Game of Thrones and Me: How a Show About Dragons and Death Helped Me Deal With Grief and Find a New Life

HBO

When some future maester writes about Game of Thrones I won’t even be a footnote in its history. And I shouldn’t be. I was one of the many thousands of people who wrote about the show, but it would have been just as successful without me. But it will be impossible to ever talk about my life without mentioning the role Game of Thrones played in it, in ways I never could have imagined. It didn’t just give me a career, it helped me realize it was possible to move on with my own life after death.

Game of Thrones premiered on April 17, 2011, but I had no idea it even existed, probably because I had plenty going on that spring. The Bruins, the first love of my life, were on their way to winning the Stanley Cup, something I had always dreamed of. It was one of the most purely joyous experiences of my life, and the highlight of what had been a great year, the first time in my 20s I was feeling optimistic about my future.

And then on the night of December 19, 2011, my sister and I took our baby sister Kayla to the emergency room. She had a terrible medical condition, so this wasn’t unusual. We weren’t even that worried, since we had just been there a few weeks earlier under much scarier circumstances. I was hoping to be home in time to get enough sleep before work.

Kayla never came home.

I can remember so many specific details about that night — the faces, the sights and sounds of the room, where I was standing — even when I don’t want to. I can’t always control when I flashback to that waiting room, hearing the nurse say Kayla has stopped breathing and we “have to go right now.” Sometimes without warning I am back in that overly bright room watching the doctors calmly working to bring her back, each taking turns trying to get her heart restarted.

They never do, and in the early morning hours of December 20 I said goodbye to my sister. It was the day before her 23rd birthday. The person I was stayed behind in that hospital room with her.

It still doesn’t feel real, even though I can still feel all of it.

What I don’t remember is much of my life for the next couple of years. I hardly know what I did or what happened, except there were lots of car rides to nowhere that took detours to cry in a parking lot. I eventually went back to work as a teacher, but that’s all less than a blur. I don’t recall many dinners or nights out for drinks either. For the most part I stayed in with my girlfriend (now wife) Courtney or I stayed home alone. I wasn’t broken. I was shattered.

But in the middle of all that darkness I do remember when my best friend Mike asked if I had ever watched Game of Thrones on HBO, about a week before season two premiered. I hadn’t even heard of it, and when he described the premise it didn’t sound like it would be my type of show. I hadn’t even bothered to finish The Lord of the Rings. He promised it wasn’t that type of fantasy show and said I should just watch the first episode.

HBO

When Jaime pushed Bran out of the window I immediately called Courtney and said, “You need to watch this so we can watch the rest of the season together.” She said she would that night. The next day I watched five more episodes without her. I felt badly, honestly, but I couldn’t stop. I don’t think she really cared either. This was the first time since my sister passed away I was excited about anything.

Then a few days later I saw Ned Stark die. I never saw it coming.

I still remember the feeling that overcame me when I watched it happen. It wasn’t disbelief or shock. How could any death ever surprise me again? Instead I felt understood. Life is unfair, and good people die even when they shouldn’t, so why wouldn’t that happen on a TV show too? Game of Thrones had swords and White Walkers, but it also felt honest and real in a way my life no longer did. Ned Stark is still my favorite character, but his death made me love the show.

Courtney and I caught up (together) before season two’s second episode, and we watched it live the night it first aired on HBO. Since then I have never missed an episode. If there has been a new Game of Thrones I have been in front of a TV somewhere, usually with her or Mike, watching it as it debuted.

The season two finale also marked the start of an important event in the new life I was struggling to deal with. That morning Mike and I decided we’d invite our friends over to watch the episode at his place, and we’d create some Westeros-inspired drinks for them. Without meaning too we got a little drunk taste testing everything, which was not ideal for someone who barely had the emotional strength to get out of bed most days. I can still see Mike walking into the kitchen and finding me crying over the sink, quietly backing away so I wouldn’t feel the need to apologize.

We still went through with the party, and I was genuinely thrilled about it. Then only two people showed up. Court was one of them. (She made headless Ned Stark cake pops.) But the season finale parties have become huge events since that first small gathering. They moved to our place, and we make way too many ridiculous themed foods and drinks. One friend told me it’s her favorite day of the year, but it’s something much more important for me. I stopped celebrating regular holidays after Kayla died, but that’s what these viewing parties have become for me, a day every year where I celebrate something I love with the people I love.

Game of Thrones didn’t fix my life, and it didn’t take away my pain, but it did help me realize I could still enjoy things in life. The show gave me hope I could get better.

And then it gave me a career.

I left teaching because it was the right thing for me, but it’s hard to switch jobs let alone professions any time, and it’s nearly impossible when you’re drowning in grief. For far too long I lived off my meager savings, promising myself I’d try harder to find work next week. Or next month. Or maybe I’d get lucky and be hit by a truck and it wouldn’t matter.

