The Group

Staff at a hospice organization


The situation of the poem immediately provoked some outrage and indignation.  We began to discuss the strong links between language, context, and perception. We noted how powerful it is to witness human suffering and indignity, and how it can alter our sense of what is “indispensable.”

The group wanted to explore both the feeling and moral landscape behind being a “lone survivor,” and noted that accountability to a history, family, legacy, or tradition might be reason to endure certain kinds of “cages.”  Participants began to see the implications at this point for hospice patients and the loneliness that becomes a strong feature of their landscapes, the need for transmitting that final “legacy” word, and the struggle to communicate meaning when physical and mental function is steeply declining.  They likened the “meaningless sounds” hospice patients may hear to the often-confusing barrage of visitors, nurses, medical vocabulary, and background noises of facilities. 

One participant told a moving story about a Downs-syndrome patient who said “goodbye” in her own language when she thought no one was listening, and how the devotion of her care-givers allowed those words to be received with great love and understanding.  Together with the poem, that story allowed us to reflect for some time on what enables us to receive a language or expression of presence we don’t understand, and conversely, what keeps us from receiving.  We mused for awhile over the phrase “exhaustible language,” and saw the implications for patients faced with their own existential questions of mortality and immortality.  When you run out of words or the means to express them, when what is indispensably yours seems not to be received, has what is essentially yours come to an end?


Opening Activity

Before reading “An Unanswered Question” aloud together, we each considered this question: “If you were the last person who spoke your language, what one word would you not be willing ‘to let die,’ and how would you communicate that word?  After a minute of quiet reflection, everyone wrote that word down.   We then read the poem aloud twice, once to get familiar, the second time to note words or phrases that stand out to us. 

Discussion Questions

The "big questions" we considered were:

What allows us to understand* each other? What are the challenges to understanding*? (*or compassion)

What is the basis of “difference”? What allows us to accept difference?  

Text-specific questions that worked well were:

Why is understanding an ‘instinct’ for the woman with the thoughtful face?   How might a person in a cage recognize thoughtfulness when she saw it?

Who might the person who understands her "one word" be, for a dying patient? 

What accountability, moral or otherwise, does that “one thoughtful face” have for the terrible situation the “lone survivor” is in?

Closing Activity

Has your "one word" changed as a result of this discussion?  If so, why?

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