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Old 03-08-2012, 09:48 AM   #1
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Question What we talk about when we talk about death

Lately, because it's part of my job, I've been thinking about how we talk about the fact of death. The language of euphemism does wax and wane over time, but Lincoln, for example, spoke of "these honored dead," and "that these dead shall not have died in vain." Now I mostly hear about "passing over," "passed on," or "passed away."

Myself, I don't use those words. I talk about people dying, of being dead. I don't think the families I talk to think me callous or unfeeling; concern and sympathy are shown more in the manner in which we speak, in the time we take. Direct speech is powerful speech, and I think meaningful and moving discussions of death are actually cheapened by mincing words.

So I'm curious. Is it Politically Incorrect to say someone has died, is dead? I would feel phony if I said my patient has passed on. So I don't, and I don't think my word choice causes further pain. Words have power, and death is a powerful word. We should honor and respect the event with the most powerful words we have.
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Old 03-08-2012, 09:54 AM   #2
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Yes, I've wondered about this. And wondered, too, why we don't have a word for the dying time - those days or weeks when we know that there will be no recovery, no other end.

We don't, do we?
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Old 03-08-2012, 09:59 AM   #3
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Interesting way to look at it.

From a physician's perspective I would think being exact and precise in your language matters. Heck, you're trained to be exact and precise.

In the Black church they often describe the funeral ceremony as someone being "called home" or "crossed over." Rarely if ever do I hear a preacher saying someone died. Instead, they were called home to our Lord's side.

When my mother died, she was dead. When my father died, he was dead. When I die, I'll be dead. But that's me. I don't need the pretty, sanitized version for mass consumption. Just say I'm dead and then cremate me, mourn me for a decent interval and move on.

Give it me straight. But then I write non-fiction, so that is just how I'm put together. Just the facts, ma'am.

Like most things, Colorado Guy, it's YMMV (your mileage may vary). Some folks want it given to them straight and some want the Hallmark version. As long as you don't project coldness, impatience or indifference, you should tailor your response to suit the audience.

One size responses do not fit all.
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Old 03-08-2012, 10:03 AM   #4
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We are sometimes uncertain what words to use about death because we don't know what concepts others hold and do not want to cause pain or embarrassment.

A close friend of mine died in his hospital bed two weeks ago, and when a couple of young funeral directors arrived to take away his body, they said things like "He is in a better place" and "He is looking down on us." Those statements sound hokey to me, but I don't blame the funeral directors, who had no idea what our beliefs were.
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Old 03-08-2012, 10:04 AM   #5
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Mccardy: No, not unless you include phrases such as "their final days/weeks," I don't think there is a specific term for that.

And Colorado, I don't think that it's automatically not "PC" to use the variations of "dead." My feeling is that people fear death and so they avoid its use, especially in context of when it actually happens and might have an impact. "Passed on" makes it feel less real, less harsh, less final. You know? But there's that old favorite saying of mothers: "It's not what you say, it's how you say it." So as long as you're not delivering it in a totally callous way, I think that "died" is perfectly acceptable.
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Old 03-08-2012, 10:04 AM   #6
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The problem with being blunt and direct with your language is that some people want to avoid facing the death of a person or being reminded of it with direct language. I know I've found myself being cautious about using my word choice when I've talked about such subjects. In the end, I feel like my ability to speak with those who have been left behind by the dead about the death is hindered. Maybe direct language is the best choice.
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Old 03-08-2012, 10:10 AM   #7
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Mccardy: No, not unless you include phrases such as "their final days/weeks," I don't think there is a specific term for that. .
And even then, if the subject is a brave and brilliant and irreplaceable 16-year-old, well - those words just don't fit. We have "puberty": but some children die. Some teenagers die. Some adults die.

There should be a word for the time it takes.

It can take a lifetime.
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Old 03-08-2012, 10:34 AM   #8
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A term I hear a lot and hate is "expired" I want to slap anyone who uses that. I have no problem with died, dead, etc.

Also, the period when it is believed that the person will not survive is called 'terminally ill' or 'terminal'. They are often put into hospice care (meaning, control pain but no medical help to survive). In olden times, it might have been called "taking to your death bed"?

