I recently read an article reporting the death of a C list celebrity. I think. At the end of the article, the writer stated that the celebrity’s “life was pronounced extinct” at the hotel. That means he is dead, right? When talking about humans, what is it about the word DEAD that we are so hesitant to utter? Is the fear that it becomes real when we say it? Or that it is harsh and blunt? Or do we avoid the word DEAD because of its finality?
In our culture, we use euphemisms to discuss topics that make us uncomfortable or are taboo without directly addressing them. There are over 200 euphemisms for the word DEAD in the English language. Passed away. Lost a friend. Transitioned. Passed on. Checked out. Departed! Expired. No more. Reposed. Most of them have the quality of a lazy Sunday afternoon on a porch. Resting in peace. A few of them are quite funny. Croaked. Kicked the bucket. While they are colorful and some are accurate, they avoid what has actually happened. DEATH has occurred.
In the medical context, doctors rarely speak directly about the medical event of death with families. They use phrases like “he didn’t make it” to break the news of a patient’s death. I’d like to know where was he going! When someone is murdered we say he was whacked—if you’re in the Mafia—or offed. And the most poetic are those we use for artists in differing professions—last curtain call, danced the last dance, wrote the final chapter. Even in the funeral industry, which exists because of death, the language has changed to deflect the reality. We now call coffins caskets and use the word remains to refer to the body. The dead person is laid to rest rather than buried.
I was once with a client while she was in the throes of grief. As she talked of her father who had recently died, she changed the structure of her sentences to steer clear of saying so. “When they called to tell me that my father was…I was folding laundry when I got the call.” Finally she caught herself and could avoid it no longer. The word itself brought heaving sobs. While I held her, I listened intently to the words she repeated and felt the gravity her utterances. He is dead. He has died. He’s dead. Dead. Dead. She shook her head in disbelief. “He is DEAD!” she screamed. And then the sobs turned into a hysterical laugh. She told me that she hadn’t said it for the 2 weeks since her father’s death and didn’t want to stop saying it. This is a perfectly normal grief response. In that moment she found herself silly for trying to avoid the reality through an intentional change in her language. The truth was he was dead and never coming back.
Can you relate to this story? Its so much easier to think of a loved one doing something else like running an errand or on a trip other than thinking they have died. This is a technique used by the mind to avert the pain of the death. And our language around the subject reflects that. He has gone to meet his maker. He has left the building. He is no longer with us. He has departed this life. Or quite simply, he is dead and it hurts and that’s ok. Death happens. No amount of evading the word makes it less painful or any less real.