Jewish Journal

New Game Helps People Talk About Dying

by Susan Esther Barnes

March 5, 2014 | 12:30 am

Photo by Susan Esther Barnes

Our chevra kadisha meets on a monthly basis. Because of the volunteer work we do visiting the sick, comforting mourners, and preparing the dead for burial, it’s not uncommon for us to have conversations related to death and dying. I wasn’t sure, then, what the outcome would be when I brought the game “My Gift of Grace” to our last meeting. Since we already talk about these things, would my fellow chevra members find “A conversation game for living and dying well,” as it’s described on the box, to be superfluous?

The game consists of a set of cards, as well as a couple dozen game pieces, called “Thank-you chips.” The game pieces are distributed evenly among the participants, and the instructions say, “When any player says something that you are grateful for, give that player a chip.” The chips may be given at any time, with or without explanation.

The cards are numbered, and are used in order. When first card is read to the whole group, everyone writes down their answer to the question on the card. Then any players who want to do so share their answer to the question. It’s okay if people choose not to share. Then the next card is drawn, and the cycle is repeated.

It’s quite simple, while at the same time, quite deep. The first couple of questions are designed to ease people into the game, but it doesn’t take long for the questions to turn the conversation to the subject at hand.

The third question is, “Write your own epitaph in five words or less.” My first thought was, “That’s not right. Five words isn’t enough to sum up a person’s life.” Then I realized epitaphs are often written on a person’s headstone, where there probably isn’t a lot of room. After a person dies, their loved ones are asked to do exactly that: Sum up that person’s life in a few words. It isn’t easy and it may not be fair, but it’s done all the time. It makes sense to get some practice at it. It also made me think about what I am, at my essence.

An important thing we learned about this game is that the one hour we had to play it isn’t enough. We only got through question five. We were all sorry we ran out of time so soon, and agreed we wanted to play it again. Even though the time was too short, it was certainly meaningful and worthwhile. We even talked about opening every meeting of the chevra kadisha by picking a card from the deck and asking everyone to answer it.

The most surprising thing to me was how much the “Thank-you chips” contributed to the game. On one level, they added an element of fun. Sometimes, a bunch of us tossed chips to one person at the same time, and the recipient had to try to corral them all without letting any of them fly off the table. At other times, the passing of the chips was more solemn.

Best of all, there were a couple of times when someone said, “I’d give you a chip but I’m all out of them,” and then someone else would give her one of their chips so she could pass it on as she had wanted to. It gave me the feeling that we are all in this together, helping each other through it.

Now, you may be thinking you have no need to talk about dying, since you don’t plan to die any time soon. But most of us have grandparents, parents, or friends who may be older, and sometimes death comes unexpectedly, even to those who seem way too young to die. It’s a fact of life we all need to face, sooner or later. And the more comfortable we become with these conversations now, the easier it will be for us when we need to talk about these things due to life circumstances. I’m glad this game is here to help us get the conversation started.

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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