Yep, it’s true. I could not get my own mother to talk about her dying wishes. Here I am, the founder of SevenPonds, where I live, eat and breathe the death and dying process. And yet I was failing with my own parents. I did not know what to do. What I did know was that I’m their only daughter, and someday I would need to be there for them. Yet I was completely in the dark as to their dying wishes.
Then something happened. I attended an event in the San Francisco Bay Area directed by Dawn Gross, M.D., a palliative care doctor and the host of our local KALW’s radio show “Dying to Talk.” She did an audience-wide exercise with a tool called Go Wish cards — a deck of cards designed to help start a conversion about death. She had us break into groups of four to play the game. In my group, we each shared our end-of-life wishes with complete strangers. The Go Wish cards exercise was not only profound and enlightening, it was also actually fun. This inspired me.
During the Christmas holiday, I decided to try a practice session before I flew to Florida to see my parents. I had invited a long-time friend and my ex-husband over for Christmas dinner. I announced we would play a game about death. My friend moaned reluctantly but agreed.
After dinner the three of us chose our cards and the conversation quickly got going in many interesting directions. When we were finished, my friend commented that, contrary to his expectations, he had enjoyed the game.
On my last day in Florida, I insisted my parents play Go Wish. My mom was reluctant from the get-go. Appearing half interested, she perched on the sofa as if ready to leave.
I instructed her to pick 10 cards, yet she only picked seven. I quickly understood that, at 86 years old, she had things that were definitely very important to her, but fewer than most people her age. My greatest epiphany was to learn that neither of my parents selected my first choice, “Not dying alone.” What a discovery! Had something happened and one of them had died alone, I would have felt guilty my whole life. Now suddenly I knew this was not of any importance to them at all. We discussed it and it relieved a big burden for me. Then the three of us had an amazing, open discussion, and my dad and I continued to sit talking more about dying.
My greatest takeaway from both Christmas and Florida was to know what the people I love wanted when they were dying — truly a gift. I also noticed that playing the game got them thinking for the first time about their own wishes, and to want others to know what these were. I unexpectedly saw my mom, dad, ex-husband and my old friend all exhibit the same angst about my being sure I knew what they wanted.
These cards work like magic. If they can crack my mom open and get her to speak, then they will work for just about anyone.
WHAT ARE THE GO WISH CARDS?
What exactly are the Go Wish cards? As you may have suspected, they are modeled after the card game Go Fish. But these cards are specially designed to kick start a conversation about death. Each card shows a phrase about a possible end-of-life wish, for example, “to not die alone,” or, “to be free from pain.” The goal is to open up a conversation among the players about what is most important to them at the end of life. It’s a great game tool!
HOW TO PLAY DAWN’S FAVORITE WAY
There are a number of ways to play the game (various instructions are offered with the deck). But I think Dawn’s way is the best. I suggest that everyone plays together. Ideally each player should have their own deck of cards.
Playing Go Wish is really very simple. Each player does the following:
- Begin by quickly going through the deck to select 10 cards representing your most important end-of-life wishes.
- Place them in order from the most important to the least important. Place five cards across the top and five cards below. Having less then 10 cards is fine too.
- Now take turns explaining why you chose the first card and then continue for the rest of the cards. Each person’s perception of what the phrases on the cards mean can be very different, so it’s important that each person gets to talk.
- The deck also offers a wild card that can be anything you wish. In my case, for instance, the wild card is to have a window open when I lay dying in bed.
TIPS TO PLAYING
- Lay the cards on the floor or a table so everyone can see each other’s cards.
- Be sure to grab your smart phone and photograph the selections so you have a record when you need it some day.
- Email or note in a journal what the wildcard represents so you don’t forget.
- Play again at least once a year. Your selections will most likely change over time based on your life experience.
- Dawn notes that some of your choices may change when you are actually dying. So keep in mind that these wishes are not cast in stone.
- Playing the card game with someone who is actively dying may help them express what they want or don’t want. Hospice workers and palliative care experts do it all the time.
WHERE DO I BUY GO WISH?
Simply visit the Go Wish website. The cards come in different colors if you want to buy more then one deck.
Disclaimer: SevenPonds has no affiliations or relationship with the Go Wish cards except that I love this game.