May 11, 2011 // Uncategorized

The lexicon of loss

During lunch recently my colleagues and I were discussing the details of the funeral of a noted community servant. As the discussion traversed the rich traditional funeral rite and the consolation of the hymns, we hit upon a sore subject — what do we call death?

I’ve often wondered who chose the vocabulary our culture uses to describe the experience of death and loss. I’m also curious as to the reasoning behind the lexicon. Permit me to expound.

It has become commonplace to substitute words such as passed on, passed away, late, expired, gone to Jesus, croaked, marched on, kicked the bucket, received into the arms of the Lord, crossed over, pushing up daisies, bit the dust and met their Maker, while describing the reality of death. A few are colloquial and rather amusing, but most are, I believe, simply ways of avoiding the truth about death.

What are we afraid of with the use of authentic words such as “dead, died and death?” Does burying the event in metaphors make it any less final? Less painful? In my experience I have found those replacement words sometimes create more pain and confusion for the bereaved.

I believe we have developed into a mourning-avoidant society. Using euphemisms when compassionate understanding is needed rarely helps and sometimes hurts those we wish to support. I recall during my husband’s wake all those years ago, one visitor told me, with all the best of intentions, that she knew I must be happy to have Trent sleeping with the angels. No, I thought, I’d rather have him standing by my side, living and breathing as he should be. I’ll never forget how misunderstood I felt.

Children are particularly vulnerable to these camouflage words that we use to substitute life’s reality. I worked with a family whose father had died suddenly. His young daughter was told he went to sleep and didn’t wake up. Without hearing the truth about death at her level of understanding, her imagination took hold and she immediately became fearful of sleeping herself.

In this present era of being politically correct with our lexicon, we have lost sight of the far-reaching compassionate response that words of truth can offer. Words like death and died only name the reality of the already painful experience of losing a loved one, not make it worse.

Word choice is not the only way we sometimes cloak or minimize our grief experience today. In the not too distant past we spent the better part of a week (or two) preparing and sharing the wake and funeral service with family, friends and community members. Currently many are opting to forgo both visitation and funeral service to avoid causing an inconvenience or undue stress on the family.

What we don’t seem to understand with this practice of avoidance is without sharing our grief and the grief of others, and publicly memorializing our loved one, it becomes so much more difficult to say goodbye to our loved one who has died and to gather the support we need to move through our grief to a full and joyful life.

We’ve also lost sight of our natural ability to support our bereaved as a community. One hundred years ago families who had lost a loved one to death were encouraged by their friends and neighbors to mourn publicly. It was a common practice for mourners to wear black clothing or an armband to identify their grief. Community members knew then to approach the bereaved and invite them to tell their story of loss. In this way, mourners were offered compassionate community support as they worked through their grief.

I have learned that shared grief and ceremony can help heal a broken heart. Our words and actions have power. So let’s use them compassionately.

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