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Smart Pop Classics: Unmasking Grief

In the Smart Pop Classics series, we share greatest hits from our throwback essay collections. In “Unmasking Grief” from The Psychology of Zelda, authors Larisa A. Garski, F. Cary Shepard, and Emory S. Daniel apply the five stages of grief model to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, resulting in a transformative understanding of the beloved game. 

Whenever there is a meeting, a parting is sure to follow.”
—Happy Mask Salesman (Majora’s Mask, 2000)

Loss is a part of life, and for every loss, we grieve. Our losses in life can be both grand and small, as are the resulting experiences of grief. We may grieve the departure of friends when we move away to a new school. We may suffer the loss of a family member to death and find ourselves adrift in grief so powerful it threatens to sweep us away. We may even grieve over younger versions of ourselves, lost to the twin forces of time and growth. We grieve over celebrities and even fictional characters. Regardless of the source, grief is an experience we all share.

Not even heroes are exempt from the grief of loss, as the Legend of Zelda’s Link well knows. In his time as the hero of Hyrule he has lost time, memories, family, and homes. Arguably his greatest loss occurs at the end of Ocarina of Time (1998), when his best and faithful fairy friend, Navi, departs for lands unknown. In the sequel to Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask (2000), Link is forced to face both Navi’s loss and the grief it brings. Unlike previous iterations of the Zelda video game franchise, the primary purpose of Link’s journey in Majora’s Mask is his confrontation with loss and death.

Our modern conception of loss, and the process by which we transcend it, is explained by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her model of the five stages of grief. First introduced in 1969 as an effort to articulate what many experience when confronted with death, the Kübler-Ross model describes the five core emotional components of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—and the asynchronous pattern in which they occur. Although unsuccessfully challenged at times by other scholars, the Kübler-Ross model remains the best-known, if oft misunderstood, and most influential model of grief.

No video game captures Kübler-Ross’s five-stage journey through grief better than Majora’s Mask. During his journey in the land of Termina, a grieving Link encounters five main regions—Clock Town, Southern Swamp, Snowhead Mountain, Great Bay, and Ikana Valley—each symbolically representing one of the five stages of the Kübler-Ross model. In order to solve both side and main quests, Link must use multiple masks, or personas, along the way, each of which, in turn, allows him to progress and process not just his own personal loss, but the losses of other residents in each region.

The game’s antagonist, too, reflects this theme of grief through Kübler-Ross’s model. Throughout his time in Termina, the enigmatic Skull Kid plagues Link. Although normally playfully mischievous, in this game Skull Kid has been transformed by the literal mask of Majora, for which the game is named. Once the tool of an ancient tribe, Majora’s mask is now the living embodiment of grief gone wild. A Kübler-Ross cycle without purpose, the mask heightens and amplifies whatever stage the bereaved person experiences while wearing it. Skull Kid, who grieves the loss of his giants in Majora’s Mask, is the perfect conduit for the destructive aspects of grief.

Majora’s Mask takes Link and players on a series of elliptical quests, in a stark contrast to the gallant adventures of Ocarina. This play pattern highlights the key to understanding Kübler-Ross’s five-stage model: its asynchronous feature. Much like Link’s journey through Termina, the five stages of grief are nonlinear. While some individuals do grieve in a linear fashion, moving from denial through anger, bargaining, depression, and finally resting in acceptance, this is not the only manner in which to progress through the stages. Kübler-Ross observed that most individuals cycle through the phases in a variety of different orders, sometimes experiencing multiple stages simultaneously. It is both expected and normal for grieving individuals to cycle through the stages multiple times, as well, each time moving closer toward healing.

Grief is a journey, but it is not a swashbuckling adventure. The journey Link takes through grief and death in Majora’s Mask is complicated. While some vloggers, forum respondents, and theorists attempt to match the timeline presented by Kübler-Ross to Link’s in Majora’s Mask, it is important to recognize that, in the reality, and according to Kübler-Ross’s own model, these stages are fluid and constantly changing. Majora’s Mask is itself an intricate puzzle-box of the Kübler-Ross model, bringing both the player and Link ever closer to the transcendent growth that can follow grief.

