The Gray Zone: When Death Hits Close to Home

By Kathryn White

Wha t is she now, the Grim Reaper?” said my neighbor to his husband. “Mmm. Let’s just say the Grim Reminder,” came the reply.

Kathryn White

My last column focused on two ways we can undertake conversations about death and dying — death cafes and end-of-life coaching. Writing about death got people talking. Neighbors and friends approached me with stories about their own orientation to the topic. It seemed people were relieved to speak openly about something so tender and important.

This week, conversations about death took an unexpected turn for my family. Two of my son’s coworkers at a neighborhood restaurant were killed at work before the restaurant opened. We’re in shock. We’re sad, deeply sad. We find ourselves casting about for answers, but none have come.

Our family has experienced loss. But in absorbing the news about my son’s coworkers, I’m reminded that each loss carries its own distinctive weight. It is singular, unmatched. I acknowledge — as I write about death — that loss, grief, facing a serious diagnosis and grappling with a horrific tragedy are not made simpler or less painful by having become more comfortable talking about dying.

The week before my son lost his coworkers, I was planning this installment of The Gray Zone and had invited a few people to join me at Convivio Cafe to play a game designed to get conversations started about death.

The Death Deck is a 112-card game that can be played at parties, with pairs of friends or in couples. Cards are color coded into two types of questions. Yellow are open-ended, deeper questions like, “Share a profound religious or spiritual experience you’ve had. How did it change you or your beliefs about life and death?” Purple cards carry lighter, multiple-choice questions, some tongue-in-cheek, like: Open caskets:

A. Help me get some closure with a meaningful goodbye
B. Are fine if it’s what the family wants
C. Kinda creep me out. I want to remember the person in their living state.

Most of that day’s five players didn’t know each other, so I divided the cards into the two types and offered them a chance to choose. They could pass on any question.

Adam started with a yellow card, the open-ended type. Nickie, Jan, Linda and I were immediately drawn in by Adam’s recounting of a profound spiritual experience. The next few people picked purple, multiple-choice cards.

Before long, Nickie was encouraging everyone to answer each card. She was curious; we were all curious. By the time we wrapped up an hour later, we were pulling mostly yellow cards.

“It was the fastest way I have experienced to feel like you know people you’ve never met before,” said Linda. “It felt very intimate because some people shared their feelings about people they love passing. It was heartfelt. It felt like a safe space to talk about loss.”

For Jan, “I don’t necessarily enjoy the usual chitchat, like what do you do for your occupation, etc. The game gave us a chance to know something about one another in a very unusual way. And it was fun to get everyone’s take on some of the questions. It really is a great way for you to start thinking about how you want your death handled, in not a terribly sad way.”

“So fun,” Adam said. “Very surreal to talk about death with a bunch of strangers, but also a delight to talk about it in a way that doesn’t break my spirit. Also, as someone who is too obsessed with game rules, it was nice to let go and just let the game move the conversation in interesting places.”

I met with the game’s creators, Lori LoCicero and Lisa Pahl, a licensed clinical social worker, later in the week on Zoom. The two met while Lori’s husband was receiving home hospice care for pancreatic cancer. LoCicero and Pahl weren’t surprised by how quickly a group of strangers in north Denver connected over the game.

“When Lori and I designed the game,” Pahl said, “we were mostly thinking about helping people be prepared. But the other thing that’s quite lovely about the game is how connected you feel with other people you’re playing with.” “

We wanted to put something out there that could start these conversations,” said LoCicero. “It could be the icebreaker. We talk about sports and the weather and what’s going on in our lives, but without that extra little nudge. These cards are that nudge that allows people to start opening up.”

In talking about The Death Deck with LoCicero and Pahl, as in the game at Convivio, conversation led to sharing about people we’ve lost. And miss. Sharing stories and memories became a living tribute. When my son and I attend the memorial service for his coworkers, a living tribute will have already begun.

Answers may take time, but honoring them doesn’t need to wait. North Denver misses you, Emerall and Nacho. Next month, I’ll wrap up the focus on death and dying with information about laws that have been passed in recent years and a few earth-friendly options for what we can do with our bodies once we’ve left them.

Until then, check out @thedeathdeck on Instagram, author and humorist @GailRubin on YouTube, and food-for-thought coming from @talkdeathdaily, @thegooddeath, and @deathwives.

Kathryn has lived in north Denver since around the time the Mount Carmel High School building was razed and its lot at 3600 Zuni became Anna Marie Sandoval Elementary. She’s raised two children in the neighborhood, worked at several nonprofits and volunteered with the Alzheimer’s Association
Colorado Chapter.


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