From time to time, Tough Conversations will present articles by guest bloggers on topics of interest to our readers. M. Jane Markley, an expert on advance care planning, wonders why it’s so hard to talk about death:
Have you ever noticed just how difficult it is for people to say the word “death” or “died”? You mostly hear the terms when something horrific has happened like an earthquake or a bombing but in day to day life it is rare. This is part of our culture of death avoidance. Just take a look at the obituaries. If we don’t say it, perhaps it won’t or didn’t happen. If you listen carefully you will hear many other phrases or words used but rarely “death”.
So what are people saying? Without a doubt “to pass” or “passed” is the out and out winner, as the obituaries show. But, there are other terms, again based on different cultures, that people will use and there are truly hundreds of them, if not thousands. Here is a very short list of interesting ones that I have found:
- Cashed out, bought the farm, knocking on heaven’s door, end of the road, kicked the bucket, expired, passed over Jordan, no longer eligible for the census, gone to their eternal resting place, croaked, went to the great beyond, gone to Davy Jones’ locker, six feet under…..
Why is it we can’t use the word? It is as natural as life yet we seem to think if we don’t use the term it won’t happen. We have to make up alternatives to shelter us from the word which we seem to have come to fear. Stop and consider your conversations and the terms that you use. What would happen if you started using that word – death- instead of all the substitutes? Can you even do it? Give it a try. “I went to a funeral as my cousin died last week.” Now how hard was that?
Death is a part of life, not the opposite of it. Birth is the opposite. We are born and then we die, all of which is part of this great thing we call Life. Be honest with yourself when using the terms and be conscious of the message you are sending. This will make it easier for you and others to:
Have ‘The Conversation’
Give ‘The Gift’
M. Jane Markley is a business and health care executive with extensive experience in clinical care, ethics, quality improvement and health IT. She founded M Jane Markley Consulting to help individuals, families, providers, and hospitals and other health care organizations to put in place advance care planning for themselves, their loved ones, and their patients and other key stakeholders.
Jane, thanks for this insight and also for the gentle humorous way you bring it to us. I was fortunate in that our mother brought us to visit the patients she cared for. Many of them had terminal illness and then we would go to the funeral. It was a great lesson in the cycle of life. Just the other day I was talking with a friend about the removal of the witness of birth and death which is visible on a family farm. And how this experience is lost to the younger generation. You’re right. Just saying the word won’t make it happen. Then maybe we’ll appreciate our living a bit more in the hearing.
I have a slightly different perspective on how we choose to talk or not talk about death. When I was eleven my older brother, 19 at the time, died. He was killed when the fast food restaurant he was working at was robbed. At age 11 it wasn’t easy talking to my friends about my brother’s murder.
Did you notice the transition in how I told my story? Died.. Killed.. Murdered. I did that deliberately. I learned early on that the words have different meanings. We use euphemisms to provide subtext. Murdered is harsh and shocking. Died is fairly neutral. Killed implies it happened to them. Passed away is peaceful. If the person you are talking to prepared it can bring the whole conversation to a stop. I’ve had years to deal with the reality of the shock. Someone I just told has had seconds. Red flags go off. They suddenly know something very personal and painful about me. Sometimes its not the right time or place for that kind of conversation. So I pick my words carefully depending on the situation.
I have had other people in my life who have died since my brother did. Some of them passed away, some were taken too soon, some found peace. Each person was different. Each death was different. That is why we have different words.
Carolyn Parr says
Thank you, Steven, for such a thoughtful response. I appreciate your perspective.
M. Jane Markley says
Steven, you are definitely most fluent in this arena from you brother’s untimely death and other experiences throughout your life. I concur with Carolyn that you provide a very thoughtful response. You truly understand many of the nuances and have articulated them extremely well. I am sorry that you had to become so learned in this field so early. Many people who have not had such an experience take more of the ostrich approach and find it hard to even articulate the word “death” because it is so foreign and frightening to them. They use terms, not because they have any real meaning to them but in an effort to avoid the D word These people have difficulty facing the fact that they and their loved ones will eventually die and thus fail to make plans for how they wish to live well for the rest of their life. As an advance care planning advocate, I want those people to break through their fear of death by having the conversation with their loved ones and give them the gift of an advance directive. None of this negates your perspective which is also very real. I hope you have completed your advance directive so if and when the crisis occurs your loved ones will know your wishes and be able to act accordingly. Best wishes to you and thanks for your insights.
Ron Kraybill says
Thanks, Jane, for raising the topic! And thanks, Steven, for greatly advancing my insight about why our language reflects such dodginess about death. Now that I think about it this way, it makes total sense to me that it is not solely about denial, but also about consideration of others, preservation of the stability of the present moment, and truthfulness regarding the varying emotional implications of each person’s death.
Joanne Law says
I’ve had personal experience of this as my mother died last month.
Perhaps being a mediator has helped me to be more open about my reality as when telling people about why my timelines and their expectations of what I would be providing were delayed I have consistently said “My mother died.” and explained that I had to travel to her funeral etc.
I think it is a bit confronting for some people but in most it brings out empathy and understanding especially if they have shared the very profound grief that comes with the death of a mother that you loved and also liked.
As she had Alzheimers if I had gone around saying I had “lost” my mother that could have caused all kinds of confusion.