Understanding Death through Play

October 5, 2009

- By Kyle Cupp

My son Jonathan informed me yesterday that one of his lifelong toys named Baby Edward had died. He prefaced this sad news by asking me where he could find the Jesus that we had received at the end of his sister Vivian’s funeral. I directed him to our home office and to my wife’s desk where the crucifix was temporarily kept. He took the crucifix to Baby Edward, had Jesus kiss what he said was the toy’s boo-boo, and informed me that Baby Edward was healed. Jonathan and I, along with a couple of the characters from Bob the Builder, then took turns holding the healed Baby Edward.

Like the rest of us, Jonathan is trying to make sense of his sister’s death. We’ve told him how Vivian’s soul is in Heaven while her body rests in the garden until the time that Jesus will heal her. A few days ago, Jonathan mused that he might bust into Heaven and bring Vivian back.

It makes perfect sense to me that Jonathan tries to understand what cannot be understood through the act of play. While we adults may not play with toys – well, while other adults may not play with toys – we try to make sense of life’s tragic mysteries by telling stories, by creating fictions, forming myths, constructing symbols. The storyteller plays with words.

My wife and I are now faced with the question of how we respond to our three-year-old son’s playing and narrating. Do we want him entertaining the idea that Heaven is a place from which people ought to be saved? I would think not. It is strange, though perhaps not so strange, that just as we would ask if a story our son heard was in some sense true, we have to ask whether his play – a serious activity, to say the least – reflects the mysteries he is trying to understand.

Kyle Cupp is an independent contributor to MetroCatholic publications.  Kyle publishes the blog Journeys in Alterity, which features his thoughts on culture, hermeneutics, language, literature, moral dilemmas, personal life, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion.


One Response to “Understanding Death through Play”

  1. Liza nelson on October 6th, 2009 10:53 pm

    Kyle or George, not sure which of you will receive this..I have information that may be of help to your son as he plays through his grief & attempts to understand, Play therapy is Exactly his way of communicating those things for which he has no words. Because of Joe’s grief, I’ve learned a lot and am very open to offering what help I can. I pray for your sweet family, God’s peace & blessings be wirh you!

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