Green Peace: The Healing Power of Parks for Young and Old

One of my very best friends died three years ago. He happened to be my grandfather, who was 96 years old. He was ready. It was time.

But it wasn’t easy. I missed him. It took me months to delete the calendar alert I’d set up to ping me every day at 11:20 a.m., a reminder to stop what I was doing and “Call PO9,” short for Pop Pop. (As a kid, when I was learning to write, I accidentally addressed a letter to PO9 PO9. It stuck.)

Our daily conversations — me, a 20-something at my desk in New York City, and him, a 90-something in his living room in Pennsylvania — meant everything to me. How could I ever tap “Delete Event”?

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Looking out towards Lower Manhattan

Looking out towards Lower Manhattan

Healing came in waves. There were bad days and blah days, but there were good days, too. Like the Sunday my boyfriend Joe and I took the ferry to Governor’s Island, a newly restored park between Brooklyn, N.Y., and the southern tip of Manhattan.

It was my first weekend back home after Pop Pop’s funeral. The late September air was crisp and the trees were starting to turn. The cicadas hummed as we hopped on our bikes and headed off to the pier. Once we got to the island, I remember winding around with no particular destination, following and leading and pausing along the way.

We stopped to soak in the skyline and admire art installations. We played on a jungle gym of metal beams and barrels. We shared a big red hammock, closed our eyes and let the sun warm our faces. It was just what I needed.

Walking bikes across the island

Walking bikes across the island

Parks are public spaces, but they can be very personal ones, too. They can be homes to our daily rituals — from morning jogs to dog walks — as well as our milestone celebrations. They also can be our quiet places of solace after a long day or after a deep loss, as I experienced.

A few months after Pop Pop’s death, my endlessly thoughtful friends dedicated an Ironwood tree to him along my Brooklyn running path in Prospect Park. Joe and I have since moved, but I think about that tree often and tell my joggers to wave when they pass. Sometimes they send pictures.

It’s essential for people of all ages and from all walks of life to have access to green spaces, places to come together and places to be alone. That’s why proximity to parks is one measure included in AARP’s Livability Index, which calculates scores for communities based on housing, neighborhood, transportation, environment, health, engagement and opportunity. (Park info falls under the neighborhood category.)

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I still miss Pop Pop. I always will. But days like that Sunday on Governor’s Island helped me begin to live with the loss and move forward. A landscape architect friend of mine actually was on the team responsible for the Governor’s Island renovation. I have an embarrassing tendency to corner him at parties and tearfully thank him for his work.

You know what? I always will.

Photos: Laura Hahn

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