What Remains of Edith Finch, even six years on from its original release, is still a powerful exploration of grief, and how we use storytelling to process loss.
Note: the following contains spoilers throughout.
Revisiting What Remains of Edith Finch, first released in 2017, I’m relieved to find myself still haunted, still trying to explain to myself what actually killed Molly and Barbara, or what took Milton. Their deaths – as cats and sharks, by extreme fans or portals into paintings – can’t be literal, right? It can – and perhaps that’s what Giant Sparrow intended, though to be honest, the fantastical stories are much less interesting to me than trying to interpret the fantastical into something more grounded and real.
I say stories, because that’s what Edith Finch is really about: the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell about family trauma and grief to comfort ourselves. Revisiting this story, that is what struck me the most about each death. Every character is killed by something they want or love, and in trying to achieve this thing, they die. Is that the Finch family curse? Or is it just evidence of story-weaving, of the way the living try to create some glimmer of comfort in death – remembering loved ones by what they loved?
The stories in Edith Finch aren’t all told by a single storyteller. Some are told by Sam, trying to remember his brother and then infant son for their strength and delight in the everyday. Some are told by Edith’s mother Dawn, who expresses guilt for not noticing her brother’s absence at her father’s wedding, and whose horror can only be imagined through the other side of a camera lens as she watches her father die.
Edie, the grandmother, tells stories tend toward the fantastical, re-envisioning her husband dying by a dragon, or her youngest son becoming a mole man. Molly (besides Walter) is the only one to tell her own death story, reinventing herself as a cat, owl, shark then kraken as her hunger grows. Is that hunger literal, implicit of parental neglect? Or does it imply something greater, a sense of a child who never quite feels at home in her own skin, and hungers for something larger?
YouTube’s Game Theory gives a sinister hypothesis to what’s truly happening to the Finch family: that Edie Finch is killing everyone off. While the argument is interesting, I don’t see it as a compelling interpretation of the game, let alone a fair one. Edie’s memorials may tend toward the obsessive, and her stories are at times bizarre, but it’s clear that her desire is to remember, and by remembering, keeping the dead with her always.
Her implied suicide and refusal to leave the house at the end of the story stands as the strongest evidence of this. Her father’s books about ‘The Great Beyond’ speak to a family mindset that sees the dead not as gone but as united in something larger than themselves. Our protagonist Edith’s desire to return home, to document her stories and share them with her son also speak to this lineage of storytellers, of memorialising family history and keeping the dead close.
Stories not only keep the dead close, but they also provide a strange comfort to the one telling the story. Sam tells his divorced wife that Gregory’s death is not her fault, even though it seems pretty evident that it was. By envisioning Molly as a cat and Calvin as wanting to fly, the narratives can disregard implications of neglect: of Molly’s refusal to be fed, or the precarious swing set built over a dangerous cliff (could the cast on Calvin’s leg also hint to his risk-taking and the need for his parents to keep a closer eye on him?).
It’s hard to believe Walter’s train is literal, considering the tracks we later see are in significant disrepair hardly ten years later—but perhaps re-inventing him dying so quickly by something he loves provides comfort to those who knew him. Perhaps imagining Barbara consumed by her monster-fans is easier to swallow than the possible reality that her boyfriend killed her. Perhaps it’s nicer to think Milton escaped into a painting than to think about the reality of him still being missing, the reality of not knowing whether he’s alive or dead, happy or horrified. By making the stories magical, each teller can alleviate their own guilt, and can focus on what they loved about the lost one instead of their suffering.
We can’t know any answers of what truly happened to any of these characters, because of the wonderful ambiguity in their stories. And though part of me wants to know what truly happened, it doesn’t matter, because the stories aren’t about their literal deaths. What we can extract from each story is a heart-truth about the dead. Barbara wanted to be remembered. Calvin wanted to fly. Sam wanted to survive. Walter wanted to escape the “monster” (The family curse? The family trauma?). Gus wanted to rebel. Edie wanted to remember.
Every family has stories of grief and tragedy like the Finch’s, but unlike Edie, most of us erase and avoid these stories, deeming them too painful or difficult. Edie’s house is filled with books because she’s a storyteller who thrives on remembering, and as the matriarch of the family, she instilled a love of imagination and storytelling in the generations to follow.
What Remains of Edith Finch reminds me of why I’m a writer, and why I believe stories matter. In storytelling, we decide what matters. We decide to remember—like Edie or Edith—or to try to forget, like Dawn. Through stories, we can explore and learn something new about those we know.
We can invent and create possibilities. We can grieve and find comfort and, even when it feels impossible, a way to move forward.
Meg Eden Kuyatt is the author of the 2021 Towson Prize for Literature winning poetry collection “Drowning in the Floating World” (Press 53, 2020) and children’s novels, most recently “Good Different,” a JLG Gold Standard selection (Scholastic, 2023). She writes about games for Game Crate. Find her online at megedenbooks.com.