HBO

Finally a friend told me Nerdist was looking for writers, so I reached out hoping I could finally make some money writing like I wanted too. One of my two writing samples was about Kit Harington.

My first post went up on August 6, 2015, and I hoped I’d be able to do a few every week. I’ve written more than 4,000 Nerdist posts and over a million words since then, more of them on Game of Thrones than anything else. And bny a lot. That includes my series History of Thrones. They’re my favorite pieces I have ever written, and not just because they have been hugely successful. The more I got into George R.R. Martin’s world of ice and fire the more I loved it. I’m a completist who loves history and lore. It was like this entire franchise was made for me to obsess over, and that’s exactly what I do. But that only happened because Mike convinced me to read the books.

After thinking the novels would make me like the show less, I devoured them between seasons three and four. That’s when History of Thrones was truly born, as I explored the impossibly deep backstory I hadn’t really known was there. As I started writing about the the Horn of Joramun and Blackfyre rebellions Mike was my secret editor. My actual editors never knew this, but before I’d submit each piece I’d have Mike look them over to see if I forget some important fact or got a name wrong. He was the perfect complement for what I wanted to do. While I can tell you about an event and why it’s important, Mike’s mind let him memorize every house sigil and the names of which families were sworn to others. I could tell you everything that led Ned Stark to the Tower of Joy. Mike could tell you everyone who was there.

It’s impossible to explain how many hours the two of us spent talking about the show, the books, and all of the accompanying theories, almost without fail seven days a week. Scientists have cured diseases in less time. Both personally and professionally Game of Thrones became an integral part of a world without my sister. It was a world I was either going to learn to live in or not, and I don’t know if I ever would have without the Seven Kingdoms.

And then Mike passed away unexpectedly. And he died at a wedding, because the universe has a dark sense of humor.

Three days earlier I helped him write his best man speech for our friend. I was in the wedding too, and for a few days the world was truly good, as we shared old stories and drinks about our group of friends who’d been together since high school. The wedding itself was one of the best nights of my life, like some greater power was giving us aperfect goodbye we didn’t know we were saying to each other. As Ileft Mike’s hotel room that night I gave him a hug and told him I loved him. The next morning I went to wake him up, but he was already gone.

It all seems so impossible it might as well have happened in Westeros.

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His eulogy is the best thing I’ve ever written and probably ever will, and I ended it with a second, shorter eulogy. Mike always said he wished he could actually join the Night’s Watch, so I gave him a farewell befitting a Brother in Black, the kind a Lord Commander would. I’m sure wherever he was he smiled when I ended by saying, “And now his watch is ended.”

A couple months later Game of Thrones returned for season seven. I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t want to watch it without Mike. Not being able to talk with him about everything was so unfair. But I had a job that I loved to do and I needed to do it, and so I did it. And unlike that lost year teaching I remember all of it.

The night Gilly discovered Rhaegar had legally married Lyanna, making Jon was the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, I cried like a baby. This was a possibility Mike and I had talked about roughly a million times. There was a reason the flowers I sent to his wake also included the Stark sigil and a single blue rose. When my editor asked me right after the episode to write a post explaining what it all meant, I did it with tears running down my face. I think it came out pretty damn well, though I don’t know how. I think Mike would have liked it.

We didn’t hold a normal season finale party that year. I couldn’t imagine celebrating Game of Thrones without my friend, but I also knew our other friends were hurting and I didn’t want to be selfish. So without the fanfare and themed dishes we still had everyone over to watch it. It was subdued and different, but we still did a wildfire shot, one of the original drinks Mike and I had invented for the season two finale all those years earlier, and we toasted to our friend. “What is dead may never die.” He always loved the Iron Islands more than everyone else.

And now the show is coming to an end for good. I didn’t want it to ever come back. I hoped HBO would just keep pushing off the final season forever. That way I wouldn’t have to face Mike not being here to breakdown the finale with me. But I know he would have hated these last two seasons, and that bothers me too for reasons they go well beyond writing about it for work, so now I think I am ready to say goodbye to the show too.

At least I will get to say goodbye knowing this is truly the end.

HBO

We’re going to do it with one final viewing party just like we used to, with themed foods and beverages and lots of toasts to Mike. He would have wanted us to. Then I’m going to watch the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final, because just like in 2011 they made it. Life does have a sense of humor. I’ll be thinking of my friend and my sister during both, just like I do every day, only this time the tears will come with a smile.

I know I’ll never be a part of Game of Thrones story, but it doesn’t matter. I’m just grateful for what it meant for my own, for how a show about dragons and ice demons helped bring me back from the brink.

“Valar morghulis.” I already knew that before I watched the show, but it helped me learned I could say, “Not today.”

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