7. Lisa Pahl and Lori LoCicero: The Death Deck
Death is not a game. Or is it? Listen to Lori LoCicero and Lisa Pahl talk about their bold new card game, “The Death Deck” and how it’s helping people have healthy conversations about dying — and living. From sample questions to poignant stories, they explain the reason they created the game and how they use humor and lively game-play to break down resistance and open up communication. Says Lori, “It’s so much easier to approach a parent or a spouse with a silly card game that has humor in it rather than sitting down and saying, ‘you know, we really should have this important conversation.’ By having a tool or device — something to almost blame it on — it’s a lot easier way to open that conversation.”
To buy the Death Deck click here.
David: Hi, this is David Abend founder of The Bucket and host of today’s podcast. You know, one of the ongoing challenges we face every day is getting past this taboo of death to get people to have conversations about their mortality without putting their hands over their ears and closing their eyes.
We think the conversations will lead to happier more fulfilling lives. Two people who have embraced that thinking are Lori LoCicero and Lisa Pahl. They’ve actually created a party game called The Death Deck that gets people talking and thinking about their own mortality in a fun refreshing way. Lori is a director, producer, and author of a recent book entitled Clouds Far Behind Me, a memoir recounting her own personal loss. Lisa is a hospice social worker and ER crisis interventionist who has a passionate belief that peace at the end begins with meaningful conversations over time. Welcome, Lori and Lisa. Thanks for talking with me.
David: I’m going to give each of you a chance to give a little bit more background on yourselves. I think the first thing I want to do is get right into about what the Death Deck is. And if you’re listening it might help if you go to thedeathdeck.com, because seeing it can really help you understand what it’s all about. I found out what it was about from Twitter. I recall seeing it, I forget how, whether you followed me, or I followed you. We saw that we had some connection there, but it was kind of wild, this party game about death.
Why don’t we start with you Lori talking about what is the game? And, what’s it all about?
Lori: Yes, thank you. The Death Deck is a party game. It’s also a great conversation tool. Basically what we have created is hopefully the conversation starter for people who do not want to talk about the subject. They push it away and don’t want to deal with it. But this is the way to open those general conversations and then hopefully lead people to then have further, deeper conversations.
We added some humorous elements to it. We made it both a multiple choice and interactive game, so that it would have people not feel on the spot. We found with a lot people being put on the spot is not always easy and very emotional. So we’ve tried to come at it with a little different angle to where we are having people interact and ask each other to try to guess each other’s answers. But it really gets you thinking about some of these things around death and dying, your final wishes, documents you may or may not have, and your beliefs in the afterlife. What we’ve found is that many people say “oh no, I don’t want to talk about that”. But once we can get them to start talking about it, they really do want to talk about it because generally they just will keep talking about it and not be quiet about it.
David: The Conversation Project is an organization that I think a lot of people are aware of that tries get people to have these conversations about death, but your tact is to kind of bring some humor into it and make it fun. Can you give some examples of some of the cards that you have?
Lori: Sure, one of the cards, which is actually not a multiple choice but is called “on the rack“ and it’s an open-ended question. It says, “if your spouse died which article of his or her clothing, would you want to keep, and which one would you be glad never to see again?” It gets couples talking about those items. I experienced the loss of my husband and one of the things that was extremely difficult for me was parting with his things. We never had that conversation. I was hanging on, in the beginning, to even Post-it Notes that had his handwriting on it. It is just one of the things that I can’t get rid of. Really, it’s those couple of elements or couple of things that really spark those wonderful memories that eventually was what I was able to hang on to and want to keep.
Lisa: What I love about that question is when we played that in a game setting it broaches the topic of thinking about the loss of your spouse and kind of creating conversations about that, but at the same time people can balance that out with joking around about that old college sweatshirt that has a thousand holes in it that they really can’t bear to see their husband in one more time. I think that card is a great example of how we’re trying to ask thoughtful questions, but yet continue to keep it a little lighter and with a little more humor to make it more fun.
David: Something I’ve gone through is people look at you like you’re crazy. First of all, that you’re talking about death and why would I ever want to talk about that? What do you say when people look at you like you’re crazy?
