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Children's Role-play After Loss. Is This An Instance Of Denial?

Question:

When I was 7, my brother, sister and I were in a car accident that killed our mother. Our parents had been divorced and my Dad came and took us out of state to live with him and our (what we learned later) was a mentally ill stepmother. Speaking of our mother was not encouraged, and in fact was felt to be taboo. I have heard that children work through issues of grief and trauma through play. And indeed, my sister and I re-played this scene over and over with a willing friend in the months following the accident. In our play, two of us were army nurses in a war zone. The third child participant roll-played being a long-lost fellow nurse who was "missing in action". The two army nurses would go to bed for the night, always hoping for the day when the missing nurse returns. After laying down, they hear a knock at the door. One gets up to go to the door and upon opening it, finds the missing nurse. The (child) nurse who went to the door yells out in excitement to the one still in bed "SHE IS HERE!!!" The other one gets up and they both help the hurt nurse (who is walking on her knees) into the nurse quarters where she is given care by the relieved, happy, elated nurses. I remember the joy during this play at the return of the missing nurse. I always assumed we were working through the loss of our mother in this play acting. But now I am thinking that instead of being helpful, that this was simply denial of the loss and giving the reality that our mother was permanently gone a different ending. Do you think this would it be a stage of working through grief or something that just supports denial? Thank you!

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Answer:

The reason we have concepts like "working through" when we talk about grief, is that grief is a process that takes time. It can’t happen all at once. Human beings are just not built to process significant emotional losses that fast.

In some deaths, there is advanced notice for the survivors. People develop some illness that has a reasonably predictable course, and though the survivors may deny that death is approaching, at least some of them will know that it is. Such advanced warning tends to front-load grief, or allow for a pre-grief such that the intensity of the grief that is felt when the loss actually occurs is lessened some. In your case, where your mother died so suddenly and without warning, there is no pre-processing of the grief state which hits with full force upon the loss.

Denial is a natural and normal consequence during the grief process. Think of it as a self-protective shield or filter that protects you from having to face the full intensity of the loss all at once. The fact that your grief process included this expressive play may be an instance of denial of a sort, but I don’t think it is anything weird or out of place if you think of it as a stage along your coming to terms process.

Your play has a resurrection theme in a way. It acknowledges that there is a loss, but then provides for there to be a way that the loss is undone. If this is denial, it is not total denial, because total denial would be more like Norman Bates in Psycho. Not the creepy part of Psycho, but just the way the movie was structured where the mother is dead, but the son cannot acknowledge even that the death has occurred. So, whatever denial has taken place in your long ago play it was only a partial denial. Which only makes sense, because you were all well aware of your loss and not out of touch with reality (e.g., psychotic) as poor Norman was.

Though at a conscious awareness level, you were aware that your mother was dead, at a more subterranean level, I think you had a powerful wish to be reunited with your mother. There’s nothing weird about that. That’s just the power of love and attachment; something we primates do very well.

You can think of your play as a way of acting out that powerful wish for reunion with your mother. In that sense, the play is not denial at all, but rather a vehicle for the grief process. The wish remains potent so long as the intensity of the longing for mother remains high. Only time can dissolve that sort of attachment. More properly, what time does is not dissolve attachments (which remain strong in memory) but place them into the past tense so that there is no longer an expectation that the relationship is current and available. As time moved your relationship with your mother into the past tense and made that something you could accept without feeling that urgent loss, I’ll bet the need for that resurrection/reunion play lessened.

To answer your question directly, the play was most likely a stage of the grief process you endured, and not a pathological state of denial.

I hope this helps.

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