Thursday, March 24, 2011

the dying game

i used to go to our local senior center about once a month and give a talk.  i had a small following of mostly women and we always had a good time.  i talked about any topic they chose, and many of my own.  but after many months of pretty much the same format - me talking and then answering questions - i decided to try something new.  we would play a game, the dying game.

i first encountered this game when i was training to be a hospice volunteer.  the idea was to build empathy by having you experience just a small sense of the losses a dying person might face - loss of health, loss of mobility, loss of control.   definitely not a game you would play with dinner guests, but a game none the less.

at the start of the game, each person writes down on a piece of paper ten lists of three - three favorite people, foods, cherished objects, places, etc.  basically, the superlatives of your life.  then a basket is passed around with little slips of paper.  when it is your turn, you pick a slip paper.  it might say,  'good news!  your most recent CT scan was stable. please pass the basket to your left.'  or it might say, 'your cancer has advanced. cross three things off your list.' in that instance, you get to choose which three things you cross off.  but if your paper says 'your bowel has become obstructed.  cross off all foods.' then the choice is not yours.

the game is played mostly in silence. the basket goes around.  people are quietly whittling down their lists.  but then a slip might say, 'your illness took a sudden turn for the worse. you passed away last night.'  when that happens the person is instructed to put down their pen or pencil and turn their list face down.  it is sort of macabre, but it is meant to approximate both the physical and emotional losses of terminal illness, and even more so the loss of control we may feel at that end stage of our lives.

so i get these women to write their lists and we start passing around the basket.  initially the mood is light and they are still talking and joking. i start to wonder to myself if this was a bad idea.  but as they start crossing things off their lists in earnest, it gets quieter.  the choices get harder.  a few people die.  we don't play to the end, just long enough for everyone to have the experience.

i ask them what they felt when they had to cross something off.  anger?  sadness?  disbelief?  how did they feel when they got good news?  lucky?  hopeful?  how about guilty?  were they surprised by what they tried to save on their list?  one woman confessed that when it came down to it, she chose ice cream over a cherished photo album.  finally, a little elderly woman at the end of the table lifted her arm.  and there, clasped in her hand, was a crumpled slip of paper.  it was the first one she pulled from the basket.  it was a death slip.  she had hidden it on her lap and kept playing.  it wasn't fair she said, she wouldn't even get to play the game!  she didn't want to die!  we all laughed. we joked and told her that she couldn't cheat death.  but to me, hiding that little slip of paper probably gave her more of a sense of what i was trying to share with them than anything else that day.  death isn't fair, it isn't predictable, we aren't in control.  but, as she showed us, there's certainly no rule saying that you can't fight back!


  1. Nice post! It's not really a 'game', but an offering of a glimpse into one possible future.

    The lady with the ice cream made me smile and remember that old poem If I Had My Life Over:

    "I would eat more ice cream and less beans. I would perhaps have more actual troubles, but I'd have fewer imaginary ones. "

    Thanks for your blog! I found it via Grand Rounds. You're bookmarked!

  2. Unfortunately, we don't all get the opportunity to fight back! I hope, when my time comes, I'll have a chance to fight!

  3. Powerful post, Beth. Gives me serious pause; may I bring it to some dear friends/sisters of other mothers? How do we go about making this work as an online group ?~ Right now I have more questions than answers, but you have certainly set off some bombs in my psyche with that game.