Lost in the Woods: Link Grieves for Navi

In the land of Hyrule, there echoes a legend . . . [of a] boy who after battling evil and saving Hyrule, crept away from the land that made him legend.”
Majora’s Mask

When players first encounter Link in Majora’s Mask, he is crestfallen, slowly riding his horse through hazy terrain. The scene alludes to the depression stage of the Kübler-Ross model, which Elisabeth Kübler-Ross describes as the point when an individual has “withdraw[n] from life, [and is] left in a fog of intense sadness, wondering, perhaps, if there is any point in going on alone.” One of the oft misunderstood elements of the grief model is that, much like Link’s journey through Termina itself, the five stages of grief are nonlinear. It is both expected and normal for grieving individuals to cycle through the stages multiple times, each time in a different order and with every recurrence of the stages moving closer toward healing.

Link is searching for his lost friend, Navi the fairy, his traveling companion from the previous game, Ocarina of Time. In Ocarina of Time, Link is depicted as an orphan living amongst the Kokiri folk. As is customary, each Kokiri child has a fairy companion, with the exception of Link. The absence of a fairy separates him from his peers and increases his isolation. When Link is finally united with Navi, he finds his destiny, belonging, and friendship. Despite the fact that gamers often find Navi to be the most irritating of Zelda’s companion iterations, the narrative of the game depicts her as essential. When she leaves Link at the end of Ocarina of Time, players are meant to understand this as a devastating loss (it is left up to player interpretation whether she abandons him by choice, necessity, death, or some combination of the three). It is therefore a grief-stricken Link that we encounter in the opening moments of Majora’s Mask, depressed but still in denial: He refuses to believe that Navi is truly gone. He sets out on a quest to find her, only to be waylaid by the Skull Kid, a mysterious but relatively harmless figure from Ocarina of Time, but rendered chillingly malevolent in Majora’s Mask.

Skull Kid is just the first of many characters, settings, and motifs in Majora’s Mask to appear to Link and players with a sheen of unreality. Termina is Hyrule transposed, peopled by characters who are just different enough from their Hyrule counterparts to create an unsettling experience for both Link and players. This is symbolic of Link’s journey through the denial stage of grief: denial changes one’s perspective; it limits one’s ability to see the world as it is. Instead, the bereaved view their surroundings as symbolically—or in Link’s case, literally—slanted or slightly askew because acceptance of the loss has not yet occurred. The world still exists, but to the bereaved, it appears not quite right. Through these shades of denial, Link and players are trapped by the Skull Kid, make an uneasy deal with the Happy Mask Salesman, and travel to Clock Town, the first playable region in Termina.

Clocktown: Denial

You cowards! Do you actually believe the moon will fall? The confused townsfolk simply caused a panic by believing this ridiculous, groundless theory.”

Link arrives in Clock Town, the main hub of Termina, trapped in Deku Scrub form after losing a duel with Skull Kid, to find a fearsome moon hanging overhead, leering down at the townsfolk as they attempt “business as usual” and try to ignore the threat posed by the ominous moon. In other words, Clock Town is caught up in the first of five stages of grief: denial. This denial manifests as the town isolates itself from the rest of Termina by putting itself on lockdown to prepare for the Festival of the Moon, mirroring the model’s description of an individual’s utter disbelief at a terminal diagnosis or death of a loved one. Unwilling to accept the loss, the bereaved cannot “wake up” from the news of the tragedy that has occurred. The more time Link spends exploring Clock Town, the more he discovers the power that delusional denial has on its residents and on himself.

In Clock Town’s mayoral office, players witness a scene that exemplifies this notion of denial. Mutoh and his carpenters talk with the mayor, Dotour, and insist that the upcoming Carnival of Time continue as planned, completely ignoring the rather obvious looming threat of a rapidly descending moon. However, there are those in Clock Town who are beginning to “wake up” and struggle with the moon’s—and the town’s—impending doom. One of the guardsmen Link encounters expresses such an awareness, but returns to denial because he is “stuck guarding this gate.” The guard’s actions are in line with Kübler-Ross’s model, which explains that denial is usually “temporary and will soon be replaced by partial acceptance.” Even those who do not reside in Clock Town seem to struggle most with denial when visiting this region. Link himself denies the loss of Navi in the opening scenes of the game, refusing to believe that she is gone, pursuing her relentlessly. We also see Link experience denial upon his arrival in Clock Town, where he struggles to reconcile himself to his changed state as a Deku sprout.