Lisa: Well, they do all the time, especially when they hear the name of the game The Death Deck. Sometimes we’ll get a scrunched-up face and they say why would you call it that. We call it that because that’s what it is. We’re trying to start these conversations about the end of life and death, and we don’t think that people need to be afraid to say the word death. I usually tell people a little bit about my work and why this is important to me when they give me that look I say, “oh I get it, however working in Hospice…”
David: That’s a good segue into what you do.
Lisa: I work as a licensed clinical social worker and for about 12 years I’ve worked with Hospice. I’ve worked for about six years in the emergency department. In both settings, I encounter people every day that have never really had any conversations with their loved ones about what they would want at end of life, or if they have this severe health crisis like a stroke. I feel like the conversation surrounding these decisions are the most important part. The advance directive is also incredibly important, and I shouldn’t say conversations are more important. They go together. Even if you do an advance directive those are just words on a page and open to quite a bit of interpretation. In my experience, people are the most confident in making decisions for their loved ones when they’ve actually had a conversation about it, and we can say “remember we talked about this with Dad”. So, that’s what we’re trying to create.
David: Have you had any experiences where people have come back to you after they’ve played the game and told you a story about how playing the game helped them with their conversations?
Lisa: Well, actually one that I really enjoy was a younger couple that I started playing the game with in a bar setting. I just brought the deck out and invited anybody who wanted to come over and play. They reached out to me the next day and said that through our game they had finally come to a decision on who is going to get their child in their will. Basically who they were going to give custody to, which was the piece that they kept putting off doing because they couldn’t figure out whose family was going to be the guardian of their child. So that was incredibly rewarding and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.
David: If you’ve watched people play the game, do you see the barriers break down? Like first it’s kind of like I don’t want to be talking about this, and then suddenly they get into it and start playing.
Lori: Yes, one of the things that we enjoy is that it is set up a like a game. You can set a time limit or point limit. You do get points if you guess your partner’s answer correctly. What we found is a lot of times we start as a competitive game and people have their score sheets. What happens is that we get two or three questions in and the scoring goes out the window. People start to engage not only with their partner that they’re playing with, but with everyone else around the table. It becomes a conversation back and forth with people’s ideas and it’s just really a beautiful thing to watch.
These people that are at first saying, “No, I’m not really into it, but I’ll play.” But then all of a sudden, everyone is talking about these very important issues and laughing and having a good time, and having in their mind, “okay, you know, this is something that we probably really should do.” We want to spark that. That’s the spark we want to get, for people to then actually go home and further these conversations.
David: Recently my wife looked at me and said, “I know where I want my ashes to go.” She finally was able to do that and tell me the place. It was a conversation that we had that went beyond that at the time and it was rewarding to get there. What’s amazing to me is how almost everything that I’ve seen on the cards have answers will surprise the person their closest with. Do you find that?
Lisa: Absolutely. It’s actually been pretty fun to listen to not just couples, but we’ve had friends partner up, or a son and his dad. What I’ve enjoyed is listening to how someone else perceives what you think about end-of-life questions is really fascinating. Watching couples or family members and friends kind of, I wouldn’t say argue with each other, but you know say, “really you would not do that,” and just be surprised by these answers. We end up not usually getting through very many questions. Lori and I were pretty surprised that when we developed the game we thought we need so many questions, we want to make sure people can play it multiple times. What we’re finding is people typically get through about 10 questions, maybe, because there’s just so much conversation that then occurs. One last thing that I really enjoy, working in social work and trying to bring people together, is that these conversations aren’t just about preparing for end-of-life and living well, they’re also about connections with each other. When you have conversations that are about important meaningful things, not just about the weather, your day, politics, but about big things, you end up feeling a lot closer to the people that you’re with.
David: Showing that vulnerability can really bring people closer. That’s one our goals at The Bucket is it’s not about making the end better necessarily, it’s about making the time you have left better. By talking about this and by thinking ahead you could do that. It sounds like you’re saying that you know, this isn’t just about death, it’s about life.
