Tongue tied on certain words

June 8, 2022

By Ken Barringer

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is for people to say “death”, “dead” or “died”? When did it get so hard to say a one syllable word? I teach a course in Understanding Grief and Loss and one of the first exercises I have the class participate in is listing all the euphemism we have for death, dead or died. I believe in one class the list grew to as many as 37 different words or phrases. The range was from the most common ones like “they passed”, “we lost him” (“If he is lost why don’t we go find him?” said the 5-year-old), “she lost her battle with cancer” (If you die from cancer, you’re a loser?) to the more unique ones such as “sleeping with the fishes”, “dirt nap” “on the other side”. It’s understood that euphemisms are employed to soften the blow of the experience. Whom are we softening it for? However, the euphemism often creates distance and separation as grievers report it’s not an authentic acknowledgement. 

We do get a great deal of cues on how to behave, talk and think from media and perhaps movies such as “The Departed”, “The Big Sleep” or “Bucket List” have subtly or not so subtly influenced us. Maybe shows like “6 Feet Under” or “Pushing Daisies” have been guiding us in our word choice. In the case of stigmatized deaths such as homicide, survivors of the person who died have heard things such as “he was with the wrong crowd” or “she took a lot of risks”. While these statements might have truth in them, they are containing an element of blame. Blame and grief shouldn’t co-exist in the same space. Our discomfort and anxiety in just sitting with the loss can lead to speaking for the sake of speaking.

Another area where we struggle with language is in the case of suicide. Yes, suicide is very complex especially when one considers the perpetrator is also the victim. Depending on which side you’re connecting to can determine the language you use. The appropriate and proper language in any event is “died by suicide”. Family and friends impacted by suicide cringe with the often used “committed suicide”. This language reduces the person’s life to an act and consciously or unconsciously has elements of blame and criticism. “Took his own life”, “Died by their own hand”, “Took the easy way out” (yes people say this) are all commonly used but also imply blame and criticism of the person who died.

The biggest (which I’ll defined as most harmful) media affect has been the invention of the term “closure”. The intention behind the term is to, erroneously, demonstrate how grief can get wrapped up in a nice bow and you can move on. To not do so would imply you are doing grief wrong. I’ve yet to engage any griever comfortable or welcoming of the term closure.  As one stated, “closure is a term for realtors”. Closure wants us to do something that’s not possible with any meaningful relationship - whisk our way through grief as quickly as possible.

Ultimately, we need to use language that can be heard and tolerated by the recipient. However, we have to raise our awareness to the struggle we can have with language and that we often default to what we know, what we have learned, heard or were taught. This is not our fault but it’s our responsibility to do something about it. Doing something begins with getting comfortable with the words “death, dead or died. “