My name is JT and sometimes, I venture out into the woods to play pretend. There were decades in my adult life where I had outgrown such things, but thankfully, a group of friends helped me grow back into it. It’s silly, it’s fun, and it’s one of the last places I thought I’d have an epiphany about grief.
The woodsy activity in question is called LARP (Live Action Role Play) and the heart of its formula is simple: create a fictitious scenario in which people take on character roles, then battle one another with foam weapons and navigate the twists and turns of life in a magical land. For me this past weekend, it meant dressing up in medieval robes and leaving my air-conditioned home on a 90 degree day to spend several hours playing the dual character roles of Malcolm, a reclusive, idealistic healer and his twin brother Meldryn, a powerful wizard.
It was a great set up for me, ham that I am. As I stepped into the woods I was looking forward to playing two different characters knowing that, as the day drew to a close, I would get to die a heroic, dramatic death as Malcolm and then, a few minutes later, mourn Malcolm’s death as his estranged twin Meldryn. It would be a tale like the one that Grandpa describes in The Princess Bride, “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…”
As it happened, there was at least one miracle that was not make-believe.
Here’s how it went. I usually play comical characters, but this time I was reaching for maximum drama, playing the doomed Malcom as sweet, innocent, and kind so that his death could be a fitting inspiration for the day-concluding sword battle. After the battle, the drama would find its conclusion when his bitter brother Meldryn learned of Malcolm’s death. Big finish!
To my surprise, playing, the tragic, kindly brother turned out to be more taxing than I anticipated. Malcolm just wanted to be re-united with his brother, and he was bewildered by the violence around him, which meant that I needed to be filled with vulnerability, trepidation, and disappointment. There was an awful lot of emoting to do before Malcolm’s untimely end.
When it came time to portray Meldryn learning of his brother’s death, there was no need for me to manufacture emotion to play the part. The events of the day playing Malcom were still very close at hand, but also, the events of the last several years were at my side as well: the loss of loved ones through difficult circumstances, concerns about my sister’s health, uncertainty.
I was playing a role as Meldryn grieved, but it was a role that hit very close to home. I knelt on the ground with my eyes closed and cried real tears as my character mourned his brother’s death with a final soliloquy, and then I realized that a couple of people had their hands on my shoulders…and a couple more…and then over a dozen of my fellow players were all gathered around me, holding me in their arms.
Some folks cried with me. Everyone sat with me. It was intended to be a memorable end to the day’s made up story, but it was much more than that to me. It was a live, three-dimensional experience of what compassion looks like. It can be hard to know what to say to someone who is grieving, but it isn’t complicated to reach out a hand, to pause… and just sit… and be.
It can make all the difference in the world.
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