This week I heard about a woman (friend of a friend) who was put into hospice care after a stroke. Thank God the hospital sent her to home hospice care. She's now recovered much of her abilities (within only a few months) and is off hospice care and back to normal medical assistance. It seems the hospital was quite willing to write her off. She'll never be 100%, but her goal now is to be self-mobile.

There was a pastor at my uncle's furneral who said all the proper Christian things about him going home to be with the Lord. I didn't know him well, so asked my mom if he was Christian. He was not. So that pastor was a total fake. Had he been honest (from a Christian perspective), he should have said my uncle was now in the pit of Hell having never accepted Christ as his savior. Or, had the family been honest, they would not have had a pastor at the funeral of a man who didn't believe in Christ. Makes me wonder how many athiests are sent off by a pastor lieing through his teeth.
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Old 03-08-2012, 10:43 AM   #9
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Also, the period when it is believed that the person will not survive is called 'terminally ill' or 'terminal'. They are often put into hospice care (meaning, control pain but no medical help to survive). In olden times, it might have been called "taking to your death bed"?

.
Watch me get angry about that. There was a little girl I knew who had brain cancer. During the last few weeks she had left to her, there was nothing at all she did that could be described as "taking to her bed" " or "terminal". She travelled - and when she couldn't travel she met with her friends and held soirees and parties; and in her final week I don't think she ever had less than twenty kids waiting to spend time with her. On her final day I know there were kids dropping in and out of her hospice room every hour and holding her hand and giving her love and goodbyes.

I just think there should be a word for that. When we have the word for that, then we can have the negation - the word for all the children lost to war and starvation and politics without anyone noticing.

Don't get me started..

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Old 03-08-2012, 10:54 AM   #10
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I think the euphemisms are a cultural thing here in the US. An Indian friend of mine had to fly home to light the funeral pyre for his father (he was eldest son). Imagine if we did that in the US?

Here, we have others prepare the body and even bury the body. We don't want to deal with death (actually we're no longer allowed in many cases), so we are robbed of the mourning process for those that we've lost. Worse, those who are greiving sometimes feel like they need to put on a 'strong face' so as not to make others around them uncomfortable. Loosing someone hurts and anyone has the right to wail about their loss. We should join in their wailing, not offer quiet plattitudes like "I'm sorry you lost your..."

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Old 03-08-2012, 10:58 AM   #11
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Watch me get angry about that. [...] there was nothing at all she did that could be described as "taking to her bed".
I'm sorry, I posted that I THINK that is what they called it in the olden days. I have not heard the phase used recently of modern people. I have heard of many terminally ill people who do as your friend and make every second that they have count. She is to be admired for her choice.

ETA: "Taking to your death bed" could just be a US thing in my area, or maybe just a way that my family talks.
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Old 03-08-2012, 10:59 AM   #12
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I'm sorry, I posted that I THINK that is what they called it in the olden days. I have not heard the phase used recently of modern people. I have heard of many terminally ill people who do as your friend and make every second that they have count. She is to be admired for her choice.
Oh, no, no, no - I knew you meant that. That's what I was responding to. It's an old-fashioned idea and we should have moved on. That's what I meant.
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Old 03-08-2012, 11:04 AM   #13
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The Salvation Army use the expression 'promoted to glory' which is a wonderful turn of phrase.

I think the preference to 'passed on' isn't so much a denial but a preference for a softer expression.

Straight after someone has died it is very traditional to speak good of them - you don't hear someone at a funeral give a speech about the deceased was a bit of a jerk .. it is very much looking at the brighter areas of their life.

So, in the same way, you use less harsh language generally. Instead of muttering about how he was a cheap bastard you'll have funny anecdotes about how everyone reacted when he turned up at the wedding without a gift - because he always was true to his beliefs .. etc.

So, in describing his most recent action (ie: dropping off the perch) you'll use the softer expressions ('passing on') rather than more direct ones.

When people are honestly want to speak ill of them (eg: Bin Laden) you'll hear people using direct language.

That's my theory.

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Old 03-08-2012, 11:16 AM   #14
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Straight after someone has died it is very traditional to speak good of them - you don't hear someone at a funeral give a speech about the deceased was a bit of a jerk .. it is very much looking at the brighter areas of their life.

