Time to get rid of euphemisms about death – or not?

Recently, an article was published in the Guardian on this subject. But is it really time to get rid of euphemisms about death?

Could it be that if we do this, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

I was intrigued about this idea, and so asked people in a few Facebook groups that I belong to, as well as my own.  As to be expected, there were quite a few responses, but the overwhelming feeling was that whether you use a euphemism or not, being sensitive is key.

For instance, one of my own stories of this is when I returned newly bereaved from the hospital, without my husband by my side. I bumped into a neighbour, who said ‘I’m so sorry to hear about your husband’s death’.

At that point, I had not heard those two phrases together ‘my husband’ and the word ‘death’. It felt savagely blunt – even though I knew she was simply offering sympathy, and I now know was using the ‘correct’ word. At the time though, it just felt like she had stuck a dagger in me.

Someone else told me that they saw euphemisms as a colourful part of the English language.

Then a colleague died over the weekend and I saw that someone had posted this on the FB group:

Will had created a cartoon character, so this announcement was totally in keeping with who he was.

However, I think there are three areas to explore, when using euphemisms instead of the words dead, death, or dying. 

Firstly, the use of euphemisms can cause difficult situations

That’s because people don’t always know what is actually meant. For instance, Julie said:

Or Ian, who when he was a GP many years ago, heard of a surgery that was at the top of a steep hill, with then two flights of stairs to arrive in the consulting room. A patient arrived, and complained about the hill and stairs. Afterwards, having arranged another appointment in a month’s time, the doctor, feeling guilty about the hard climb, said ‘It’s all downhill from here’ as they said goodbye at the consulting room door.

In a month, this patient came back with her daughter, having been really anxious, worried she had been told she was dying.

This is macabre humour, perhaps, but how awful for the patient!

And then there was the family who were visiting the vet with their dog, who was very ill. The vet said he would put him to sleep. The family asked when they should come back to collect him. ‘Oh, in about an hour or so’, said the vet.

So they family returned in an hour, having thought their dog was just going to be given a chance to have a nap.

And then there is loss – one of our most common euphemisms for death is to speak of having lost someone. Sarah said:

And someone else said:

The second issue is about sensitivity.

Sometimes (and occasionally it will depend on someone’s belief systems), it just feels too harsh, strong or final to use the word ‘dead’, or ‘death’.  It may be true, but bearing in mind the circumstances, perhaps the use of a euphemism has a place. For instance, if I want to talk about death conceptually, I will scatter my conversation with ‘dead’,  ‘dying’ or ‘death’ as well as using several euphemisms, my favourite being ‘popping your clogs’. There is something lighter that is brought in, an irreverence that can sometimes be very healthy.

However, using a euphemism as a way of avoiding either your own or someone else’s feelings does not work. It is this that contributes to a society that is already distanced from death, simply because of the funeral industry having claimed it as ‘theirs’, as opposed to the family’s or community’s death, and the medical profession developing many more ways to keep us alive for longer.   Death naturally has become less known to us as a result.

Meaning we tend to be more fearful of it, just like we are fearful of many things we know little or nothing about.

When a euphemism is used in this context, then it can be clumsy, unfeeling and impractical too.

For instance, an acquaintance I knew who bumped into me a couple of weeks after Philip’s death said ‘Please accept my condolences’. While this is not exactly a euphemism, it was a strangely formal way of expressing himself, something that belongs on paper, rather than in a face to face interaction, even if you don’t know the person very well.  Given my previous story about the word death, they could be forgiven for not wanting to use it!

However, the one thing we probably all need to know when speaking to someone recently bereaved is that nothing you can say will make it all right. Nothing IS right to say. There ARE no words that suffice.

So all you can do is the best you can do, and maybe that means finding a soft way to express yourself, such as I’m so sorry to hear about X, or ‘I was so sad to hear about what happened’, or even ‘No words will do, will they? ‘ (and perhaps accompanied by a hug or a touch on the arm).

The third thing is to do with emotions.

This links to sensitivity. End of life matters is a subject awash with emotions, or at least we think it will be. Certainly when someone is grieving, or coming to the end of their life, emotions are present, many different ones, and often all over the place.  Sensitivity is precious here, both towards yourself if you are grieving someone’s death, or near death, and towards others if they are.

(I nearly wrote ‘the loss of someone’ – you see how pervasive this is in our minds!).

But it is surprising how many people can talk quite practically and pragmatically about even their own death, when given the opportunity to do so.  Which is what Joy expressed in the Facebook group

So – what are your favourite euphemisms, or stories using them? I’m always interested in hearing all stories, both positive and negative.  Let me know in the comments!

And if you’re intrigued by this discussion, this is exactly the kind of thing we go into in depth in our training, to become an end of life plan facilitator. Next intake is January, and there are only a handful of places left. See https://beforeigosolutions.com/big-training/

for more info – you just have to be passionate about this subject, and want to spread the word more!

