We avoid death with language, we think it softens the blow.
Passed away, flying with the angels, gone to a better place, gone, lost, departed, promoted to glory, born into eternal life, passed on, kicked the bucket, pushing up daisies, resting in eternal peace, entered their peaceful slumber, graduated to heaven, called home, gone to the happy hunting ground in the sky, breathed his last, bid farewell to the world, didn’t make it, lost the battle, gave up the ghost……… I have always been fascinated by the language of death. The words we choose to associate with the state of being or becoming dead.
The language of death avoidance is perhaps never more evident than it is in most daily papers. The standardized formatting of most death and funeral notices have become ridiculous. Not often, but sometimes I read one that really makes me smile, in just a few words I seem to have quite the sense of the person who has died. But how many people ‘passed away peacefully’? The more I spoke with families who had experienced the death of a loved one, the more I knew it was often not that simple. Sometimes it was not even that peaceful. And yet, somehow, as a society, that is what we expect to read when we turn to the death notices in a paper. The couched language has some kind of hidden message, of wrapping the death with love and kindness not to offend the readers… and yet more and more I spoke to families who wanted their notices to be honest. Personal. Reflective of the life and death of the dead. It’s a brave move to write a death notice that way but there is a raw honesty to it that seem to help people begin to look at the days and weeks ahead – because the reality is that the death notice is often the first thing that family will write. Before a eulogy or tribute, before they plan a funeral or ceremony, often before they have made any of the decisions they are going to be called upon to make in the time ahead.
But it’s not just language, we can avoid death in how we treat it as well. Many people don’t like to think of their own death, they feel as if they are tempting fate or they are so terrified and uncomfortable they find they are unable to negotiate their way through the necessary thoughts and decisions they will eventually be called upon to arrive at. So we lock it away, we put it in a box, we know it’s there but the longer we can go on ‘living’ without it, the better. Or so it seems.
Death is our constant companion. It is never far away – as resilient as the human body is, it is also incredibly fragile.
There are many reasons we should call things what they actually are.
When it comes to children, there is a necessity to have them understand the nature of death and what it means for the one who has died and for them to live on. Parents have been told for decades now in relation to children and various subject from body parts to social situations that a child’s development will always be better if the right language is used with them from a young age. Death is no different. So many times I have heard adults talk about how they remembered experiencing the death of a relative but only from a distance and usually they were left wondering ‘where is this better place grandma went, can I go there… and when will she be back?’ Even in my own young childhood I was kept at home away from the death of my grandfather and his funeral – it deepened my trauma and sense of loss, having been quite close I was essentially denied the opportunity to say goodbye along with everyone else. To experience that grief as a family and learn about that imperative step in the grief and loss process. I am glad however that I was never given any illusion that he was gone away. It would not have been softer. I knew he was sick, I knew he had been in terrible and unmanageable pain. I had sat with him daily when nurses would come to change his gangrenous wounds. And I am grateful that I was told he was dead, no longer suffering.
The same can be said for the disabled community. As a funeral director I have seen many times when well-meaning carers and family members come in to arrange a pre-paid or ‘at need’ funeral and have someone with them who required a form of disability support. Quite often they are unintentionally shielded, talked over, left without explanation – this can exacerbate their trauma and grief – it is unnecessary. In an effort not to upset the sensibilities of these people we can actually do more harm. Recently we attended a forum and one of the speakers told of how she was approached after a talk she had given about death to a group of disabled people and, in short, the gentleman asked if she would be able to help him find his mum who he ‘lost’ 10 years ago… That’s a decade of abandonment issues on top of grief because no one wanted to tell him ‘she died’.
It is very evident within some nursing home facilities as well. A nursing home is exactly that, it is the home of sometimes a large number of people. Dementia issues notwithstanding, if you were to live with 20-40-60 odd people for any length of time, take meals with them, watch movies of a night, do arts and craft… you’d notice when Jim no longer sat at the table with you or Mary stopped coming to exercise class or someone called Joan started sleeping in the room where Beryl had been two days ago. When someone dies in a nursing home they are often whisked away, behind closed doors. It is not uncommon as a funeral director, to be told not to come at certain times because people might see, or to be asked to wait while the nurses go ahead and get the residents into their rooms to shut the doors. Most always the nurses will accompany you out of respect for the dead, but not often are the residents given that chance to say goodbye as well. Their neighbour was simply there one day and not the next. There seems to be this idea that talking about it will upset people. Every 6-12 months most facilities will have a service or a ceremony to honour those left but at the time, it’s quite a managed kind of grieving. It is not uncommon for a picture and candle to be placed on a table for a few days – and then it is gone. I once arrived to collect the body of a gentleman and as we entered we walked past a picture of him – already on display. Only twice have I heard of places letting the residents know that someone has died and allowing them the opportunity to line up as a kind of guard of honour to say goodbye. To acknowledge the death.
Grief is natural and it can be healthy. It is possible to move into a healthy state of bereavement when your grief is not over-complicated or stifled by these death avoidance tactics.