The most extreme case of denial in Clock Town is the Astronomer’s dancing Scarecrow whose song and dance speeds up time, bringing all of Termina closer to destruction. Unlike the guardsman or even the mayor, the Scarecrow is fully committed to his destructive and oblivious behavior and thus completely stuck in the denial phase of the Kübler-Ross model. When the bereaved remain too long in any one stage, their cyclical progress is halted. The time they spend stuck is wasted. The Scarecrow serves as a cautionary metaphor to the bereaved Link: keep moving or you might become stuck.

Masks of Denial

The masks Link collects and then wears to transform into different characters—literally embodying their powers, characteristics, and traits—are an integral part of Majora’s Mask. The act of using different masks to move through Termina echoes the way the bereaved use the different emotional stages of the Kübler-Ross model to move through their grief. Just like the grievers described in the five stages of grief model, Link switches masks constantly throughout the game, each one bringing him closer to a confrontation with the ominously descending moon and his own grief over losing Navi.

The Deku mask is the very first mask that Link encounters and it colors his early interactions in the game. It is worth noting that this is not a mask that Link seeks out, nor is this a mask that he initially requires to accomplish a goal. The Deku mask is inflicted upon Link, and with it comes an unfamiliar experience of the world around him. Quite suddenly, Link finds himself unable to relate to the challenges of Termina in the way he might have in Hyrule. Naturally, in response to this shock, Link works to remove the mask as quickly as possible. While Link remains ever the silent protagonist, it takes no great leap to surmise his shock and horror at his predicament. With the Deku mask on, Link is unable to see the full journey he is about to undertake and simply wants to end this nightmare.

Kübler-Ross, particularly in her later work, illustrates denial much the same way. For those who have experienced a loss, denial is often more symbolic and less a literal denial that a loss has occurred. Denial may manifest as moments in which the bereaved simply wishes to believe that everything has been a “bad dream” and that they can wake up to find all as it once was. Kübler-Ross reminds us that denial can serve a protective purpose, helping the bereaved move forward by limiting their ability to see the full extent of their loss, but cautions that staying put does only harm in the long run. At the outset of his time in Termina, Link does not comprehend all the tasks he has before him nor does he understand the grave threat of the falling moon. Link’s denial, in the form of the Deku mask, keeps him moving forward until he can fully cope with the tasks ahead.

Whereas the Deku mask symbolizes denial’s shadow side, another mask, Kamaro’s mask, exemplifies the positive aspects of this stage. As Kübler-Ross notes: “There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle.” Once a beloved dancer, Kamaro’s spirit haunts Termina. Unable to face the shock of his own death, he appears in ghostly form whenever he hears music. In one of many side quests, Link can encounter this ghost in the Northern quarter of Termina Field and, by playing the song of healing, trap the spirit in a mask. Later, Link can wear this mask—effectively becoming Kamaro—and teach his final dance to the Rosa Sisters, dancers in search of the perfect carnival dance. Kamaro’s insistent denial of his own death ultimately allows his final dance to survive him, suggesting denial is nuanced, and that understanding those nuances is an important part of moving through the stage of denial and continuing along the process of grief.

Deku Palace: Anger

The monkey shall suffer and suffer ’til he can suffer no more! You shall know the wrath of a king whose darling princess was taken away from him!!! Suffer! I shall prolong his suffering! Foolish monkey!”
—Deku King

The epicenter of loss in Majora’s Mask resides in the Southern Swamp, home of the Dekus. Consumed with grief over the loss of his daughter the princess, the Deku King turns to anger as a means of coping with his loss. As Kübler-Ross explains, “Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss.” Awash in grief and unable to cope with the enormity of his daughter’s disappearance or the poisoned swamp in which he lives, the great Deku King uses anger to pull himself from despair and lash out at a smaller, more manageable problem: his daughter’s faithful friend, the monkey.

However, as Kübler-Ross’s model warns, though anger may provide a temporary sense of security, it can just as easily become a trap, isolating the bereaved from the friends and family who could help them transition to the next phase of the model and thus move toward healing. The Deku King’s response to the loss of his daughter and the now poisoned swamp surrounding his kingdom exemplifies both the risks and benefits of anger within the context of the Kübler-Ross model. While anger helps the king to cope with his loss, it isolates a clear friend of his daughter—a friend who could actually remedy the situation by providing valuable information about her whereabouts if he were set free: “They keep saying that I kidnapped her. No matter how many times they say it, it’s not going to bring the princess back! If they’re not careful, the princess will fall victim to a monster.”

