If you ask any parent, I’m sure they will stand right up and proclaim that they love playing with their kids. And most of us do. But there are probably at least 5 games/make believe scenarios that you could rattle off that you absolutely abhor. I have to play a game every day called “Bad Sister”, where my daughter plays the role of a younger, totally perfect sister and I play a total asshole older sister.It does great things for her development. It allows her to see what happens when people (like my character) make bad choices while she gets to role play always doing the right thing. It makes her feel empowered and heroic while I play the role of a complete dick. I understand why we do it and she really gets something out of it, but I really do hate this game.
There are other games,though, that I absolutely love. The other day we played a restaurant game. She took all of the fake food we have in the playroom, which is enough to fill an actual restaurant, and she organized everything in sections. She put down pillows for the tables and set down stuffed animal customers at each table. She was the cook and I had to take orders. I was given a stack of Post-It notes and I had to go around taking everyone’s order, welcoming them, rattling off specials, asking about drinks, etc. I did a better job than when I was an actual waitress in my 20’s for sure. I wrote down their orders and gave the Post-It note to “the cook”. She dutifully put the order together and served each customer.
“Who ordered the veggie sandwich, mama?”
“Let’s see…I think it was blue teddy.”
It was so much fun that I totally lost track of the time. I was 100% in the pretend world, which is hard to fully get into once you’re an adult. The pretend world is so addictive and so fun as a child, but it can feel sometimes like you just don’t get it anymore as an adult. It was kind of a relief to know I could get there again.
We played another game the other day that I really love and recommend to any parent who is raising a grieving child. My daughter made this up, and I’m glad she did, because I’m not sure how I would have introduced this play scenario without it being forced and weird.
“Ring!!! Mama, the phone’s ringing! Hello?”
“Who is it, baby?”
Wow. The first time I heard this I didn’t know what to do. I just followed her lead. Now we talk to Jay and Gramma quite often on the pretend phone and I love it.
“How’s Gramma doing, baby?”
“She’s good! She’s taking care of Jay. Here, she wants to talk to you.”
There is something I really, really like about having pretend phone conversations. I don’t know what it is, but I immediately fall right into an actual conversation with a plastic phone with 3 buttons on it.
“Hi, Gramma! How’s it going? Uh-huh……..uh-huh….oh, you’re kidding, that’s hilarious! And is he talking a lot? Oh, I bet he is! What? He’s riding a bike now??? That’s crazy. Well, we sure do miss you over here……uh-huh….well, you wouldn’t believe what Floyd’s up to. He’s so funny, you would just flip out at all the words he’s saying…..oh she’s great, she’s doing so well in school, she actually has a play coming up….”
And I go on and on before I hand the phone off to my daughter and she has her own pretend conversation with our dead relatives. Occasionally Floyd is also given the phone. He does say hello but he really doesn’t get that we’re acting out how much we miss them and wish we could actually talk to them.
This scenario really hits home how therapeutic play can be. It’s much more effective than sitting in a therapist’s office discussing what you might want to say to someone. You’re on the phone, next to whoever you’re playing with, but not directly interacting with them, passively detailing all of the things you want so much to say to your loved one, without making it this big discussion about sadness and feelings. I would posit that fake phone conversations is a solid play therapy for both adults and kids. It allows us to convey to each other how much we miss our special people without it feeling overwhelming for her.
One day I will no longer be asked to be the asshole in the Bad Sister game. And my daughter will eventually get to the age where she doesn’t have pretend conversations on the phone anymore (or not…I actually still do this when I’m in a really awkward situation). Sometimes it can feel difficult to talk to our children about something as complicated as grief. But really, it isn’t. Kids can be excellent at framing a complicated situation in simpler terms, and they work through so much while at play. When she gets older, we will have deeper conversations about what it’s like to never, ever speak to someone again. But for right now, it sure feels good to talk to our loved ones on the phone.