CEOLC Secretary & Co-Founder | End of Life Midwife | Certified by The Conscious Dying Institute, Denver Hospice
Passed away. Passed on. Is deceased. Departed. Gave up the ghost. Didn’t make it. Lost her battle. Kicked the bucket. Breathed her last breath. Went to be with the Lord. Is in heaven. Was called home. Is in a better place…
It seems that we will do anything to avoid saying the D-Word…DEAD. I see this as part of our death-adverse culture in which large numbers of people are unable to speak of death with any level of comfort. The majority of folks don’t want to think of death…their own, or that of loved ones because it causes pain and fear. Others avoid saying “DEAD” because, on some level, they’ve bought into a “you name it, you claim it,” mindset—as though saying the D-word will catch the Grim Reaper’s attention and lead to an unwanted visit.
It could be argued that describing a person who has died as DEAD is unnecessarily harsh. Dead is a period at the end of a life sentence. It is a full-stop. In comparison, euphemisms are almost poetic. They soften the edges of the end-of-life event, often painting the image that the person who has died has merely stepped out of the room or is on an extended vacation.
For some, phrases such as “passed over” or “passed on” align with religious beliefs that some portion of the dead has moved on to a different place. Yet, it could be noted that the person whose essence is passing over first had to be DEAD. That piece of the story is usually omitted.
So, is there value in saying “DEAD?” Some would argue in the affirmative. One of those is my former supervisor at the Victim’s Assistance Unit for the Denver Police Department. Part of a victim assistant’s job was to knock on doors to tell unsuspecting citizens that somebody close to them had died. When I first started the work, I was terrified of delivering the bad news that would forever change lives. I wanted to gentle-down the announcement, but my boss was unyielding, insisting that I say DEAD…”Your father/mother/child/partner/sister/brother is DEAD.” And she had good reason…
My supervisor recounted a night on which she accompanied a trainee who was performing a death notification. All seemed to be going well. The trainee told the recipient of the news that her family member had passed away. She then explained the responsibilities of the family member, and shared brochures listing grief resources and helpful phone numbers. Once the task was completed the victim specialists headed back to their cars. They made it to the curb before they heard the recipient calling out “Oh! I forgot to ask you when she’ll be out of the hospital and able to come home?” In her shock, the recipient chose to avoid the finality with which she’d been presented and the gentleness of “passed away” facilitated that mindset. Had the victim specialist said, “Your family member is DEAD,” there would have been no ambiguity.
Words matter. As those of us in the positive-dying movement strive to shift the way our communities view death, perhaps we should start with the simple act of saying the D-Word. I think that death might be less frightening if the word itself was sprinkled here and there as appropriate…so that, like most things that are familiar, it would lose its sting. As the word becomes easier to say the concept it represents might also become less threatening. When that happens, we stand a chance of exploring ways of better dealing with the final chapter of life.