Pandemics and Puzzles

The youngest working on a 1000 piece puzzle with Grandma

Jigsaw Puzzles.  Not everyone enjoys them—but I do.  I especially love doing puzzles with my grandchildren. “Puzzling” was a frequent activity when they were young–the times before they got too scheduled to while away the hours with Grandma, and before I was in competition with screen time.

Puzzles provided a chance for the kids to focus quietly. I could observe the working of their minds–how they use their understanding of the pictures to place their pieces into the puzzle. It was an opportunity to engage them in thoughtful conversation.  Initially they worked by trial and error, but as they matured they used color, shape and those clues from the picture to put the parts into the whole.  But still, they manifested their mischievousness when they squirreled away a piece so they could be the one who “finished” the puzzle—always the one that I was specifically looking for, I might add.

During a visit with my brother in 2018, we went to the movies to see The Puzzle. When Agnes asked Robert, her newfound competitive-puzzler-partner, what he loved about doing puzzles he replied: “Life is messy, there’s nothing we can do to control anything.  When you complete a puzzle, you know that you have made all the right choices.”  Oh yes, I thought, now I get it.

So my interest was piqued when The Caregiver Space featured a recent article entitled “On the consolatory pleasure of jigsaws when the world is in bits,”  by Melanie McGrath, which appeared the January 20, 2021, Psyche Newsletter.

On the consolatory pleasure of jigsaws when the world is in bits | The Caregiver Space

On the consolatory pleasure of jigsaws when the world is in bits | Psyche Ideas

When the call came to say my mother had died, I was working on a jigsaw of Joan Miró’s painting The Tilled Field (1923-24). Like many others, I turned to jigsaws at the start of the pandemic as a way to manage stress, and symbolically reimpose order on a chaotic world. We take our consolations where we can and, as I continued with the puzzle in the days after mum’s death, its tactile qualities, the spicy smell of ink and card, and the small satisfactions of placing each piece where it belonged, grounded me when the world was in bits – both outside and within.

Since her diagnosis of dementia 15 years ago, my mother, too, had been disintegrating, as it were, piece by piece. At each of my fortnightly visits, some further part of her seemed to have newly dropped away, leaving gaps so raw and cruel that I sometimes had to remind myself to focus on what remained. COVID-19 put a stop to my visiting the nursing home where she spent the final decade of her life. We tried FaceTime ‘get togethers’ but my mother was blind as well as in late-stage dementia, so these felt like one-way affairs – mum’s eyes half-closed, her face unresponsive, her body giving every impression of lifelessness. At the time of her death, I hadn’t seen her for four months, and her image had begun to fade in my mind.

On the consolatory pleasure of jigsaws when the world is in bits”  by Melanie McGrath

The day after we saw the movie, I got out a jigsaw puzzle to do with my brother.  (Evidence suggests that jigsaws help older people retain visuospatial memory.)  However, this experience made evident how my brother’s brilliant mind was beginning to yield to the effects of his recently diagnosed dementia.   

Since COVID-19 I have been unable to do puzzles with my grandchildren or to visit my brother–at least not for the time being. As I sit at the dining room table doing a COVID Puzzle, like Melanie McGrath I think,

“When bereavement leaves us in pieces, how do we put ourselves back together?” 

COPING with COVID: A View of our Post-COVID World?