Letting Leisure in After Loss

Author: Rachel Hunsell


leisure (n) / lei • sure / (lē´•r, le´•r)
: free time, although not idle time
: personal freedom from responsibilities of work, daily tasks, etc.
: the freedom and the capacity to live and experience life within

recreation (n) / rec • rea • tion / (rek´rēā´sh•n)
: what we do during our leisure time — activities done  for enjoyment

play (n, v) / (plā)
: act of engaging in activities without inhibition with the   intention of having fun 

As human beings, we feel an intrinsic need and desire to move our bodies, explore our minds, and experience the world around us. However, when we experience loss, we are often shaken to our core, requiring us to pause, re-examine parts of our lives, and find meaningful ways to move forward.

When my brother died, and after subsequent losses since then, the thought of fun and true, free expression felt foreign to me in the wake of death. How am I supposed to have fun if he never can? How am I supposed to play games, laugh, and be free if he never will? How am I supposed to go out and experience the world without him, without people I love so deeply? 

The experience of being in the world, in this “new normal” — as many around me began to define it — didn’t feel like me. What I thought I knew was no longer tangible, although I kept reaching for the glimpses. It took courageous vulnerability and finding my way into the wilderness with my fellow survivors — people who understood me — to get curious, not just about the world, but about myself, to regain my relationship with a full and possible life.  


Rachel and siblings

Rachel and survivors on hike


So what does it mean to feel free and curious? 


So what does it mean to feel free and curious? To open yourself up to exploring life’s possibilities? To experience the world with a sense of wonder and play? How do we access this kind of joy, pleasure, relaxation, and their sister emotions while carrying such pain and grief? 


Define Personal Values


First, we must identify what it is that we seek before we can move in any direction, which asks us to get clear about what we value. What are those intrinsic motivators pushing us forward? What do we enjoy doing when nothing else holds us back? Do we want to feel connected to others? To nature? To art? Do we want to experience mountaintop views? Be able to walk or run a mile? Sing a song? Write poetry? How do we want to feel when doing these things? Curious? Courageous? Authentic? Connected to our faith? Family-oriented? Grounded? When we identify our values, we connect to our life source and what makes us who we are. 

Diagram: Define Personal Values, Identify Barriers, Connect to Loss, Find your Peers, Experience Leisure and Connection


This time in our lives, when we are recreating and playing while rooted in our values, is what we’d define as “authentic leisure.” This is not simply void time where we aren’t working or doing daily tasks. Authentic leisure is the capacity to move between restful experiences and accomplishing those tasks by engaging life in a way that honors and reflects our personal strengths, interests, and abilities. It’s living this life authentically for our individual selves and doing so in a way that honors our loved ones. 


Identify Barriers to Leisure


However, as we all know too well, real barriers exist to these experiences: physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. So, the second step toward the leisure lifestyle we yearn for comes by identifying our barriers. These most certainly will look different for each of us, and they can be faced by simply starting to list challenges you’ve experienced when you’ve wanted to recreate and enjoy your leisure time, but didn’t or couldn’t. Some may write guilt or anger about our loved ones not being present; others may note physical or psychological disabilities that prevent us from recreating. But, it’s important to honor and recognize that our leisure is connected to our loved ones. 


Survivors on hike

Survivors on hike


Connect to Loss or Person


As we continue to identify these barriers, we may begin to see the ways in which our values and leisure experiences are connected to our loved ones, opening up opportunities for healing, understanding, and reconnection. It is in these pockets of light that we can give ourselves permission to play and recreate — or simply allow our imaginations to explore memories that bring smiles and laughter. These acts are a salve and allow us to make connections we’d otherwise kept in the darkness of our grief. 


Find Your Peers


Part of our work at TAPS is to provide spaces to explore these connections to our loved ones alongside our peers, a place where others understand the valleys and mountaintops we face on our path after loss. When we connect with others who can empathize, our leisure time isn’t solely focused on what we might attach “positive emotions” to, but it can become a place where both grief and joy can exist alongside one another. 


Experience Leisure and Cultivate Connection


There are countless ways to experience our leisure within our values, but as survivors on a journey of healing, allow these moments of play and recreation to open your heart, connect you with your loved one and each other, and ground you in your intrinsic motivations and values. If you let it, leisure can create opportunities for what may have felt impossible and bloom into a life full of possibilities. 


TAPS Outdoors Engagement Events

TAPS Outdoor Engagement is here to support you as you design a realistic recreational lifestyle that honors life after loss, remembering that the love you shared with your person lives on just as you do. Visit our event calendar for more information on outdoor recreational activities in 2023!

Rachel Hunsell is the surviving sister of LCpl J. Kyle Price, U.S. Marine Corps and TAPS Outdoor Engagement Program Manager.

Photos: Rachel Hunsell and TAPS Archives