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The Meaning Machine

Death spurs urgent questions about what we mean to the world and each other; this app helps us express what too often goes unsaid.

Photo of Grace Rubenstein
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Who is your idea designed for and how does it reimagine the end-of-life experience?

Emotional expression is not our culture's forte. We soldier through, chin up, and avoid talking about what most deeply matters. So when death approaches, we (the dying person and the family) are left wrestling with unanswered questions: What have I meant to the world? What have you meant to me? What have we meant to each other? These unanswered questions can be as painful as the loss itself. This idea creates the space and the structure for families to ask, answer, and express meaning.

The Impact of Meaning

When my stepdad received a terminal diagnosis of leukemia, our family surrounded him with care, activity, and lively conversation. Over the 17 months before he died, each of us had the chance with him to get to know each other better, to discuss and resolve old tensions, and to mutually express our appreciation. His illness, in a surprising way, brought us that blessing. But many families aren't so lucky. Our culture has failed to provide them the tools with which to knit together a healing conclusion.

I envision an app, designed in collaboration with experienced end-of-life workers, counselors, and chaplains, that provides families a structure for making short yet important expressions of meaning to each other.

These could be short conversations of perhaps five minutes each, once a day or once a week, depending on the imminence of death. Each conversation would cover just a single question or expression, guided by prompts such as:

  • You have influenced me by...
  • I want you to know that it meant a lot to me when you...
  • I admire/appreciate how you...
  • Can you help me understand why you...
  • I am sorry for...
  • I forgive you for...


Or, given the difficulty for many people of saying these kinds of things out loud, the tool could afford people the chance to answer the prompts in different ways — in person, in writing, in images, in actions, etc.

The app could also provide a bit of pocket philosophy, serving up daily quotes and short spiritual texts on the nature and meaning of death — thus filling in some of the gaps left by our cultural avoidance of discussing death. Family members, who opt in to be connected via the app, could share the ones that move them most with each other.

(Image via StockMonkeys.com)

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

I could imagine trying out a few of these short exchanges, in person rather than by app, with willing families in collaboration with a Hospice team.

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

What could we do to help make these bite-sized conversations approachable and non-threatening for participants? Perhaps even fun? Also, how do we build in support and guidance for cases where a conversation brings up tension or conflict?

Tell us about your work experience:

Journalist, editor, media producer

This idea emerged from

  • An Individual

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I love how you and others in this space are  envisioning a democratization of  the wisdom that has prior been available only to the lucky and the blessed. I would suggest reaching out to the Hoffman Institute, as they have spent decades researching and practically applying these issues.