Home Essay No One's Ever Really Gone: Star Wars and Grieving

No One’s Ever Really Gone: Star Wars and Grieving

When I was seven-years-old I had emergency surgery on my left knee that required a ten-day stay in the hospital. Since this was the pre-streaming era of 1988, my grandfather de-cabled the VCR used to religiously record his beloved Wheel of Fortune episodes, took out an extended rental of The Empire Strikes Back from the local video store (you know that’s a big deal if you’re a veteran millennial like me,) and brought the galaxy far, far away to the hospital room, providing comfort and joy until I waited to be discharged.

Thirty-one years later, I was coming down from the post-Star Wars Celebration high when my phone rang. Grandpa had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; the clock was ticking. He’d opted not to seek chemotherapy due to cancer’s progression and his age. Dad said I needed to come home soon if I wanted to say goodbye. 

Home was a ten-hour drive from Portland to the small town in northwestern Montana where I grew up. Luckily, I’d just received a copy of Dooku: Jedi Lost, so I had a Star Wars companion to come with me. Cavan Scott’s elaborate audio-drama provided a perfect escapism mechanism, helping me cope with the terrible news, but young Dooku’s grieving the family who’d given him up to a monastic order with a dogma that rejected all forms of emotional attachment stuck after I pulled up.

Characters in Star Wars often times aren’t allowed their grief. Star Wars isn’t great about giving us many quiet moments for these characters to reflect their loss before another lightsaber or Star Destroyer is hurled at them. We never get to see Luke grieve the father he fought for but only glimpsed for a moment and the mother he never knew.

When I arrived, my grandfather could barely speak. He would sit up, say a few words, and look at us with hopeful but stoic eyes. My family surrounded him, reminding him of their own Empire Strikes Back at the hospital anecdotes, thanking him for those acts of kindness.

I felt grateful to be able to tell him of the love, kindness, and empathy he’d taught me with his actions as much as his words. On the drive home, I pushed back the tears by listening to James Luceno’s Tarkin.

Less than two weeks later my father called again. My grandfather had passed away in his sleep.

My grandfather was eighty-five, had a wonderful life, and died peacefully and without any pain. Still, it was the first major death I’d experienced and watching those around me struggle to come to terms with the reality while I struggled kicked up a strange storm of emotions inside of me.

I only felt numb. I felt guilty for not crying enough and ashamed when I let the waterworks flow around family and friends. All the emotions moved through me like a tornado and I didn’t know what to do.

Compounding this grief, my wife and I had recently come to terms with the fact our marriage was no longer in the purgatory of crossroads we’d been standing at for the last few years. There was no more pretending we’d be working things out. The amicable decision to end our marriage still felt difficult. After years of fighting to make it work the whimpering, quiet end just felt sad.

Around the same time this intersection of grief and loss presented itself, an advanced review copy of Zoraida Córdova’s A Crash of Fate showed up in my mailbox. 

I devoured the book in one sitting! Córdova’s beautiful story of Izzy and Jules, two childhood friends reunited as the First Order descended on Batuu, was exactly the hope injection that I needed. And, it was Star Wars! It was an escape! It was hope, love, friendship, selflessness, empathy, and every other good thing in the world. I was a thirty-eight-year-old reading this, but I felt just as young as the protagonists.

Death?

That was so two weeks ago.

Divorce?

Whatever, easy come, easy go, I’ll just go find my Izzy out there in the world.

I found the comfort and escapism in Star Wars; those characters helped me remain postive.

What I didn’t realize was the grief had been put on hold. It hadn’t gone away, it had only been compartmentalized. My grief was hiding like Sheev Palpatine hiding in the Unknown Regions, hoarding life-Force, festering and growing more terrible with time. The galaxy thought it was moving on, but it was only delaying the inevitable.

I found so many distractions: a new place to live that had to be made my own, the promise to do everything that I had pushed aside while working on my dysfunctional marriage. I also spoke with my grandmother on the phone often, telling myself that if she was doing okay then I was doing okay and there was no reason to feel sad about my grandfather.

