There are a lot of expressions that often go along with funerals and mourning. We use them without even thinking. Sometimes it even seems impolite not to. “Passed on” seems to be the most common one, but we all hear more flowery phrases like “gone to Jesus” or “called home.”
I love many of these expressions. The graceful words are a form of poetry that help us accept death, and deal with the hard reality of being sort of “abandoned” by our loved ones. There is a time and place for that. For example, my personal rule of thumb is to mirror the language used by someone who is mourning or grieving.Most of the time, in everyday conversation with family and friends, and also with clients, I would rather just say “died.” It may sound harsh compared to the more beautiful words, and sometimes I see clients looking surprised. But I use this language for a reason. Here is why I think this word choice is so very important.
I “lose” car keys and directions. “Loss” isn’t a profound enough word for the unique tragedy that is death. Loss is definitely a part of it, but loss does not encompass all that death is. We need a special name for this profound event because it can’t be put on equal footing with with anything else.
Death is one of those bewildering life passages, like sex or birth. Using accurate medical terminology can help clarify a complicated and emotional topic like this. I think naming the event with accuracy helps us accept it, in a way. If nothing else, it helps us identify exactly what we mean.
Ambiguous wording like “passed on” or “went to heaven” is confusing, especially for children and non-native English speakers. Kids don’t like ambiguity because they are busy learning what’s going on all around them, and they need concrete, accurate and age appropriate information to do that. Plus, what if Uncle Ted was an atheist? Commending him to a deity he didn’t worship doesn’t truly honor his memory. Feelings Don’t push away the feelings that the words provoke. Burying your visceral response reinforces the fear of grief and even death. Why should we fear something that comes to all of us eventually? Why not instead accept our feelings and learn to navigate this transition gracefully?
Embrace the reality. Pushing our emotions aside blocks us from the healing process after the death of a loved one. Healing starts with calling something what it is, and fully accepting what that really means.
My opinion is that language is already a piss poor way to communicate, why make it harder by obscuring the facts with fuzzy half-references? Let’s call death what it is, face it, and learn to live better for it. Or, as I like to say, “When in the room with an elephant, say ‘hello.’”