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Go Wish: A Fun Way to Spark Tough Talks

The Assortment of "Go Wish" Cards. Image provided.
Remember the Go Fish card game from your childhood, or perhaps playing it as an adult with young people? A variant, the Go Wish card decks, enable serious conversations about important personal values, especially those about illness and end-of-life preferences. They are especially useful in a family setting, with partners, or parents.  

Before COVID, my husband Bob and I often used our long road trips as marriage summit conferences, to have important talks about long-range personal and professional goals, dreams of travel, and future house projects. These days, we are home together, and even before the pandemic we visited a local lawyer to update our wills (the last had been done in 1981 by the lawyer’s father, when we had $86 in the bank). After the health and concurrent complications of my parents’ final years, we felt motivated to complete the Advance Directives as well. These are essential practical matters that ease the way for those left behind. It is a loving act to take these actions well before the need arises.

However, one thing that was missing for us was a frank discussion of the underlying emotions and values that inform the practical decisions of each of us, how we are alike, and in which ways we differ. A younger couple recommended the Go Wish card deck, which they used to enable what is, for many of us, a difficult conversation on a sensitive topic that nobody really likes to think about much. Since death is a fearful thing for most people, it makes sense that we avoid confronting it; but since it is inevitable, we need to consider in a calm and clear-eyed manner what kind of life we envision. 

Here’s how it works. Each card in a deck of 36 Go Wish cards contains phrases such as “to have a doctor who knows me as a person,” “to be free from pain,” “to meet with a spiritual advisor,” “to have close friends near,” and my favorite: a wild card, to which each person assigns a particular phrase that represents a unique wish. (For me, it was to have music as a companion in illness; for Bob, to be with the person he loves).

Each person sorts the deck in private, first grouping the cards into three piles, and then from the first pile, picking the top ten and then further ranking them in order from 1 to 10.

Then, together, each person shares his or her individual wishes. It is instructive to see where there are differences. Our friends also tried sorting the cards as each imagined their partner would rank the top ten, and then compared the actual results. How well do we really know each other, even after decades of marriage?

What did Bob and I discover? Some of my choices did not match my husband’s (for example, having a trusted advocate, because I am terrified of the Alzheimer’s disease in the women in my family, and not to be short of breath, because of my frightening experience with double pneumonia). He considered other issues that I had not ranked highly: to die at home and to be mentally aware. We agreed on the importance of human touch, to be free from pain, and to be kept clean. I felt comforted that using the cards at home during a quiet day made this valuable conversation easier and actually fun as we got to know each other better after 40 years as a married couple. For some families, these talks may happen in a hospital waiting room, or may not happen at all. 

Both of us wish we had meaningful discussions past the practical decisions of finances and funerals with our parents, focusing on the underlying preferences each had. My father would never have initiated such a conversation, and I respected his privacy, but would he have been drawn in had I completed MY deck and shared it with him first? Children sometimes die before their parents, so why should he not know about my wishes? If he had sorted the deck, what parts of his values would have surprised me? Which would have deepened our bond? Since my mother spent her last ten years with Alzheimer’s, wouldn’t it have been wonderful to find out her values well before she was not able to articulate them, especially about her religious faith?

So for all of us: Wake up. Stuff happens. Be prepared.

“Go Wish: Decide What’s Important Together” can be found at gowish.org