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.
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
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
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.