Of course, the heart of the problem resides with Skull Kid and Majora’s mask. Overtaken by rage, Skull Kid is the one responsible for poisoning the waters of the Dekus’ Southern Swamp, setting in motion both the entrapment of the giant god Odolwa inside a cursed mask and the princess’s capture. Link, the unrecognized hero, eventually resolves the conflict, freeing the monkey and rescuing the princess from Woodfall Temple. The gameplay is eerily reminiscent of the quests set for Link in Ocarina of Time, when he was charged with the heroic journey of rescuing Zelda from the monster, Ganon.

Though Link is ultimately successful in saving the Southern Swamp, in order to continue in the game both Link and the player must restart the three-day countdown clock, meaning that everything Link has accomplished is undone. While Link has already experienced this loss of accomplishment once before, in Clock Town, this is the first time that Link faces the consequences of turning back time: the temple he completed, the people he helped, and the side quests he solved are all undone when he turns back time. These losses give rise to anger and frustration for Link and players. Much like the anger one feels at the death of a loved one, Link’s anger, while understandable, will not solve the main issue at hand: he is no longer the Hero of Time that he was in Hyrule. Moreover, considering that events reset every time he plays the “Song of Time,” it might be particularly devastating to Link that he cannot restore lasting healing to Termina as he was able to do in Hyrule. In Majora’s Mask, Link not only struggles with the loss of Navi, but he must also struggle with the loss of his identity as the Hero of Hyrule, capable of resolving all side quests while still moving toward the ultimate goal: saving the world from death.

Masks of Anger

Kübler-Ross describes the anger phase as a reaction to the unfairness of loss, explaining that it is common for patients and family members in their grief to blame doctors, nurses, and even bystanders. Her model articulates these reactions as the bereaved’s attempt to regain control over the loss or death, events that are by definition uncontrollable. The anger-fueled search for someone or something to blame protects the bereaved from the emotional enormity of their loss while pushing them out of the entropy of denial and into a more purposeful, action-oriented state of mind.

Though anger is often directed outward as illustrated above, clinicians don’t always view it as a wholly destructive or negative force. Anger may not be rational or valid—one may be angry with oneself, loved ones, or even the individual who was lost—but all of it is natural and signifies an important change in the process of grief. Anger signals that the loss can no longer be denied or ignored and that the process of confronting the loss can begin. Beyond anger as a signal of progress, Kübler Ross also describes anger as being a source of “strength . . . giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss.”

While the Deku mask best exemplifies denial, the mask itself and the gameplay around it also connects with anger, highlighting the ways in which the different phases of Kübler-Ross’s grief model can overlap and interact. During the gameplay following the defeat of the boss in Woodfall Temple, Link encounters the Deku butler who has recently lost his son. Both Link and the player know that Link’s mask exists because a Deku child died, and Link’s interaction with the Deku boy’s father poignantly captures the positive aspect of anger: initially in denial over Link’s resemblance to his son, the Deku Butler harnesses the anger he feels over the loss of his son and uses its energy to help Link. His actions lead him to a place of acceptance signified by his parting words: “Actually, when I see you, I am reminded of my son . . .”

Even though it does not make its debut until the next phase of the game, the Goron mask also embodies this beneficial aspect of the anger stage. This is the mask that Link wears when there is a task that requires more strength and more power, allowing him to leverage his own anger in order to move through it. Just as lividity allows the bereaved to begin to carry the immense weight of loss, Goron Link is able to shoulder a larger load than Link would be able to on his own.

Snowhead Mountain: Bargaining

I beg you! Bring me back to life with your magic!”

Perhaps the best example of the next stage of Kübler-Ross’s model, bargaining, within the narrative of Majora’s Mask, occurs between Darmani, leader of the Goron tribe, and Link. Thanks to Skull Kid, the Goron village has become covered in ice and snow, threatening the lives of all who reside at the base of Snowhead Mountain. Darmani dies in his attempt to save his village and haunts the Snowhead region, waiting for, as he explains, “someone to see me.” Using the spyglass obtained from his own higher power (i.e., the wise owl), Link is able to see Darmani, who begins bargaining with Link as if Link himself were a god. First, Darmani begs Link to heal him. Unfortunately, this is not possible, so he bargains with Link to “heal his sorrows.”

