My old friend Chris Primesberger posed an interesting question recently in a post on Facebook:
“Not a big deal,” Chris wrote, “but why can't we say someone died anymore? Passing is what someone does to overtake a slower driver on the freeway.”
I’ve actually pondered this question quite a bit. I’m a grief counselor, and I rarely hear people say someone has died. It’s usually that someone has “passed,” or “transitioned,” or “crossed over.” It seems that in this culture, we’ll do almost anything to avoid using the “d” word, like a name that must not be spoken.
I remember when my father was dying of cancer. It was obvious that he was dying, and everybody knew it. He wasn’t bed ridden yet, and he was still his usual jovial self (telling the same jokes he’d been telling since I was a kid). And a friend told me, “he’s not dying, he’s living.” About three months later, he died. Three days later, a well meaning friend said, “Ken, just put it behind you.”
In this culture, we don’t talk about grief, death and dying. And I have to respectfully disagree with my old friend. I think it is a big deal.
The language we choose shapes how we see the world. Passing away is something you do in football. Dying is a part of life. But here in the Judeo-Christian west, it’s a taboo. Death is a taboo. Grief is a taboo, Bereavement is a taboo.
And I believe we pay a dear price for this taboo in the suffering we add to a process that is already extremely hard by its very nature. Grieving is hard — made harder by the fact that nobody wants to talk about it.
My earliest experience as a counselor was as a volunteer at a local grief counseling agency, while I was still in my previous career as a journalist (I met Chris at a newspaper where he was an editor). That experience with bereavement and helping people who were coping with death was profound enough that I ended up quitting my career and going back to school to become a therapist.
I still do a lot of grief counseling. I also work with people who are terminally ill, or facing a life-threatening illness. And I’ve noticed a common thread. People have a hard time talking abut death and grief, even though they are having a profoundly deep experience and need to express it. It’s like they don’t have permission to talk about it. As often as not, people experience profound relief when I tell them it’s okay to grieve, this is a normal experience, death and loss are hard, all your feelings are appropriate. It’s okay to talk about it, and I’m available to hear it.
Many people tell me a similar story: A loved one has died, or has a terminal illness. Friends and loved ones rallied around with tremendous support and love. But soon people drifted back to their regular lives, and most people were uncomfortable hearing about this deeply life-changing experience of the loved one left behind. Well-intention friends tell the grieving “you’re doing just fine,” which many have told me feels like they’re saying, “you’re not actively grieving in front of me, which would make me uncomfortable” There’s also the myriad things well-meaning people say to the grieving that are actually annoying, or painful.
I once knew a woman who was dying. I went to her home every week and listened to her tell about her life and what it was like to be at the end of her days. One of her biggest frustrations was that nobody wanted to hear about it. She just wanted to be able to be okay with her feelings and express the most important experience in her entire life. Nobody could meet her there. Personally, I felt blessed to be able to listen to her talk about it.
When I was in graduate school, I studied the psychology of dying. I learned that there are cultures where they talk openly of death, and there are year-long rituals to support the bereaved. Death, dying and grief are not taboo. As a result, people do, in fact, grieve, but it’s a less painful process. There’s less suffering than in cultures where death is shunned and grief is not talked about.
I’m not naive enough to think that we can have a major cultural shift that would bring death and grief out of the shadows. And my friend Chris is right, we seem to have changed the way we even talk about it, so we can’t even name it. Nonetheless, the dying and bereaved need to be listened to. They need to have death and grief demystified and normalized. I’ve written and Q&A on grief that I hope can help with that. It’s available by clicking here.