Living With Dying articles

The Language Of Death

By Leah Carey
Aug. 16, 2016


Gone home to glory.

Gone to the sweet by and by.

Went over the mountain.

Crossed the great swamp.

Graduated to be with the Lord.

A thesaurus of euphemisms has grown up around the topic of death.

I’ve been noticing this as I speak with families about the deaths of their loved ones. In the course of the conversation, I understand what they’re sharing as clear as day – whether they were speaking about seizures or the upward reaching that is common among the dying.

But when I returned to the office to transcribe the interviews, I discovered that there are entire parts of the conversation that weren’t on the tape. In some cases they had used pretty euphemisms to disguise the wretchedness of what they were describing. But more often, they didn’t use words at all.

There is an entire language of facial expressions and bodily gestures and vocal utterances that make up our communication about all aspects of the dying process.

It begs the question – why?

A linguist’s perspective

According to J. Clancy Clements, a professor of linguistics at Indiana University who has a specialization in sociolinguistics explained that “euphemism” is when “one avoids a certain term and then replaces that term with another term … They exist in all cultures for the same things – to talk about bodily fluids, body parts, social status, changes in life like divorce and death, to talk about disease.”

He said that the level of language replacement is often correlated to how close the speaker is to the person who died. “I’ll tell my wife, did you hear that Muhammad Ali died yesterday? I don’t say passed away,” Clements explained. “She’s not going to take offense because the situation is neutral. Nobody is affected because nobody is a relative or close family member. In cases where it’s more matter of fact, we use the blunt term – die.”

But when the death hits closer to home, the language changes as a “solidarity move,” according to Clements. “When you say, I’m sorry your mother passed on, then that’s showing a certain amount of delicacy, a solidarity, and that you feel compassion for the situation … It depends on how psychologically close you were to whomever. That will dictate how you talk about things.”

When speaking about our own losses, there’s a slightly different calculation about which words to use.

“If I’m talking about a loss that I’ve been through, then we get into what is grief and what is denial,” Clements said. “If you put a label on it, that’s tantamount to acknowledging its existence. And if you acknowledge its existence by putting a label on it, it’s so painful that some people would rather avoid it.”

A physician’s perspective

Dr. Dawn M. Gross is an attending physician in palliative care at the University of California, San Francisco. One of the programs that she is passionate about is teaching medical interns about the importance of the language they use.

“We have them do role playing as patient and doctor giving difficult news,” she said. “At one point, many of the interns said, You’re dying. They actually said when we were debriefing how hard that was to say. And then, with the patient, how hard it was to hear that.”

But, she said, context matters – a conversation between friends is very different from a conversation between a doctor and patient. “The type of language we choose to use in those two settings are very different,” Gross said.

There is even a distinction to be made within the same conversation, Gross said. If she is speaking with a family about their loved one entering hospice, she might ask them if they have any past experience with hospice. If, in their response, they say, “Yes, my father passed away a few years ago,” she will mirror their language as she talks about the past experience.

However, as soon as the conversation turns to the current patient, she switches to non-euphemistic language.

“The danger with euphemisms in a clinical situation is we lead them down a path,” Gross said. “When I’m talking about the present – the person I’m taking care of now – I’ll use very clear language. I’m concerned they’re dying. Or, They are dying … You still do it empathetically. You don’t hit them over the head.”

Gross said she understands the allure of non-specific speech when she thinks about her father.

“I intentionally persist in magical thinking about my father. So I choose not to talk about it as, When my father died. It’s too harsh for me,” she said. “There is an absolute desire to be magically awakened by his touch. That’s how much I love him and miss him. So in that context, when I’m talking about my father … we know what we’re talking about. There’s no ambiguity. But in other contexts where there’s a hunger for ambiguity – in the medical context – it’s imperative that the language changes.”

A therapist’s perspective

Karla Rodriguez is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Montebello, California, with a special interest in traumatic loss.

Among her clients, she sees people using euphemisms to refer to a death for several reasons. “One of the most important reasons is to place distance between the uncomfortable and painful feelings that result from the death of someone we love or to avoid bringing up those feelings for someone else,” she wrote in an email. “Another reason, is related to the finality of death. For many people this reality can be jarring at first and is something that they should come to terms with as they process the loss in the months to come.”

Religious beliefs can also play a part in the conversation, she said. For instance, if people believe in reincarnation, “it would be appropriate to say that ‘he passed’ or any variation of that statement which indicates that life continues for the individual who had died, but in another realm or form.

When working with children, Rodriguez believes that it’s important to speak to them in concrete terms because this is how they think. “For example, ‘Grandpa had died. This means that his body has stopped working so he cannot breathe, eat, or talk or feel anything. This is very sad and we will miss him very much.’”

Rodriguez also cautioned to be aware of when euphemisms are being used as a tool for avoidance. “The need to not want to experience the feelings related with the loss is a very common one,” she said. “However, it should not be avoided because it only result in delayed healing.”

A funeral director’s perspective

Stephen Robertson sees people at some of their most tender moments in his work as a funeral director. He owns Sayles Funeral Home in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.

Like Gross, he tries to mirror the language he hears from his clients in their initial conversations.

“I just get an idea, a feel of the attitude that the family has at that point,” he said. “I very much reiterate what they’re saying. If it’s flowery, sometimes it may strike me as odd and I won’t catch it right away. But I’ll just try to be tender and work through it, and maybe even avoid it if I have to.”

After many years in the death care industry, Robertson sees patterns in how we speak about death.

“People very often skirt around the subject. It’s the American way,” he said. “In America we say, it’s not ‘When I die,’ it’s ‘If I die.’ But then we get confronted with death right in the face and have to deal with it.”

“For someone to be calling the funeral home, it takes a lot of effort for them to dial that number,” Robertson concluded. “I try to be aware of that.”

A Graceful Goodbye - Personal reflections from Leah

I hadn’t thought about how I spoke about my mother’s death until I started paying attention to how others spoke.

It became immediately apparent to me that I’m as vigorous a user of cloudy language as anyone.

I can’t bear to say the sentence, “My mother died” aloud. It sticks in my throat and brings up memories of those awful last few days.

My mother was dealing with cancer for two years. She was in the process of dying for six months. But it was the last 48 hours when she was actively in the process of leaving her body that roar to the front of my mind when I speak the words “she died.”

So I avoid them. Usually I say “she passed” – somehow that word feels less harsh, more manageable to me. I can create a picture in my mind of her going to sleep and not waking up – the gentle death that I had wished for her.

But I don’t just use language to soothe my own wounded heart. I also do it to protect others.

I’m surprised by the number of people who have asked about how she died. While I have no problem with the question, I think answering it in full detail would be disturbing for the listener. I make gestures and noises to demonstrate a sanitized version of what those final minutes were like. My mother lived with dignity and she wouldn’t want those details placed in another person’s head. Nor, honestly, do I like to relive those final hours.

So I prefer to think of how Mom chose to describe her own passage.

Mom loved to watch dancing. Six months before her death, a group of friends and family came together to give her a special first-class weekend in New York City to see a live ballroom dance extravaganza.

She and I spent a very special day together a few weeks before she passed writing her obituary. She chose this turn of phrase to open it: “Sybil Carey of Franconia, New Hampshire, went to dance with the stars…”

That is how I choose to think of her – out in the cosmos, dancing up a storm, and loving every minute of it.

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