So, in the same way, you use less harsh language generally. Instead of muttering about how he was a cheap bastard you'll have funny anecdotes about how everyone reacted when he turned up at the wedding without a gift - because he always was true to his beliefs .. etc.
I'm not saying they should have spoken poorly of my uncle. But he would have been better served by having someone who knew him talk instead of a pastor who he clearly never met. He was a great guy, good fisherman and hunter, wicked sense of humor. He had a great wife and kids, who were all in attendance. He was not at all the man the pastor described (I knew him when I was younger and was shocked at how much he'd 'changed' - turns out it was probably a canned talk for those occasions)

When someone dies, we should honor who they were (okay, we can leave out the worst bits), not who society says they should have been.
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Old 03-08-2012, 11:49 AM   #15
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I've heard people use the expression "he kicked the bucket" when someone dies. I can't for the life of me say that I understand how this expression came into use, though I did figure out that the film "The Bucket List" is a reference to it.

I used to hear people say that someone had "passed away." Then I started hearing "passed on." Lately I've been hearing "passed." Just "passed." As though someone had taken a test and rather than failing, he passed. Or maybe it's a way of suggesting that someone passed through a door into another dimension, or a parallel universe.

It does seem to me that, at least in polite conversation, that expressions for death have been getting more and more euphemistic.
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Old 03-08-2012, 12:58 PM   #16
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I've heard people use the expression "he kicked the bucket" when someone dies. I can't for the life of me say that I understand how this expression came into use, though I did figure out that the film "The Bucket List" is a reference to it.
In 15th Century English a 'bucket' was a beam to hang things from - which is related to the French 'trebuchet'/buque.

Even Shakespeare used the word that way - in Henry IV Part II he refers to 'Swifter then he that hangs on the Brewers Bucket'.

So you are really 'kicking' the beam that you are being hung from .. maybe related to animals being slaughtered ?

Mac
(PS: Just to be confusing - they also used the term 'kick the beam' to mean 'be the deciding factor' - after needle on a scale moving.

eg: "When the mass of the people are artfully seduced to throw their weight into the same scale with the court, liberty in the other must kick the beam")

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Old 03-08-2012, 01:05 PM   #17
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We used to be told (at school - these are the sorts of schools we had in Australia when I was a tot) that people who were hanged - or who hanged themselves - stood on a bucket which they (or someone else) kicked away from them. Thus - kicked the bucket.

I'm going to go and google and see if that's true.


ETA: I rather think Mac H is right.

Last edited by mccardey; 03-08-2012 at 01:08 PM. Reason: googled. For the moment....
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Old 03-08-2012, 01:21 PM   #18
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Hmm .. in a bit of quick research it seems that in 1806 nobody really knew - but plenty of people were guessing.

Wikipedia lists a few options.

BTW - it seems that Shakespeare had the nasty habit of making nouns into verbs ... saying 'gibbets' instead of 'hanging [from a gibbet]'.

That's even worse than saying "He inboxed me" instead of "He put a message in my inbox" !

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Old 03-08-2012, 01:29 PM   #19
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Hmm .. in a bit of quick research it seems that in 1806 nobody really knew - but plenty of people were guessing.

Wikipedia lists a few options.

BTW - it seems that Shakespeare had the nasty habit of making nouns into verbs ... saying 'gibbets' instead of 'hanging [from a gibbet]'.

That's even worse than saying "He inboxed me" instead of "He put a message in my inbox" !

Mac
Yeah, but - Shakespeare..! I forgive him a lot for his poetry. God, I almost forgive him his appalling treatment of Richard III (and only because he was copying those who went before...)
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Old 03-09-2012, 06:45 AM   #20
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I'm sorry, I posted that I THINK that is what they called it in the olden days.
Taking to one's bed, in the late Victorian vernacular, was often a euphemism for what in the post WW2 era was called nervous breakdown and what now would be called a major depressive episode. People didn't have a big vocabulary for emotional states as they are currently understood, nor was it considered polite to be frank and spill one's guts about them. Hence: Bedtime.

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I don't think the families I talk to think me callous or unfeeling; concern and sympathy are shown more in the manner in which we speak, in the time we take. Direct speech is powerful speech, and I think meaningful and moving discussions of death are actually cheapened by mincing words.

So I'm curious. Is it Politically Incorrect to say someone has died, is dead?
In your context, no. I agree that your manner and the rest of your interactions will be what is valued by the family over your choice of words. Most people, I think, expect a certain amount of directness in their medical care and don't find it incompatible with compassion.

