An unforgettable lesson

When my dad died a couple of years ago, our family had its first encounter with the hospice movement. Now my wife (Luann) and my daughter (Robin) are both doing hospice volunteer work. Last month, during one of the ongoing training classes for the volunteers, Luann told me about a powerful exercise that’s been stuck in my mind ever since. The goal of the exercise is to help volunteers understand what it is like to be the people they’ll be helping.

Here’s the setup. The trainer hands out packets of index cards and asks each trainee to write, on each of their cards, something he or she loves and would be devastated to lose. It’s easy to imagine what you’d write: the names of family members (spouse, parents, children, siblings, pets), activities (walking, playing music, traveling), experiences (reading, listening to music, enjoying gourmet dinners, watching sunsets).

Now the trainer walks around the room and randomly takes cards from people. One person loses two of them, another loses all of them, the person who lost two loses two more.

The effect is dramatic. Trainees clutch their cards and struggle not to let them go. When they release the cards they are visibly upset; some break down and cry.

This not only poignant. It also speaks volumes about effective explanation. For a long time my mantra has been: Show, don’t tell. If I show you a concrete example, that’s better than if I just tell you about an abstract principle. But that still leaves you on the outside looking in. If I can instead get you to experience for yourself what I am trying to explain, you will understand in a deep way and you will never forget.

8 Comments

  1. Jon

    To love thy neighbor as thyself is not to become thy neighbor
    by fully simulating their loss/pain.

    Imbuing ones mind with sufficient empathy
    is a very human approach though.

    But it might be taken too far …
    – remember Martha: entirely inspired by empathy yet
    she eventually stopped acting as her neighbor’s neighbor
    – unable then to appreciate that another source of
    inspiration was essential to help her to help others.

    just a thought

  2. Yes. During the 15 years after my dad’s stroke, and up to his death 4 weeks ago, (or only three?), there had been countless things to let go of, for both of us. In some ways, his death was just icing on the cake after a long series of other “deaths.” The good news is that I grieved a great deal before he got to that point. The bad news is that he himself never seemed to get to any acceptance, the best he could do was resignation. I fought this in him for a long time until I finally realized that he was on his own journey, there was little if anything I could do to alter it, and especially, if/when faced with a similar situation, I too could imagine myself just giving up rather than choosing to fight on with limited abilities.

    Thanks Jon.

  3. I’ve done a similar exercise. The presenter was walking us through an experience of “peaceful death”. We each wrote down a list of (as I recall) 4 people and 4 “things” that were important to us. She then talked about what happens to people as their body is dying. At points within the presentation, we had give up 1/2 of the remaining people and things. I was amazed at the effect that it had on me.

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