Grief & healing: Don’t forget to play; it can help rebuild your identity

Playing doesn’t sound like something one would do when bereaved. And we usually don’t think of playing as an adult activity.

Well, my kitties still know how to play and they are already into their senior years. I have a little plaque in a bathroom titled, “Lessons from a cat.”

It says:

• Be frisky

• Pounce on possibilities.

• Enjoy the night life.

• Always land on your feet.

• Stretch often.

• Delight in the simple pleasure of a long nap.

• Create your purr-fect day.

Of course, we are not cats, but play for people can mean just doing something fun, or interesting, or pleasurable. And that is a pretty good list of ideas.

One of the problems is that a survivor may feel that smiling or joining in some merriment may feel like a betrayal of the one who died. Why should we be happy when he or she can’t be here?

There is a certain scene in an episode of Downton Abbey, a TV drama series, that captures just exactly this problem: A woman whose son died in a car crash is sitting at a dinner party and distressed at all the cheerful conversation — because she feels she mustn’t join the festive mood.

One of the complications that leads to such feelings is that our own identities get fused with a loved one — such as with a child, a partner, spouse or friend. So if or when that person dies, we are left in a sort of limbo land.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie, “The Bridges of Madison County,” captures this problem. Clint Eastwood tells Meryl Streep, “We’re hardly ... hardly two separate people now.”

That’s it — identities get fused, whether a parent with a child, or person with a life partner.

That leaves many of us with the challenge of rebuilding or repairing our own identity. This can be done, but takes time and is difficult.

So the point is: There is no recipe for this rebuilding. One approach we can take — when we’re able to try — is to get back into neighborhood and community life. And rely more on the support of families and friends. Beware of too much social isolation. There are people out there who understand and can help.

• Susan Anderson-Khleif of Sleepy Hollow has a doctorate in family sociology from Harvard, taught at Wellesley College and is a retired Motorola executive. Contact her at

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