Appealing to a higher power in an attempt to undo one’s loss is a trademark of Kübler-Ross’s bargaining stage of grief. In this scene between Link and Darmani, Link functions as the higher power. With the power of the ocarina and the “Song of Healing,” he is able to ease Darmani’s restless soul and aid his passing. In a bit of irony, Darmani is no longer bargaining for a return to his preloss self, but is instead bargaining for acceptance—the stage of the Kübler-Ross model that leads to final healing. Perhaps this is why his bargain is ultimately successful. As is typical of the bargaining process, Darmani offers Link a treasure in return for his healing aid: the Goron mask. Just like the Deku mask, the Goron mask holds the feelings and final wishes of the once-living person it resembles. Darmani’s gift of the mask is both payment and duty: Link must use it to save the Gorons and release Snowhead from Skull Kid’s evil spell.

Masks of Bargaining

Bargaining, the third stage in the Kübler-Ross model, involves persistent attempts to reason with or bribe a higher power to reverse the loss in exchange for some gift or act of service performed by the griever. Unable to deny the death or sustain the power of rage, the griever may become desperate. Bargaining is an attempt to engage with that desperation and prevent it from overwhelming them.

Bargaining is in some ways an appeal to the earlier stage of denial. While denial is a questioning of reality, bargaining allows for a partial understanding that a loss has taken place. However, if one part of bargaining understands that a loss has occurred, the other part is an unrealistic belief that the loss can somehow be changed, reset, or altered. Nonetheless, bargaining, like the other four stages, provides the griever with a deeper purpose. Kübler-Ross describes bargaining as a “way station” or resting place between the strong emotions of the other stages that “allows us to believe that we can restore order to the chaos.”

To a certain extent, the entire region of Termina, complete with its numerous quests, functions as a way station for Link. Traumatized by the events of Ocarina of Time, abandoned by his friend Navi, Link completes quest after quest in Termina as if it were Hyrule—as if he could, in Kübler-Ross’s words, “restore order to the chaos that has taken over.” However, unlike in Ocarina of Time, Link is not the predestined hero of Majora’s Mask, no matter how well he bargains. And each time the clock resets to complete another quest, the work he and the player completed is lost, underlining the inherent futility of each quest or “bargain.”

While no mask in the game quite fills this function, Link’s ocarina exemplifies bargaining. It is notable that this is a relic from Link’s unmasked self, an item that pulls our hero back toward his preloss identity. Link uses his ocarina to punctuate the various tasks he undertakes in Termina. As a player moves from one challenge to the next, the ocarina can be used to buy more time or to revert to a place where the challenge is not so tough. It is in many ways fitting that the ocarina can always deposit Link back in Clock Town where an undercurrent of denial runs so strongly. Yet Link is unable to fully participate in that denial, knowing as he does of the challenges both behind and before him. The very act of time travel enabled by the ocarina precludes him from fully succumbing to the ignorance of denial. Using the ocarina, Link both progresses and regresses through the stages multiple times and in a variety of orders, showing that one may relapse into a previous stage of grief in order to progress further through it.

Great Bay: Depression

Have you been to see Lulu out in back by the ocean? Ever since the pirates stole her eggs, she’s just been standing out there gazing at the sea and sighing . . .”

Depression is the penultimate stage of the Kübler-Ross model and it is where the bereaved let go of all other distractions and coping mechanisms to face the enormity of their loss. Grievers often use oceanic imagery to describe depression, which speaks to this stage’s ability to engulf, cleanse, heal, and transform. Thus, it is fitting that Link faces depression where the ocean meets Termina: the Great Bay. Link uses the Zora mask he gains from the dying Mikau, lead guitarist of the famous Indigo-Gos, to explore the depths of Termina’s sadness and his own. Lulu, the lead singer of the Indigo-Gos, experiences the loss of her eggs, just as Link suffers from the loss of his friend and partner, Navi. Both Link and Lulu experience isolation of depression as a result of these losses. For Lulu, it separates her from her bandmates. For Link, it isolates him from Zelda, Hyrule, and his Kokiri family.

Though depression is the central stage of Great Bay, Link continues to engage with the other stages throughout the Zora region. Lulu’s depression and ensuing inability to sing provokes an array of emotional responses as her bandmates and fans struggle with their grief at the potential loss of the Indigo-Gos. Fans become depressed because the band is not playing. And Link encounters denial via Mikau’s bandmates and manager, who insist that Mikau will return and that Lulu can become the singer she used to be. This denial belies the central truth of the Kübler-Ross model, in which the purpose of grief is individual growth and change.

