Play-Doh vs. Rock

Written by: Jill Thorson, LCSW One of my favorite activities to do with grieving youth begins with an old classic, Play-Doh. I give them a small piece of the Play-Doh […]

Written by: Jill Thorson, LCSW

One of my favorite activities to do with grieving youth begins with an old classic, Play-Doh. I give them a small piece of the Play-Doh and explain the rules: in 60 seconds, it has to look different.

Some jump right in. They tear and roll pieces, crafting something elaborate. Others sit for several seconds, unsure. They glance at me, back at the Play-Doh. Roll it around a bit before finally committing to something.

I count down the last 10 seconds and ask them share what they made. I see hearts, butterflies, flowers, and video game characters (who I rarely recognize). The other day a student begged me to keep guessing and after many, many failed attempts, he finally grinned and exclaimed it was an armadillo “obviously!”

After a bit of show and tell, I take a small rock from my pocket. It is about the same size of the original piece of Play-Doh they received. I hand over the rock and tell them they have 60 seconds to make the same creation-the flower, heart, armadillo…out of the rock. I glance at the clock and say GO!

Some immediately giggle or scrunch up their face telling me they can’t. Others look at me, eyebrows raised, as if I am crazy.

I start to negotiate. I tell them okay, okay, you can have 2 minutes this time.

5 minutes?

10 minutes?

And so we discuss. Why can’t we make the same thing out of the rock? What is different about it?

We make a list of words to describe Play-Doh is soft, squishy…And the rock is hard, solid…

I always ask the same question- “Which one can you control, the rock or the Play-Doh?” This leads into our discussion for the session on change and control in our grief. We make lists:

Things I Cannot Control (rocks)

  • Having to go to school
  • What time I have to go to bed
  • The rules on my bus
  • My height
  • Things other kids at school say/do
  • What my mom makes for dinner
  • The weather
  • My sister stealing my stuff all the time
  • People getting sick
  • My dad dying
  • Grieving

Things I Can Control (Play-Doh)

  • Doing my homework
  • Studying for tests
  • How I spend my free time
  • Respecting property
  • What friends I choose to hang out with
  • Doing my chores
  • How I react to other peoples actions/words
  • Coping skills I want to use to deal with my big feelings
  • Which sports/clubs I want to do
  • Asking for help
  • Whether or not I want to visit the cemetery
  • Taking care of my mind and body
  • Apologizing
  • Forgiving

As the list of “Things I Can Control” grows, I watch it wash over them. The knowledge that, even as a kid, they do have the ability to mold, change, and adapt quite a few things in their life. Of course, in the end I hope they are able to create a longer Play-Doh list. Because there are a lot rock things in grief.

Today I keep hearing phrases like “uncertain times” or “unprecedented events” and so on. While these descriptors of our current reality are undoubtedly accurate, I have noticed a personal sense of familiarity at the same time. During this time in our current world, it feels a bit to me like the anticipatory grief I have felt in my own history of loss. Those waves of feelings, all the unknowns and unanswerable questions, the lack of control, the waiting.

There have been moments I feel myself getting overwhelmed in all of this. The “rock things” seem to increase every day, every hour if I look for them.

Some of the most difficult times are when I witness the people I love carrying their rocks, and feeling useless to help them.

I am trying to give myself permission to stop focusing on the rocks and instead put my thoughts and energy towards the Play-Doh things; and there are a lot of those too, if I look for them.

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