Lori: Oh, most definitely. By talking about it, by taking the fear out of it, by embracing the fact that we are here for a limited time. That’s what we love about The Bucket, it’s having a number and a deadline, essentially, to look at your life and say, “okay, where am I now, and if I’ve got this much more time left, what do I really want to do with this?” When you don’t have that end date or that number, that non-embracing of the fact that we’re here for a limited amount of time. I think sometimes things get pushed off until the very end, like we do on work deadlines. Who wants to wait until the very end and then realize gosh, I really should have been living then, those were the years I wanted to get these things done? I think it’s a great incentive, push and reminder that here we are, we have these days, let’s live them.
David: I have a question for each of you Lori. What is Your Bucket Age?
Lori: My Bucket Age is 31.
David: Okay and Lisa your Bucket Age?
David: The Bucket Age is something that we get a lot of feedback on as a lot of people, when they come to our site, calculate their Bucket Age. Sometimes we get people pushing back and saying, “you don’t know when you’re going to die and how can you tell somebody that. And, you need to live for the moment, and not worry about when you’re going to die.” You get funny reactions, but the negative reactions seem to be tied to that taboo of death and that we don’t want to talk about it. I call that the choir. We are in the choir in that when we believe in this stuff, and we believe in the positivity that can come out of it, and that it can help you make decisions, that can help you have a more fulfilling life. First of all, let me ask you Lisa do you think there is a choir?
Lisa: Yes, but I’m happy to say I think the choir is growing. It’s certainly growing. There are more and more people that are kind of coming into the death and dying space. I think it’s becoming a little less taboo to have some of these conversations. However, it’s kind of slow going. I have been interested to hear people’s responses when I tell people that I work in Hospice and then say I developed a game to get people talking about death. You put those together and they look at me like I must be this dark morbid person. The people outside the choir, we’re still working on engaging those people and finding different ways to bring them around.
David: Lori, do you feel the same way?
Lori: Yeah, that’s what this game is all about. We’re trying to reach people not in the moment. We’re trying to reach people that haven’t just been given a terminal diagnosis. We’re trying to get people to talk about this when that pressure isn’t there, so that it becomes more of an engaging conversation. It’s a fascinating conversation to have about life, death, after life, and what people’s views are. So, we can get people talking about it when it’s not something that is present in their life, and in that emotional space, we find that it’s just such a great way to reach people who are not then thrust into this immediacy of we have to figure this out.
We’re hoping to break out of that choir and get everyone involved. We know that it’s a tough nut to crack but our mission is to get people talking, playing, embracing and having these conversations early.
David: And your story, you were forced into it, right?
Lori: I was. I unfortunately had to have an excruciating conversation with my husband when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He didn’t want to talk about these things. We thought we had prepared, we had wills and we had advanced directives, but we didn’t have the deeper conversations and the detailed conversation. When it got to the point in his illness where it was imminent that he was going to die, I felt the need to have this conversation with him in the moment, and it was something that was really the spark of this game.
You don’t want anyone to ever have to be in that moment and have to have this conversation. It is not the time to have it. From that, from my grieving process, from working with Lisa, this is such an issue about why are we not having these conversations. We just didn’t know of some of the details to have in this conversation. It’s just it’s so important.
David: How did you two come together to create this game?
Lisa: Well as Lori mentioned her husband, Joe, died of pancreatic cancer, and that was ten years ago. Lori and I met because I was the hospice social worker that was assigned to Joe and his family. I provided bereavement support for Lori afterwards. We had many conversations in her backyard about grief, how her two young children were doing, whether they should come to the celebration of life, and how they should be involved. So it started as a professional relationship. However, we certainly had quite a fondness for each other.
I meet all sorts of people and all sorts of families and there was something that really connected with Lori. After providing bereavement support to Lori for a little longer than typical because I really liked her, we parted ways for a couple years. Several years later we started talking about this need and what can we do, and we decided to work on how can we keep people from being in the situation that Lori was in with Joe. That’s the idea of how The Death Deck was born. It took a lot of back and forth and writing. I provided a lot of the content for what’s important that people talk about. Lori is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, so she and my husband added the humor. My husband, Clay, who I should acknowledge helped us insert some humor. The humor piece was really important for both of us because to me that’s how I cope with life. That’s how my family has always coped. I believe that you can find humor in even the darkest of situations.