Masks of Depression

Depression is often the longest of the five stages of grief, and, depending on the individual, it can manifest in a variety of symptoms. Kübler-Ross observes that some people will be silent in their depression and attempt to hide this state from their loved ones, as players may surmise Link does when they see him bid farewell to Princess Zelda in the Sacred Realm at the end of Ocarina of Time. Others may engage in more overt actions such as crying, isolation, or self-blame. Regardless of how depression manifests in the bereaved, it involves a withdrawal from traditional support systems—such as family and close friends—to face the depression alone. While this self-imposed isolation can feel threatening to support systems, as Kübler-Ross notes, it offers the opportunity “to take real stock of the loss. It makes us rebuild ourselves from the ground up . . . [clearing] the deck for growth.”

In depression, the bereaved must embrace the full extent of their loss. The mitigating factors of anger, bargaining, and denial fall away as they sink into a deeper place of emptiness and sadness. It is while Link is in the process of acquiring the Zora mask that he encounters one of the clearest experiences of loss. Mikau is dying when Link finds him floating in the Great Bay. Only Link bears witness to his death. There is no innuendo here, no spirit of someone who seeks to return to life, only a Zora who dies and whose death grants Link the Zora mask.

The mask and its abilities also act as an allegory of grief-related depression. Zora’s mask allows Link to sink to deeper depths and to fully explore the oceans and waterways of Termina in a way he couldn’t before without being forced to surface again for air; just as an individual in the depression stage has reached a place where they can now sink into their loss in a way they couldn’t before, without coping mechanisms such as anger, denial, and bargaining pushing them away from the depth of their loss. Link’s use of this mask underscores the importance of facing the sadness or depression that comes with grief as a means of exploration, healing, and growth. Similarly, when Link receives the troupe leader’s mask after helping Gorman face his sadness over the loss of his chance to perform with the Indigo-Gos, it results in healing tears and personal growth. Kübler-Ross describes the depression stage as allowing an individual to take full stock of their loss and its impact on their life, enabling them to reach “a deeper place in [their] soul that [they] would not normally explore.”

Ikana Valley: Acceptance

It seems you’ve somehow managed to heal their souls . . .”
—Mystery Man

Acceptance is neither the end nor the beginning. Rather, it is a transformative stage that offers the bereaved the opportunity to grow from their loss and face a new kind of existence without the beloved. Throughout Majora’s Mask, Link struggles to confront the loss of his friend, Navi, and the loss of his childhood in Hyrule. Before Link can accept these losses and face his final battle with Skull Kid inside the moon, he must enter Ikana Valley, home to the restless spirits of the long dead Ikana tribe.

While acceptance occurs all over Termina, particularly in those for whom Link provides direct aid—Darmani, Mikau, Anju, and Kafei—Ikana Valley is the heart of acceptance. In the Ikana Valley, Link must complete twice as many battles as in any other region in order to put the angry Ikana spirits to rest.

Ikana Valley is the only region in the game where Link does not receive a new main quest mask. Instead, he receives a new skill that allows the spirits encased in his previously acquired main quest masks—Deku, Goron, and Zora—to come to life as corporeal beings, which Link can then direct to complete both side and major quests within the valley. Combined with Link’s ability to reverse gravity and literally flip the ground with the sky, using his newfound light arrows, he is able to find the ultimate artifact within the game besides the Fierce Deity Mask—the mirror shield, which symbolizes the importance of reflection. It is through mindful reflection that acceptance begins to take shape. This resonates with the Kübler-Ross model’s conception of the acceptance phase as a process in which we learn “to reorganize roles, reassign them to others or take them on ourselves . . . We start the process of reintegration, trying to put back the pieces that have been ripped away.”

Masks of Acceptance

Acceptance is not a stage so much as it is an experience. Acceptance is a process by which we move forward with an understanding of loss. It is not the end of the journey. In fact, Kübler-Ross argues that it signals the beginning of a new battle to reestablish ourselves in a world without that which we lost. Acceptance can be likened to the Fierce Deity’s mask. This mask is not something that is required for the final showdown with Majora, but it greatly aids Link in his battle—not unlike the role acceptance plays in aiding the mourner in their own “final boss battle.” As the real world begins to creep in once more, the bereaved must again surrender to the existential reality of life. Healing from grief is never guaranteed, nor is the attainment of the Fierce Deity’s mask. If the mourner can accept their loss and begin to build new relationships that expand their sense of self, they may avoid the pitfall of complex bereavement—the point when grief becomes pathological and maladaptive coping strategies emerge. The bereaved heal, creating a new self forged in the complex pain of grief.

