And the air is emptier without his laugh, and yet our hearts are still full. Though, with a different drink. And this ride we’ve been on for so long is silent. And so also the Lord. And so we sit here in this new silence. And long for the music to start again, and for the disc to spin again, even if it means going round and round for many more years. For at least we would be moving, and Joel would be laughing here on Earth, and not only in Heaven. But in this space, I sense His silence is only because He is drawing His breath. And now we know love and longing, empty and full, all in one moment. And I am grateful that we loved him well. And that we miss him well. And I hope that in the Lord’s next breath, He will whisper His love song to you, His beloved. And that you will know him differently, and more deeply. But now, we grieve in silence. Yet, not without His presence.

Grief is a great trial and tribulation that we all must face at some point in our journey, whether it be from the death of a loved one, or missed opportunities in life. It doesn’t have to stop us from living life, however, like it did for me for a short while. Grief can actually be a great asset for people – it can create communities, like That Dragon, Cancer became for those who lost someone to cancer and got to share those stories with one another for the first time. It can strengthen us to try new things or to become an advocate for something greater than we could ever have imagined.

The most important thing to remember is that we are not alone in our grief, even when we choose to be alone sometimes. Grief can create empathy, which is a trait that is sorely needed more and more in our culture.

The official website for That Dragon, Cancer can be found here:

That Dragon, Cancer: An Essay On The Importance Of Grief

The game itself can be purchased through the website, or through Steam or Ouya. Also available is the official soundtrack composed by Jon Hillman (which I highly recommend; it pulls heartstrings just as much as the actual game does).

If you’re interested in how this game was created and developed, there’s an amazing behind-the-scenes documentary called Thank You For Playing, directed by Malika Zouhali-Worrall and David Osit. Both of these directors do an amazing, sensitive job in sharing the Green’s personal lives with the viewer and why certain scenes in the game were created the way that they were. You can find and purchase the documentary in a variety of locations such as Steam and Amazon, but here is the official site of the documentary:

Lastly, I want to ask you, the reader, if you have been impacted by grief, do you see yourself reacting more like Ryan or Amy? Or do you simply stop living like I did for a few weeks? Do you grieve the same way each time, or does it change each time it happens? Leave a comment below, and tell me what you think.

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