The Loss of Us: A look at TLOU2’s themes of grief and how we cope

Obviously, we need to start with a spoiler warning. So if you haven’t played The Last of Us Part II just yet, please wander off now. Here is a cute picture to say thanks as you leave. Everyone else, you get a cute picture before we dive into darkness.

One of the central themes of The Last of Us, as a whole series, is grief. We started our journey many years ago with an introduction to Joel and his daughter Sarah before seeing the cordyceps infection start. Despite trying his best, Joel watches Sarah die in his arms, a burst of bullets missing him but taking her life in an opening scene to a game that is still spoken about today.

Joel spends the whole of the first game consumed by his grief, trying his best to not let anyone get too close to him and we watch as Ellie and Joel come to trust each other and an awkward but heartwarming foster family forms, two lost souls finding a tiny bit of solace in a world that has turned upside down.

Then we play The Last of Us Part II, and Joel dies, right in front of Ellie. The cycle of loss is new and raw and this time, after spending so much time with the characters, the loss is so powerful it hits in the gut, similar to how losing a loved one in real life feels. It is a terrible feeling. Earlier this year, my Mother-in-law died after a long battle with cancer. It has been hell because most of my methods of coping with emotions have been taken away from me. There was no funeral. No gathering. No family coming to visit to chat about things or help with the mountain of admin that comes with death. No friends to escape to a pub as a distraction, just… bleak emptiness.

This feeling of grief and loss came even when we had time to prepare. It helped. I think. You can’t truly prepare for loss, something so large and final your brain can’t actually process it initially. And this was with loving family around. I still think of her body, still and lifeless when the nurse showed us into the hospital room for the last time after some countless hospital visits over 18 months of battles. I thought about this a lot while playing TLOU2, and while I wanted to write about it, it has been hard to get the words out, as if they are stuck in the same vice grip that helps me keep things in check to function daily. For Ellie, it was an unexpected loss. It was violent and graphic and she saw, heard, smelled it happening right in front of her, unable to do anything. And it turned her down a really dark path.

Some of her friends do their best to help, but none of them are counsellors. There are no counsellors post-cordyceps as far as I can tell, with everyone forced to carry immense emotional weight on their own. As a result, things go bad. We see this many times. Ellie gives into her rage, lashing out at anything and anyone, wanting them to feel as bad as she does, to hurt like she does. At one point, she has a moment of clarity after a shock. She kills a pregnant woman and for a moment realises how grief is turning her into a monster. But the rage is still there, and Abby nearly kills her and poor Jesse pays for Ellie’s vengeance. He dies so quickly it is almost difficult to parse. So often in media, characters are given long, drawn-out moments to die in. In a TV series, there might be an entire episode dedicated to a character before they die, or a slow ailment that allows everyone to say goodbye. We don’t get that here. We get something very close to real death. Quick. Final. Abrupt. It is a blink-and-you-missed-it moment, and it is a horrifying reminder that life is so fragile.

But loss sticks with you, and it isn’t just Ellie that is dealing with loss here. We play a significant portion of the game as Abby, who is also dealing with loss in her own way. Her father, her support group and the place where she belonged is taken from her by Joel, everything collapsing in an instant. With no trail to follow, she finds new people eventually, the ragtag remnants of her Firefly cell eventually disband or get absorbed. She finds purpose in the discipline and order, and pushes her emotions into her exercise, training for the moment when she can one day find her father’s killer. She becomes strong, fast and trains in many different weapons so that when that day comes, she can take on the man who arrived to deliver a package, then proceeded to murder everyone.

Other forms of loss

Even before Abby arrives looking for Joel, things in Jackson aren’t particularly peachy between Joel and Ellie. Ellie is crestfallen when she gets told by Joel that there are others like her, hiding among everyone that are immune to cordyceps. Ellie, like many of us, wanted her life to matter. For there to be some meaning, some way to fix the massive issues and see a life she never had. She catches glimpses of easier times by watching movies with Joel, and in the many stores she visits looking for usable salvage. This is made worse when she finally learns the truth, hunting for answers because she never truly buys Joel’s story.

At this point she feels betrayed and robbed. Ellie would gladly die if it made everything matter, if it made her matter in some way, but Joel stole that from her and made the choice for her. She could have mattered, but she feels like she doesn’t anymore. Add to that the knowledge that Joel has been lying to her for a long time and it creates a rift between them. Ellie lives on her own, away from Joel and they never reconcile. Joel tries, offering a gorgeous guitar to Ellie, but the rift never really closes. Then she loses him.

There is something terrible about knowing your last interaction with someone before they died. The last time I spoke to my Mum, as an actual conversation, we were several feet apart, her lying in bed and us talking about how people were ignoring the rules of lockdown. She was desperate for hugs, and we were trying to explain why she was at risk and we didn’t want to infect her by mistake. That was the last time I saw her that she was conscious. She went to hospital and we were told to visit because things were dire. We had permission to visit, but they were limiting it to immediate family and I wasn’t given the cut, despite living under the same roof as her for over a decade.

The next day I was allowed in, but she was in a coma. I’m told that sometimes they can hear you, but I had no idea what to say. What do you say to someone battling to breathe, half the size of what she used to be? My brain froze up, so I eventually did the only thing that popped into my head. I sang Final Fantasy X’s Hymn of the Fayth to her.

I left in tears. The next time I saw her, she was still. Unmoving. The immense pain was over for her, but it was only really starting now. Suddenly all the things left unsaid came rushing in, the times I battled to think of things to say to her mocking me.

Over time, it hurts less and I have strong support structures in place. I don’t know if Joel ever recovered from Sarah’s death, especially with Ellie never really accepting him as a father figure until it was too late. I felt the sharp sting of regret with Ellie. The gutpunches she felt as I read her journal, seeing the pictures of her drawings, all crossed out at the eyes. To me, I think, she can’t draw the eyes because she only sees the dead eyes staring at her. I might be wrong.

Both Abby and Ellie are haunted by their nightmares, shifting scenes of the moment of realisation that a loved one is dead. We see these scenes several times, mixed in with touching moments where they spent special moments together. In Abby’s dreams, we see her other emotions manifest. Guilt for leaving Yara and Lev behind. Hatred for Joel. The grief of finding her dad dead. Ellie saw the violent moment of death, and her visions happen in the day, not limited to nightmares. Flashes of blood, shouts of pain. Unanswered pleas for help. Each time, for both of them, the wounds ache as if freshly carved.

Ellie escapes her rage and finally remembers Joel at his best before she loses everything, including Dinah and Potato. Unlike Tommy, who has dedicated himself to killing Abby, to the cost of his marriage and friendships with others. We last see him as a lonely, broken man, unable to let go of the hatred that has become all he can see – a warning of what Ellie could become. What she nearly does become.

Ellie and Abby overcome their grief, though it nearly destroys both of them. The only character who seems to deal with it in a balanced, healthy manner is Lev, who uses wisdom from religious doctrine to ground himself. On top of this, Lev has found a big sister figure in Abby, someone to depend on. Of course, Lev is also quiet and deep, so who knows what lurks there, but I like to believe that someone in that post-apocalypse world dealt with grief in a healthy way, and perhaps by finding something to live for, Ellie can move on, if not completely but enough to carry on living, just like Joel did with her. Just like Lev and Abby. Just like me and my wife.

If it has the letters RPG in it, I am there. Still battling with balancing trying to play every single game that grabs my interest, getting 100% in a JRPG, and devoting time to my second home in Azeroth.

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