I didn’t grieve what happened, neither my grandfather nor my marriage. After all, we never saw much of Leia mourning the loss of her family and planet until later comics and novels; the sequel trilogy doubled down on ignoring the grief, moving on, fly to the next adventure.

I remember the moment this emotional house of cards came crashing down, but I’m less certain about when it started to teeter. I’d been crying a lot; that should have been a sign –I’ve never been much of a crier. Now I teared up all the time, usually while reading or watching Star Wars, but I was also triggered by monetized YouTube commercials.

Summer turned to fall, the walls of my new home closed in and my emotional state became quite erratic.

I found hopeful romanticism with so many wonderful people in the Reylo Twitter community, poring over Reylo Twitter threads, re-watched The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, discovered some wonderful metas, and voraciously consumed podcasts that celebrated feminine gaze storytelling in both Star Wars and other fiction.

I made Reylo videos late at night, pasting moments from the first two films of the sequel trilogy with romantic, melancholic songs playing over them.

I got choked-up watching fans scream and clap at the second trailer for The Rise of Skywalker because it seemed to suggest we’d be getting the through-line of enemies-to-lovers so many predicted in metas. I cheered by myself when the final trailer dropped, hearing Rey proclaim no one knew her and Kylo Ren’s calmly answer, “But I do.” 

At the same time, my tears of sentimental hopefulness mutated to deep sadness. Out of the blue, a childhood memory of my grandfather would take over. A happy memory from my failed marriage would come back into the forefront. I started drinking after years of abstaining from alcohol, forgetting the reason I’d quit was that I struggled with my emotions and all alcohol did was drag my sense of well-being across the ground.

I let Portland’s rain set in and embraced the wild ride while suppressing the sadness so determined to come out in me. My emotions leaked to Twitter. There were some of those tweets, a memorialized collection of the emotional rollercoaster I was on.

December rolled in, and TROS spoilers were gushing onto the world wide web… so I went dark on social media. I asked colleagues and friends to keep me out of any spoiler related chats. I didn’t want to know anything other than the trailers I’d seen. I even stopped watching television spots. I focused on rewatching all the films, a few The Clone Wars episodes, and The Mandalorian.

On opening night, I excitedly pulled up to the theater a few minutes early. Thank goodness for reserved seats, the theater was packed. Waiting for the film to start, I powered up my phone and cruised to the browser version of Twitter to read some political news. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten I was logged in and a pictures of a mutual popped-up in my feed. In the picture they smoked a cigarette, looking very somber. Cursing myself, I closed the browser and disregarded the post, telling myself I had no idea the context and shouldn’t judge someone’s expression like that.

Then I saw The Rise of Skywalker.

I left the theater at one-thirty in the morning, drove to a convenience store, bought a six-pack of beer, and went home in silence, turning on my Switch to play old Nintendo games. I drank the six-pack, got very drunk, and avoided thinking about Star Wars and the emotional crash ahead.

The next morning, I woke up with a terrible hangover and a notification on my phone. The 9 AM showing of TROS that I’d purchased tickets for months ago would be starting in an hour.

The second I walked out of The Last Jedi I wanted to go right back in. With my excitement leading up to The Rise of Skywalker, I’d planned ahead. Instead of popping an Advil and rolling back into bed, I quickly got myself together and headed back to the theater, determined to look again.

I was hungover the second time I saw The Rise of Skywalker.

The myth felt dead to me. Ben Solo had a more tormented life than I’ll ever know, but I related to the sadness and isolation he felt, and a big part of me needed to see him come back from that. Instead, TROS killed that hope. 

I felt I no longer had Star Wars

After a couple months of some pretty bleak nights spent on my couch, streaming bootlegged copies of TROS, looking for some kind of answer, the flood of grief broke through. I felt the absence of my grandfather. I felt the failure of my marriage. Everything inside of me felt hollow and I just started to shake. 