In other contexts--within a circle of family or friends--it might be emotionally incorrect. People who are close to one another may have unspoken covenants about these things.
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Old 03-09-2012, 08:38 AM   #21
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Here, we have others prepare the body and even bury the body.
My brother-in-law is, among other things, the gravedigger in his small Pennsylvania town. He works with his two sons. When his mother, my mother-in-law, died, I went with him to dig her grave. The boys were too grief-stricken to help, which meant they wanted the day off.

When we returned to the farm I was, of course, covered with dirt from the excavation. My granddaughter of about fourteen asked where I'd been to get so dirty. I told her Uncle Jimmy and I went to dig Grammy's grave. She looked at me with a puzzled look and said, "Don't we have people to do that?"
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Old 03-09-2012, 08:42 AM   #22
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I've heard people use the expression "he kicked the bucket" when someone dies.
We jazz musicians say, "He kacked."
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Old 03-10-2012, 01:17 AM   #23
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On reflection, I guess I never use the word dead on the rare occasions the issue arises with my patients and their families--I provide chronic, not critical care--because there's something unbearably onomatopoeic about it to my ear. I say has died or dying. I don't feel that to do otherwise is wrong or harsh; the nature of my discussions is generally far less immediate than those taking place in a PICU and so I guess they have evolved to be somewhat more cuddly and mauve tinted.

another reason is I work at one of the epicenters of the euphemism treadmill (see Vince's A ban we can all get behind thread) and our language is scrutinized but good, often to no purpose.
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Old 03-28-2012, 06:50 AM   #24
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Originally Posted by ColoradoGuy View Post
So I'm curious. Is it Politically Incorrect to say someone has died, is dead? I would feel phony if I said my patient has passed on. So I don't, and I don't think my word choice causes further pain. Words have power, and death is a powerful word. We should honor and respect the event with the most powerful words we have.
My vote is no. I'm pretty firm on that, actually. It's come up a couple of times for me in the last few years, and in both cases the word 'dead' was used (edit: or one of the tenses - 'has died,' 'is dying'). I wouldn't swear to the exact phrasing used, but I appreciate the verb's complete lack of ambiguity.

Having said that, when I open my mouth to deliver that sort of news, the word that invariably pops out of my mouth is 'gone.' I hate it that I do that, but somehow that's what always happens. I don't doubt that the people on the receiving end have to endure a microsecond or two of "'Gone?' Where? Perhaps Hawaii? Is he feeling better?" which is completely uncool.

Last edited by shawkins; 03-28-2012 at 06:56 AM.
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Old 03-28-2012, 07:33 AM   #25
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Originally Posted by ColoradoGuy View Post
Lately, because it's part of my job, I've been thinking about how we talk about the fact of death. The language of euphemism does wax and wane over time, but Lincoln, for example, spoke of "these honored dead," and "that these dead shall not have died in vain." Now I mostly hear about "passing over," "passed on," or "passed away."

Myself, I don't use those words. I talk about people dying, of being dead. I don't think the families I talk to think me callous or unfeeling; concern and sympathy are shown more in the manner in which we speak, in the time we take. Direct speech is powerful speech, and I think meaningful and moving discussions of death are actually cheapened by mincing words.

So I'm curious. Is it Politically Incorrect to say someone has died, is dead? I would feel phony if I said my patient has passed on. So I don't, and I don't think my word choice causes further pain. Words have power, and death is a powerful word. We should honor and respect the event with the most powerful words we have.
As a hospice social worker, I say "died." Occasionally "passed away," if I'm mirroring what someone else is saying. I try to consciously use died/death because those words have the appropriate weight. I agree with what you said in your post. I feel like I have a responsibility to not dance around what's going on. I still struggle with trying to balance being real with not wanting to sound harsh.

Quote:
Originally Posted by mccardey View Post
Yes, I've wondered about this. And wondered, too, why we don't have a word for the dying time - those days or weeks when we know that there will be no recovery, no other end.

We don't, do we?
Hospice philosophy is focusing on comfort and quality of life. Living with a terminal illness as opposed to dying from a terminal illness. That being said, we do have some vocabulary to communicate what we're seeing - if someone is beginning their process, actively dying, or death is imminent.
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