June Topic: On Euphemisms for Death


sugar-maples-at-mount-auburn-cemetery

The design of the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Watertown, Mass. reflects a romanticized view of death. They were the first to see cemeteries as a place to console and inspire the public and encourage a healing connection to nature.

Picture by Jennifer Noveck.

By Lauren Muscarella


Part of my inspiration for starting Trauma to Art came from how our society views death and dying. In most cases it is largely ignored. People do not receive much paid time off, if any, after experiencing a death. The topic is taboo and for the most part never discussed. When we ignore the reality that death is as much a part of life as birth, it is a disservice to the community. Understanding that we are not immortal makes the time we do have much more valuable. Additionally ignoring death makes openly coping much harder for the ones who have experienced loss. 

I’ve talked with several people who have experienced intolerance and occasionally isolation after the death of a loved one. In this month’s topic we will start to dissect this problem from its core: our language and communication.

I come across people who are uncomfortable with the topic of death all the time and as a general rule I am very sensitive to this fact. I don’t want to make people uneasy. I read the social cues and do my best to respect my fellow conversationalist.

Then the other day a good friend flipped my world around. When I talk with other people I will say passing way instead of death or dying. It feels uncomfortable for me to say it because I would prefer to say death or died. However, I always thought passing away was what people wanted to hear. My friend agreed that perhaps people were more at ease with that term but she went on to ask, “Is it right?” She’s absolutely justified in asking this question. We as a society decide on our social norms. Therefore, we have the power to change them.

I want to hear from you. What do you think about the language we use when we are talking about death? What has your experience been? Why are we so afraid to acknowledge the reality of our mortality?


		
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Comments
21 Responses to “June Topic: On Euphemisms for Death”
  1. Casey B says:

    This is a really interesting topic, and I look forward to reading others’ opinions on it. I think we’re afraid to acknowledge the reality of our mortality because of the web we start to build from the moment we come here- we connect ourselves to people in so many ways, both through in-person friendships and increasingly so now online, and once we, or they go, that’s a strand of the connective web severed, which leaves a lasting gap. So, we resort to language like ‘passing away’; to try and escape the finality of what we’ve experienced. Somebody who is ‘dead’, or has ‘died’, is completely finished. Somebody who’s passed away, there’s an outside chance we’ll touch base again some day. We have to hang on to it, so we limit our language in that way. 🙂 That was just my 2¢. 🙂

  2. anonymous says:

    Lauren –

    Having lost both parents I get what you are trying to do. However, you will never be able to move forward as long as you continue to live in the past like you’re doing with this site. There are lots of us who have experienced lose but sometimes you have to let go of the past and focus on a productive future. Dealing with somebody who constantly dwells on something bad that has happened to them is not that appealing. The best way to honor a lost loved one is to honor and cherish their memory but to move forward, not remain stuck in the past.

    • trauma2art says:

      I’m sorry to hear about your loss. We all have our own ways of coping and expressing ourselves. What works for one may not work for another. I think it’s important to respectful all forms of coping. Thank you for your thoughts.

      Much love,
      Lauren

    • Rachel says:

      While I agree with you to some degree and welcome your ideas, Trauma2Art has provided me with a comfortable place to share my thoughts as I go through an on-going grieving process. In fact, Trauma2Art is one of the reasons, besides personal motivation, I’ve been able to get past “the hard part” of the grieving process and allow myself to be “me” again. Writing about my experiences enabled an opportunity to reflect on “sadness” and turn into something positive.

      Then again, though, everyone is different.

  3. Lauren,
    Death, to the living, involves so much more than simply missing the physical presence of the one who is now dead. Thus, our propensity to simplify with gentle euphemisms like “she passed on” and “he’s in a better place now”. Maybe he IS in a better place, but that doesn’t make me feel better about missing his corny puns or the way he’s so happy to see me EVERY time we get together or the way refuses your offer of an extra coat even though he’s shivering (my father-in-law). It’s the small, day-to-day stuff that gets you when someone dies. It’s similar to the frame of mind when one asks “how are you?”, when one really does not want to know the full answer. I’m having a major deja vue right now for some reason…..

    Anyway, your post is well written and a subject that’s worth discussing. The photo is stunning and I like your explanation that the Mt. Auburn Cemetery is place of consolation. It looks so peaceful.
    Hugs,
    Elaine

    • trauma2art says:

      I never thought of it like that Elaine. Thank you for your thoughts. The Mt. Auburn Cemetery is such an amazing source of positivity.

      Much love,
      Lauren

  4. I agree with you, Anonymous, in theory, that dwelling on the past, whether it is a happy or sad past, is not moving forward. The piece I think you’re is missing, though, is that hashing this stuff out can help others. Isn’t that part of why we’re here on this planet? Just a thought – everyone copes differently – wishing you well!

  5. Kristie West says:

    Such an interesting topic. It’s tricky isn’t it? When I first started working in the area I would tell people when they asked that I helped people with the death of someone they loved. But I realised very quickly that sometimes just the very word ‘death’ is too challenging…and I’d watch some of the people I could potentially help just shut down in front of me and change the topic quickly….which was the last thing I wanted to be doing to them!

    I have to say that myself I’m much more a fan of using the words ‘death’ and ‘dying’ than too many euphemisms BUT I am really careful with this and do spend a lot of time talking about ‘passing away’ and ‘the loss of’. Sometimes the words themselves are just too challenging for people.