Inside the Moon: A New Hero Emerges

Your true face . . . What kind of . . . face is it? I wonder . . . The face under the mask . . . Is that . . . your true face?”
—Child wearing Twinmold’s mask

Link’s journey through acceptance begins in Ikana Valley, but it concludes on the moon, where he integrates his journey through the five stages of grief with the grief he experiences throughout Termina. Link returns to face the Skull Kid as a very different person from when he entered Termina, broken and alone, trapped inside the body of a Deku child. However, Skull Kid is not the enemy he seems; it is Majora’s mask, the ultimate mask of grief, whose power and pain has nearly destroyed Termina. Majora’s mask itself represents the most dangerous aspects of loss and a fate that every mourner hopes to avoid: complex bereavement. This is the point at which the grief journey becomes an endless slog, with the bereaved mired in intensified versions of their grief without end or improvement in functioning.

Before Link can face this disordered grief, he must complete his own individual journey toward acceptance by completing four minitemples, each representing one of the four temples in Termina. At the end of each minitemple, Link encounters a masked child who wears the face of a boss Link defeated earlier in the game. If he gives each child the exact number of requested masks, Link receives a final mask—his own teenage face from Ocarina of Time—that grants him new powers. Having observed the five stages of grief enacted multiple times throughout Termina and reengaging with his own loss, Link faces his personal pain and in the process becomes a more adult version of himself. When he puts on the final mask of the game, the Fierce Deity mask, he transforms into Ocarina of Time’s teenage Link.

Rather than killing Skull Kid, Link is tasked with the far more difficult job of freeing Skull Kid from Majora and putting Majora’s bereaved soul to rest. By this point in his journey, Link has passed through the first four stages of Kübler-Ross’s model—denial, anger, bargaining, and depression—numerous times in an attempt to accept the loss of Navi. Bound up in the loss of Navi is the loss of Link’s childhood, which he sacrificed to become the hero of Hyrule. Yet he is no longer this hero, bound for glory with his fairy friend at his side. Having both won and lost, Link enters the Moon and faces the sentient Majora as a new hero ready to accept a new life and a new destiny separate from his friend. When Link defeats Majora’s mask in all her ferocity, the grief of an ancient race is released and, finally, put to rest. In so doing he makes another friend, the reformed Skull Kid. The formation of this new friendship, too, is consistent with Kübler-Ross’s model, which explains that we “can never replace what has been lost, but we can make new connections, new meaningful relationships, new interdependencies.”

The end of Majora’s Mask is akin to the end of the grieving process: the tumult of grief begins to subside and there is the building of a new normal throughout Termina. For Link, he has once more accomplished heroic feats, saved lives, and soothed pain. But for all his heroism Navi is not restored to him. The losses remain, even when grief ends. It is through this knowledge that Link grows. Transformed by the cycles of grief, Link has saved both Hyrule and Termina to become not just the Hero of Time, but the Hero of Loss as well.

Larisa A. Garski, MA, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and the clinical director at Empowered Therapy in Chicago, IL. She specializes in working with women, families, and young adults who identify as outside the mainstream—such as those in the geek and LGBTQIA communities. She regularly appears at pop culture conventions, speaking on panels related to mental health and geek wellness. Her work as a clinical writer and researcher has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of pop psychology and video game psychology books including but not limited to Supernatural Psychology: Roads Less Traveled and Daredevil Psychology: The Devil You Know.

Emory S. Daniel Jr., PhD (North Dakota State University) is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Appalachian State University. His research specializes in strategic communication, communication and psychological constructs in gaming, entertainment media, and parasocial interaction/relationships. His research has been published in outlets such as Journal of Interactive Advertising, Journalism Studies, Internet and Higher Education Journal, and Journal of Advertising Education.

F. Cary Shepard is a licensed professional counselor who holds a master’s in counseling psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Cary has presented on the benefits of incorporating geek culture into psychotherapy at comic book and anime conventions, including WonderCon Anaheim. Cary currently works as a clinical associate with Morneau Shepell, an employee assistance program, in their Chicago office.


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