Many were mourning that movie at the same time as they were dealing with collective disillusionment in the actual world. I did nothing to help myself or be there for others. Instead, I kept drinking and tweeting my anger. I lashed out at people.

This couldn’t last, so I unplugged from Twitter and tried to focus on my own writing. One of the most positive things that so many say in the Reylo community was they’d write their own stories and make their own myth.

Marie-Claire Gould put together a Discord community to give people a safe space to air their grievances with the conclusion of the saga. I focused on those two things, trying to tune out the noise.

When I came back, the community still felt grief but there was a focus. We all mourned Ben Solo but honored his story and the love he found with Rey. We would find the bliss that had been stolen from them.

People talked about what they loved about the character. Artwork sprang up every day. Cosplayers, writers, artists, and fans from around the world celebrated what could’ve been and remembered the good moments.

Slowly, I started to come out of my grief. Seeing fellow Reylos mourn and grieve Ben Solo in such constructive and creative ways made me take a look at the way I dealt with my grief. My grandfather taught me kindness, service, and loyalty. There were plenty of good memories from my past marriage to be grateful for and I’m very proud to say my ex-wife and I were able to remain friends. I don’t know at what point I went through the steps or if I was even aware at the time. All I know is where those months of learning to honor the good left behind by what’s lost.

Have I made peace with The Rise of Skywalker?

Not by a long shot. That film broke my heart, but what I have learned is not to let the anger control my life or detract from other stories I enjoy. I imagine I’ll be mourning the possibilities for a very long time, but I can write my own stories.  It’s going to take a lot for me to get back to where I was with Star Wars before December but I hope to find it again. 

Thankfully, I was able to get through a bit of the fog before COVID-19 set in, the world shut down and a third loss came to compound the pain.

In June, one of my best childhood friends passed away very unexpectedly. He left behind a wife and daughter. A few weeks later, our friend group drove to northern Washington to visit them. We watched the sunset on the beach, exchanging stories.

Our friend would walk into a room and just light it up. He saw the best in people and always brought out the best. When the night fell, his wife and daughter gave us sky lanterns. We wrote him messages, remembering him in paper, and then we lit the candles and watched the lanterns rise, crying and smiling, grieving my friend’s loss and celebrating his life.

Grief will find us again in life and in stories. We must remember there are more days to live and more stories to tell. Ben Solo and what should have been are now planted in the heads of so many gifted artists and writers that the creations we will be seeing during the next few years and beyond will be off the charts. 

Knowing my grandfather, having been someone’s husband, and calling someone a best friend makes me stronger, even if the immense pain at their loss felt like a weakness. I miss them and thank them every day.

Those who leave give us their hope and it’s up to us to pay it forward. Their memory gives us hope. One day we will be able to traverse the mourning and the grief, embracing the path forward with the strength they gave us.  

No one is ever really gone.

Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson lives in Portland, Oregon. When he's not writing or reading he's probably running in the woods somewhere. Save Ben Solo.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for sharing your journey of grief and Star Wars. While I can’t link Star Wars to any personal points of grief in my life, Star Wars and the hope it inspires have been important to me since childhood, and I’ve really felt that sense of loss since TROS. Thankfully I discovered fanfic (of the Reylo variety), which has given me that hope and inspiration particularly in this time of Covid. I really appreciate your honesty in sharing this story.

    • I’m so sorry I’m late in responding to this. Thank you so much for reading and I’m glad you are finding solace in the great fics out there. It’s very kind of you to take the time to comment and very much appreciated.

  2. I experienced a combination of seasonal depression and imposter syndrome, second guessing the last two years of my college career, during fall 2019 that came crashing down after TROS was not the escape from reality i had hoped it would be. I luckily have found hope through the Reylo community and other sources of fandom to calm the storm TROS left me in. Thank you for telling your story.

    • Hey John. I’m sorry to hear that. Sounds like we had a very similar period, pre and post TROS. The community really gave (and continues to give) me so much hope. Hope things have gotten better for you and wishing you the best.

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