David: When you watch people play the game is there a card or a question that really gets people laughing and really letting their guard down?
Lori: Yeah, so I have a multiple choice one here and it’s, “would you consider a biodegradable burial pod that uses your remains to grow a tree?”
- Totally if the tree bears fruit you can enjoy me in a whole new way.
- Undecided. Maybe plant a tree in my honor instead.
- Nope. Not my idea of returning to my roots.
There we go.
David: That’s a good one.
Lori: But you know, you start to think about it and you laugh and then you go well, okay, “Well, maybe, I don’t know.”
David: In some ways this game gives permission to ask these questions, like I don’t want to know the answer to this question, but I have to ask because I picked up this card. It kind of pushes people that way without them being responsible for asking their spouse a difficult question.
Lori: Exactly. What we found too is that there are a lot of conversation cards out there to start these conversations. All the ones that we found are the open-ended questions, so you’re kind of again put on the spot to come up with your own answer, rather than having a multiple choice answer to align yourself with. We like that too, because if you haven’t really thought about it, you don’t really know, now you’re given sort of a scale of I would align myself with probably that answer. It helps to get people to embrace that and start to think about what that answer might be.
Lisa: I do enjoy when some people really hate to be put in a box or to be forced to make a decision, so we have a, b, and c answers on the multiple choice ones and regularly people will say “d” and they’ll come up with their answer, which is totally fine because all we’re trying to get them to do is to talk about this. Sometimes the pushback that you might see with the Bucket Age is people want an answer that’s not there, which honestly was a very challenging piece of writing the questions. That we’re then trying to predict or make some good guesses on what people’s responses might be and then make those responses kind of funny. I think where we insert a lot of the humor isn’t necessarily the question itself.
Like this one is. “After you die how long should your significant other wait before dating?” Which by the way is a “Lively” conversation.
- Love is unpredictable grab it when you can.
- Six months to a year and then it’s fair game.
- At least a few years or you better believe you’ll be haunted.
So again, people just kind of chuckle a little bit and then it lightens it up to say what your answer is, but that one usually sparks some interesting conversation.
David: Those are questions that people aren’t asking on their own and it’s just too awkward. The game gets those questions asked. I have to admit when I first saw The Death Deck I said, “Wow, I wonder how they did this?” Even in in the choir I’m thinking “oh boy!”, and then I started reading them and I was like, wow, this really is taking something that other organizations are trying to do but really doing it while understanding human nature, and how people are so resistant to it and how you get them to talk about it.
Lisa: Well, thank you. That’s what we’re trying to do. And again, I think you know that The Death Deck comes with 112 questions, most of them are multiple choice, but we do have 30 or so open-ended questions as well to kind of start those conversations. We designed the game so that some of the questions are lighter than other questions and we encourage people to know your audience. We want people to be able to use this game for game night with family and friends. I would say most of the all the cards are fair game in that setting. Then I have used it with my hospice team starting our weekly meetings. With those I’m choosing questions that I think will be helpful for people to be thinking about. We try to create a wide variety of topics.
David: Sounds like you come at it from different angles and different intensities and kind of allow people to go at their own pace if you will.
Lisa: Right, and if you’re the one bringing the game then you get to kind of stack the deck and the cards.
David: That’s true.
Lisa: Take the cards out that you don’t want asked and put the cards in that you want to know. That’s what I’ve done with my family. I brought them together and said, “here we go, this is what I want to know Mom and Dad.” I’ve now played with them several times and I keep being surprised, even being in the choir and creating this game, there’s still things that I don’t know about my parents and what they want.
David: I think that is the most compelling reason to get this game is because of the I didn’t know that response that seems to happen with almost every question, and how are we living without knowing these important answers? That’s what this game helps.
Lori: It’s so much easier to approach a parent or a spouse with a silly card game that has humor in it, rather than sitting down and saying, “you know, we really should have this important conversation.” I think that by having this tool or device, something you can blame while trying to play this game. These are some funny cards, is a lot easier than to just sort of start to open that conversation,
David: Absolutely. So how can people get this game?
Lori: They can get it on our website, which is thedeathdeck.com. We also sell on Amazon, and we’re on all the social media channels as The Death Deck.
