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Character Sheets

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I have a lifelong enthusiasm for role-playing games. You know, those nerdy games like Dungeons & Dragons where you sit around at a table with friends and roll colorful dice with too many sides, and scribble notes and pretend that you are slaying monsters and looting their treasure. It all usually includes consuming entirely too much pizza and soda. Good times.

A central part of just about any role-playing game is your character. This is your alter ego during the game. In real life, I’m Bill Coffin, but at the gaming table, I become Guilder the warrior or some such while my friends play Andro the mystic or Luckan the rogue. Everybody who plays records their character’s various details on a character sheet. Imagine if Gandalf the Grey from The Lord of the Rings had to write his own resume; it’s a bit like that.

Playing RPGs was a huge part of my growing up, to the extent that I eventually went on to write them professionally for a while. Which, as geek exploits go, was pretty swell (until the swelling went down and I rejoined the ranks of business journalism, which honestly, I prefer). My brother Tom was in almost every game I ever played, including an epic game we played strictly by e-mail that ran from May of 2005 all the way until the end of 2008. It didn’t go on any further because on January 1, 2009, Tom committed suicide.

I spent the better part of 2009 speaking to a grief counselor and asking myself some very big questions that did not have any answers. And all the while, as bad as I had it, I knew that Tom’s wife and his two kids had it infinitely worse.

Tom had been bi-polar for years, something we only really understood once it was too late. And he had been jobless for many months leading to his death, something not entirely uncommon among suicide victims ever since the Great Recession began, I have learned. Tom’s finances had gotten so bad that he let his life insurance lapse, leaving his family with nothing once disaster struck. I still don’t know how he could have done that. But then again, I still know how he could have decided one day that dying was better than living. I don’t think I ever will.

I didn’t play a single RPG for years after Tom died. I couldn’t get past the character creation stage; I would always end up looking at a blank character sheet and think of Tom. For as much as Tom could have seen to his family’s financial needs, all the money in the world wouldn’t have brought his kids their father back. Nor would it have spared the heartache felt by those who buried him. Life insurance is a fantastic thing. But even that has limits.

A little while ago, my kids asked me about role-playing games and I asked if they wanted to play one with me. They said yes, and one Friday night, our family sat at the dinner table and we popped popcorn and together we started a game of our own. It was great. Nothing lasts forever, I learned that night. Especially grief. Game on.

What could the life insurance industry be doing to help its policyholders who become suicidal? Outreach? Counseling? Advocacy?  Let us know what you think. Bill can be reached at [email protected].


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