    Kristie
    xx

  6. JoAnne Funch says:

    Lauren,
    I am so happy that you are willing to have this discussion. Like you, I am acutely aware of the language people use when talking about death. I believe people only use words they are comfortable with, same is true when people talk about sex. You can always tell who is comfortable when discussing sex by what names they give body parts – right?
    I think some people believe that if they don’t speak the word death, died, dying than perhaps it’s not real and as we know that is the fear speaking. In many ways we live in a grief illiterate society, more often than not people are no taught about death until it is personally experienced, then we are not prepared with the language or the feelings. With that said, where would one learn about death and dying? probably through ones church – what do you think?

    • trauma2art says:

      JoAnne, You are insightful as always. I am interested to see what others think of this question you posed about where to go to learn about death in our ‘grief illiterate society’ (good phrasing!). The answer might be that it depends on the person. That said I think finding an answer starts by building community. Based on personal experience I believe cultivating a society that respects the wisdom of our elders might be a great place to start. In this dream world of mine we all love liberally, hold each other to high standards, and value civic responsibility.

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful words and contribution to Trauma to Art.

      Much love,
      Lauren

  7. Becky says:

    I think the reason most people prefer to say “passed away” is because there really isn’t any finality to it. Saying someone is dead or has died is so final and straight to the point. In my life I have lost a good amount of people, mostly through illness but a few sudden and traumatic deaths, such as someone who I lost only a few days ago who I cared about very much and I myself and having trouble processing the whole thing. Maybe I will never be able to process this experience.

    I personally have no issue with simply saying someone has died or is dead. The only time I purposely say “passed away” instead of “died” is when I don’t know the person I am talking to very well (like today when I was attempting to shop for clothes for a funeral) People who know me and have had conversations with me know I am very to the point about things. I don’t beat around the bush so to say.

    I also have never really experienced any intolerance or isolationist behavior due to these deaths I have experienced in my life. I try to keep my emotions in check normally and when it comes to grieving I go to the people I know won’t judge or feel uncomfortable if I burst out into tears randomly when I remember an inside joke or a random night out with someone who just died.

    I think the bigger issue is that emotions in general are becoming a taboo topic. People don’t want to appear weak or look like they are being over dramatic, especially women these days.

    I don’t know if this answers the questions being raised but it’s my 2 cents.

    • Britt says:

      Becky–
      I am on the same page as you; I think people say ‘passed away’ because they don’t know what else to say. I started reading a blog called godammit.com, whose author lost her son in 2010. The woman is a character and really open with her feelings, thoughts, etc. Although she is sometimes vulgar and borderline offensive, she tells it like it is: “People die, even though we don’t want them to. Passing is a euphemism that seeks to downgrade the truth. Let us speak of death openly.”

      I think that part of the problem is that most people do not have to deal with death until later in life and so they don’t know how to react. Like Lauren and JoAnne said, educating our society about grief would help, but I wonder if we’ll ever get there since we place such an emphasis on logic and reasoning, both of which are difficult to apply to emotions.

      • trauma2art says:

        Britt,

        I agree logic and reasoning are difficult to apply to emotions. For me anyway, I usually eventually have an idea for why I feel the way I do but for there I sometimes struggle to accept the truth behind the emotion — but that’s just me. Everyone is different.

        Thank you for your thoughtful words and lovely contribution.
        Lauren

  8. Tabitha says:

    Hi Lauren,

    I definately agree that there is a problem with our language around grief and loss. Personally I have no problem with using the words death, dead. Yet I know that my understanding and meaning of the labels “death” and “dead” may be different from other people’s interpretations of the word. My definintion of “death” is merely the physical dissolution and non-functioning of the body, which excludes the spirit. A woman that I recently interviewed for my book pointed out that she consciously chose to use the word “passed” (note not passed away) as she believed in life after death. For her, her loved one had merely passed from this world to the next. This represents a challenge for us all as we consider the labels in languages we have for our experiences. Some of us may be using the same words but they have a different meaning that to what we assume. Great post and picture 🙂
    Tabitha 🙂

    • mamaquest says:

      Tabitha,

      I love your contribution. I’m not sure there is a problem or not and that’s why it’s so great to have feedback from others. I would say that there is certainly always room for more acceptance and love.

      Much love,
      Lauren

  9. Kori says:

    I agree with everyone who said, I think it depends on the person. For me, when my Dad and Step-Mom were killed in a car accident, I got more upset when people used “passed away.” Because for me, it wasn’t a peaceful, fading away, it was violent and tragic. For me, using the words “died or dead” helped me to come to terms with the truth of the situation, they were gone. Again, that was me, however, I am very careful when it comes to other people’s losses and see how they talk about it first. I will never ever say “They’re in a better place” though, because, for many people, how could somewhere other than right here, be better place.

    • mamaquest says:

      Hi Kori,

      Thank you for your contribution to the discussion. “In a better place” is a tricky one. I’m interested to see what others have to say about its use.

      Much love,
      Lauren

  10. Hey Lauren, Kudos for asking such a great question for opening up the door for others to explore this. In terms of my own view on it, I truly do see it as a “passing” and the reason I use that term is purely for spiritual reasons. The last few years, in my committment to raise my own awareness, I’ve had such a shift around self-identity – and knowing “who” we really are. In other words, distinguishing our human-side from our soul-side. And because I continue to work so deeply on helping others (and myself) give a voice to their soul, I believe (and know deep within) that our soul never dies. Yet, having said that, it’s true that the human part of us does die – and that part that we look at in the mirror is going to die. That’s why I believe it’s so important to get to know – and connect with – your True Self – the Self that is eternal – and whom never dies. And also, to help with the grieving process – to KNOW that the person you loved – and continue to love – isn’t dead. Yes, their human shell is gone, but their spirit, their energy, their essence lives on forever.

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