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11 Comments

  1. Elizabeth on December 11, 2019 at 2:10 pm

    Thanks for a thought provoking article Jane. For some time now I have been using the 3 D words instead of euphemisms. I seem to remember when I began using ‘passing,’ – for me, it was to emphasise the transition from a physical body to beyond, rather than a ceasing to be. However, now it feels more like avoidance and I wholeheartedly agree with Joy that death should be part of life. However, I found your story of coming home from the hospital very moving, so thanks for the reminder that there’s a time and place for straight language.

    • Jane Duncan Rogers on December 11, 2019 at 3:25 pm

      Yes Elizabeth, on the Facebook group people mentioned that too, that ‘passing’ (in their world) meant something very different from the word as it might be used by someone wanting to avoid saying ‘dying’. I think it’s probably all in the context and who the people are in relation to you

  2. Helen Millard on December 11, 2019 at 3:11 pm

    Please let us keep the euphemisms although they must always be used sensitively. My immediate instinct on meeting a bereaved friend or acquaintance is to hug them or touch their arm, as you mention Jane. However, even that is fraught with complications as a widowed friend told me recently that she was sick of being hugged or touched by everyone. I hope she is an exception as it is hard to go against one’s gut feelings.

    • Jane Duncan Rogers on December 11, 2019 at 3:24 pm

      The trouble is, you can’t get it right – and sometimes people who are grieving will behave in ways that are very different from their normal selves. We just have to remember that and not take things too personally. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Joanna Pieters on December 11, 2019 at 5:20 pm

    I believe Winston’s Wish, which helps children deal with bereavement, encourages the use of direct words. A child being told that someone has ‘gone to sleep’ can become terrified of sleeping, while they simply may not understand terms which are not direct, ranging from ‘become an angel’ to ‘passed’. As adults, I think we have to swallow any resistance to directness when children are involved – which can be counter-intuitive, as often we try to protect them, but this way end up making it worse. The more comfortable we are with those terms, the more of service we can be.

    • Jane Duncan Rogers on December 11, 2019 at 5:25 pm

      Yes Joanna, thanks for highlighting that. It is crucial to avoid misunderstanding, as in some of the stories in the blog, and particular with children too. And I couldn’t agree more with you re us all becoming more comfortable with the more direct words of ‘death’, ‘dying’ and ‘dead’. Having said that, depending on the circumstances, I think there is also a place for euphemisms (consciously chosen and used)

  4. Catherine Holland on December 11, 2019 at 7:33 pm

    Yes Jane, I applaud your discussion of this topic (using euphemisms for death). However, I have changed my feelings about this, I used to believe that directness and clarity were what was created by talking about death directly. Now I realise that since we don’t cease to exist when we die, that passing over (into the spiritual realm) is actually a much more accurate. We do not stop when we die, even in the sense of our influence remaining, our children representing who were were, and the love that remains. But mainly, as I now believe we are a spirit temporarily abiding in a physical body–what we call life–that the essence of us never stops, never ends, that death is too final a word to use. Of course it depends on context, who we are talking to, and as you point out so well, how fresh the feelings are.

    • Jane Duncan Rogers on December 11, 2019 at 10:40 pm

      Well I agree with you there Catherine! And have written about it too, in a chapter in Before I Go. But sadly most people are not yet awake to this idea, and are so far removed from the concept that that’s one of the things that makes it hard to talk about death. But its changing – slowly!

    • maggi on December 12, 2019 at 8:05 pm

      yes, i agree…and there is no death, just a passing through to a different dimension – so passing over is very apt and appropriate – though people have different belief systems so that has to be considered – i guess!

  5. Jane Duncan Rogers on December 12, 2019 at 6:35 am

    Diane Vasarkovy emailed me direct in reply to this blogpost with these wise words:

    Gentleness is important for some people when the wound is raw…especially….calls for the gentleness that they might
    use in their family, culturally, spiritually familiar terms. The act of dying is seen through the different lenses of all the lenses in the
    world. I know when I first lost my Dad and then Mom, I would think of them as “gone”, as if they were on vacation.
    After 10 years, I refer to them as “dead” without any hard feelings attached. This means that I have absorbed, adjusted to, and
    accepted their state of being.

    Whereas, the public discussion could be/should be more realistic in order to raise awareness. When it I worked in
    Domestic Violence, we purposely didn’t use euphemisms. “Slapped her around” is really “punched her with his fists”.
    “When she leaves, she is 4 times more likely to die at the hands of her abuser.” These words are used especially to
    the non-awoke population. So the shock value of the real words is valuable.

  6. Jenny Oates on December 13, 2019 at 12:54 pm

    I think this is such an important discussion. I have appreciated all the comments. At present I feel if I had lost someone dear to me I would not want someone to say” I’m sorry to hear he /she died” but as you mentioned Jane ” I’m sorry to hear what happened” or “i’m sorry about X” . I do wonder also if we are forcing ourselves to say words that feel harsh to us the recipient will feel that energy too. I guess communication from the heart will hopefully be felt. I also agree no words are likely to be right for everyone or adequate at all to someone who is grieving. I do however feel to have discussions, share ideas and bring the subject of death and dying into the open is healthy. In this setting I would say euphemisms are not helpful.

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