Last year I worked at an elementary school as a paraeducator to see if I wanted to go into teaching. By the end of the school year, I was happy with everything I had learned that brought me closer to that career decision, but I was even happier with the unexpected lesson I had learned throughout the year – the importance of play. It had been quite some time since I had been around kids, and especially large groups of them. I was enthralled by how effortlessly they demonstrated just how joyous and playful life can be. I had forgotten that a playful heart could exist, and I asked myself, how had I forgotten about play? Oh, right. I had been widowed.
At the end of each day when the final bell rang, the kids would excitedly hurry towards the main doors, bust through and then run out as fast as they could while throwing their hands up in the air – cheering because school was out. Some would run around in circles yelling gleefully while others would be doing cartwheels on the lawn. The first time I witnessed this I remembered thinking to myself, if anyone should be doing cartwheels after a day of work – it’s the adults! It was the perfect reminder to myself, that although life has proved to be exponentially harder since being widowed, I needed to remember to play!
Is this easier said than done? Not really, and here’s why: mirror neurons. Neurons are a type of brain cell. When you perform an action, a neuron in your brain fires. When someone observes you performing that same action, their neuron likewise fires, and it’s as if that observer were performing this action themselves – the neurons are mirroring each other. It’s why you smile when someone smiles at you and why you can’t help but laugh when someone else laughs.
This is one of many scientific concepts I’ve been able to pull out of my mental backpack during my grief (science is one of my great loves) and use to my advantage in learning to live again. I experimented with different forms of play and came up with some fantastic activities that I love having in my life.
Here are five ways my students inspired me to find my own brand of play:
If I happen to pass by an empty playground during my evening jog, I’ll stop and hop on a swing for a few minutes. I steer clear of any playground where children are present for their sake and mine. I don’t want to invade their space or seem like a creep! If the coast is clear it’s fair game for slipping off my shoes, kicking off the ground and swinging as high as I can. Swinging brings back a rush of playful childhood memories. It’s also quite meditative. The hypnotic back and forth motion never fails to quiet my mind. The feel of the wind created by swinging and the rhythmic tuck and extension of my legs, helps me feel connected with the present moment. I can’t help but smile every time I swing. Recently, while vacationing in southern California, I came across a small playground a couple blocks from the beach I was visiting. Seeing that the playground was empty, I didn’t hesitate to spend a few playful moments swinging amongst the palm trees and my favorite bougainvillea flowers. This became one of my favorite moments of that trip because I had added spontaneous play!
Growing up as a California kid, I enjoyed practically year-round summers. My favorite activity was walking over to the community pool with my siblings, and grabbing a pack of watermelon Bubblicious from the mini-mart along the way. Now, whenever I walk into a convenience store and happen to see a pack of watermelon bubblegum, I buy it. The packaging, wrapping, shape and smell all bring me back to the best days of my childhood. No matter how tough my day of widowing has been, blowing bubblegum makes it a little more bearable.
3. Dancing in the living room
This tip I’ve borrowed from a medical drama I’ve (admittedly) watched through six times – “Grey’s Anatomy”. Watching Meredith and Cristina “dance it out” after an especially intense day brought me to my feet and I found myself doing the same – a fantastic example of mirror neurons at work. Whether you’re jumping up and down waving your arms and hands, or doing your best impression of the robot, this type of play is a great way to loosen up and enjoy the moment. Every time I dance it out, I forget my woes by the middle of the song.
Nine months before I was widowed, I was saying good riddance to endometriosis – and the seven years of doctors, hospitals, and painful surgeries I endured – through an ovariohysterectomy. Between my sickness and widowhood, I’d missed out on a large portion of my young adult life leaving me with a lot of things I’ve always wanted to try. Longboarding was big on the list, so I finally bought one this summer. When it arrived I unwrapped it immediately like a kid at Christmas. Before taking it outside, I did something I knew I could get away with because I was the woman of the house – I unwrapped my board and took it for a ride in my kitchen. Talk about feeling a rush of playfulness! In that moment I could have cared less about the hardwood floors I’d just cleaned the day prior. The whole idea was to feel like a kid again, ditch the rules and enjoy playing and that’s exactly what I got. I now enjoy longboarding through my neighborhood on a daily basis and I look forward to bringing my board with me on my next California beach trip where I can cruise the bike paths of my favorite L.A. beaches.
I’ve always enjoyed baking and last year I took this to a whole new level of fun! In general, cooking is therapeutic for me because I purposefully alter or invent my own recipes in the spirit of creation. Using my mom’s famous cream cheese frosting recipe as my base, I experiment with fruits, flavors and textures to create unusual types of cupcakes. The essence of play is spread all over the kitchen island. It’s rewarding to let my mind wander and construct an edible creation, and then enjoy sharing and eating it with friends or family.
It’s nice to know that no matter how hard my day becomes, I can pull out my inner child and play. Of all the quotes I’ve gathered over the years as a widow, a quote from Abraham-Hicks is the one I cherish the most:
“We want you to have more fun in your day-to-day experience,
and not take your physical life so seriously.”
I can’t think of a better prescription for a healthy life. I’ve spent a lot of time making room for grieving in my new normal. If I can make time for sitting on the couch to cry with a box of kleenex, while I eat chocolate and watch a sad chick flick, I can certainly make time for play.
No matter where you are in your grief journey, bringing play into your life is something you can do right now. You deserve it. I encourage you to go outside, look around, and observe play. Remember what it feels like to be a child and to see the world as your playground. Let those mirror neurons do their work! We carry so much as widows that I think it is easy to forget we can choose happiness, even as we grieve. We can bring playfulness into our lives and be silly. We can set aside our guilt for trying to move forward and enjoy the living to be had now and the life that does exist ahead. We can give ourselves permission to do this – and I think our husbands looking down from above, would want to see us seeking out a happy life.
This Thursday, November 15, is Child Grief Awareness Day. In light of talking about the inspiration my elementary students gave me in re-discovering play, I’d like to take a moment to talk about a child’s grief. It’s important to remember that children grieve too and they need to be acknowledged in this grief. They need our support and access to healthy ways of processing their grief – the same way adults do. Visit childrensgriefawarenessday.org to learn more.