David: Well Lori and Lisa, thank you so much for talking to me today, and I hope everyone goes out and gets The Death Deck.
Lori: Thank you so much.
Lisa: Thanks for having us David.
David: I’d love to know what you think of The Bucket?
Lisa: Well, I was just going to say what I really enjoyed about The Bucket is the wide range of interviews and people that you’re speaking with. I’m impressed at how many people seem open and onboard and willing to talk with you guys. Has that been your response that you found people are pretty agreeable that you’re reaching out to?
David: Yes, for the most part. One of the things about the choir and about The Bucket is that what we’re trying to do is deliver mainstream content that just happens to be about this. So that where we could say, we’re not about dying, we’re about living, we’re not about death, we’re about life. So, what we try to do is, as in our recent theme Dog’s Life, it’s all about dogs, but it’s how death and dealing with the death of animals and your own perspective on life through dogs. Anybody would read that article, it’s not about people looking for articles on the topic. These aren’t people who just searched on Google for The Death Cafe and now they’re coming to The Bucket.
What we’re trying to do from an editorial standpoint is have mainstream articles that go into these areas of talking about death and mortality and really for this audience, which is you know, basically young Boomers, who still have plenty of bucket years left. How are you going to live those years? And, not have this be something that sneaks up on you. Now we’re assuming for the most part that we’re talking about a natural lifespan. Certainly, what you were talking about what you’ve dealt with Lori personally and Lisa what you deal with every day, these are sad things. We’re not trying to say that they aren’t, but what we’re trying to do with The Bucket is say, we don’t want you to get to the end of your life regretting something that you didn’t do because you didn’t know how or didn’t plan for it. That’s one of the things we’re trying to accomplish with The Bucket’s editorial. That’s how we approach people when we’re trying to get interviews, that were really talking about life, not death.
Lori: I so appreciate that because as you said I was not anticipating the loss of my husband in our early 40s. I mean that was not going to happen, but it did and it does. I now so embrace, websites like The Bucket that that really do talk about embracing that mortality looking at that age, even though we just don’t know. It helps to guide your life and I really do truly believe that if you are able to just look at that number and say, I acknowledge that, and now to just live fully, knowing that once you can accept it, you can really live fully. I’m not explaining myself well.
David: It makes a lot of sense.
Lori: I know from my personal experience; I so embrace life now. I mean now I know that it can happen at any time. I don’t want it to happen anytime soon. Lisa laughs at this because I always say, my goal is 100, that’s what I’m looking for.
Lisa: That’s not my goal.
Lori: Lisa’s goal is not 100. I’m living to a hundred, but I know that from my experience that you just don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I am trying to live and embrace every moment, every day, and do what I can while I still can do it. And not get to, whether it’s in 31 years (my Bucket Age) or a hundred and look back and go, “Why did you wait until your 80s to do what you really wanted to do?” Do it now. Go for it now. Another thing I really love about what y’all are doing is that it is similar to what we’re trying to do, if you’re not in the moment of having someone with a terminal illness or having someone in hospice, you can talk about these things just as a general conversation.
I think there’s just there’s such an emotional weight to talking about death and dying, and when you can release that fear, that fear, that femotional attachment to it, and just talk about it as a subject, it’s fascinating. I think it really is fascinating what you talked about with dogs and pet loss and the human nature of it. It’s just so refreshing to be able to have these conversations and talk about these things without cringing up and bringing it in all the emotions because that’s what I believe life is all about.
David: It certainly is. One of the things we talk about with The Bucket is that we’re trying to rebrand death, that it has the worst brand in the world
Lori: It does.
David: Yet to your point talking about it can bring benefits, and so you can choose to not talk about it because it’s morbid and you know that just you don’t want to be depressed. Or you can choose to talk about it and then suddenly you might say I’m going to change what I’m doing. I’m going to make a choice to move to France for a year or something like that, but when you allow yourself to think about how many years you have left it might be that catalyst that gets you off your ass to do it.
Lisa: I think you guys are doing amazing things and if we can get the mainstream to be a little more habituated and that death conversations are kind of normal and just included and people are more exposed to that then perhaps we can reach the people outside the choir.