How we talk about dying

People die. They don’t pass away. Here’s why I’m done with that euphemism.

I had little opinion on this when I was younger. I was fortunate — other than grandparents who died when I was young, I’d not really experienced losses of people close to me.

Since then I’ve had the chance to grieve people who mattered to me.

Bill Bluestein was a mentor to me at Forrester. He died at age 44 of an apparent heart attack in 2001. He was a brilliant man, taken far too soon.

Deborah Harding was my wife’s mother. She died at age 75 of cancer in 2013. I had become close to her; she was a warm and loving person and one who enriched our lives.

Josh Friedman was my best friend since childhood. He died at age 57 of cancer in 2015. Josh and I spent most of our lives as friends and he was a warm and generous soul. His death was a terrible loss to me.

Robert Bernoff was my father. He died at age 88 of cancer this year. We were fortunate to have so much time with him; he had a huge influence on my life and the lives of many others. The best parts of me exist because of what I learned from him.

Why it matters to say that people die

Mourning is a process. You feel the space where the person used to be. You want to turn and tell them things and they are not there.

I’ve dreamed of both Josh and my father in the last few months. It’s clear that my brain is trying to make sense of what I used to feel and what I feel now, dealing with some left over emotions.

For me personally, it helps to talk about people dying. The stab of pain and loss is because they died. It is not because of the word we use to describe it. When you say that someone has died, there is a finality to it. Saying it is a way to acknowledge that you know the loss is permanent. It is the beginning of living with only their memory.

Some of the people I mention in this essay believed in heaven. Some of them didn’t. I don’t. Whether they ended up in heaven isn’t what matters to me. What matters is how the rest of us will live now that they are gone, and how we will remember them.

I feel that euphemisms for death, like “passed away” or “entered into rest” (it actually says that on Josh’s obituary), don’t do much. They don’t soften the blow in any meaningful way. They don’t acknowledge the loss in a way that is different from just saying that someone died. They perpetuate the fetish we have for pretending that death isn’t something that happens to the people around us, or to us. Death is death, why not call it what it is.

When I hear of the death of someone close to a friend of mine, I try not to use cliched phrases like “Rest in Peace.” I doubt that anyone gets comfort from that. Instead, I try to offer my own appreciation of what I learned about the individuals from my friend who loved them, and wish them peace as they deal with the loss. To me, what matters is not what happens to the soul of the dead person, who is no longer here to feel anything, but what is happening with the people left behind.

If you cannot think of something original to say at times like this, I like the Jewish phrase “May his/her memory be a blessing,” because it rings true — regardless of whether you believe in heaven, I would hope that when you think of a loved one who has died, that the memory of who they were enriches you.

I won’t stop you from saying that someone passed away — in a moment of personal pain, it is not up to me to decide how you should feel, or how you should put those feelings into words. But the same applies to me in my moments of loss. My father, and Josh, and Debbie, and Bill, all people close to me — these people all died. By saying that they died, I’m saying that they are gone, and I’m happy that they were here for a while to enrich my life. I will honor them by acknowledging the plain truth in the words I use to describe their deaths.

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  1. While I appreciate peoples’ sentiments, I agree with your insight: the euphemism has grown tired. I grew up in and out of the hospital for a chronic illness that was effectively terminal. I became accustomed to seeing people in the waiting room one season and never again afterward. Though the prognosis is now far from fatal due to medical advances over the past 30 years, I learned about death quickly. We needn’t remove ourselves from the blow it deals by scrubbing the word from our daily parlance. To paraphrase Alan Watts, “Congratulations! You are all going to die! This is the most natural part of your life!”

  2. If not the most natural, at least the most inevitable, regardless of the billionaires funding life ever-after. I am not going to pass. I am going to die, just like a tree and a dog and a bug. The antonym for alive is dead, not passed. Even does not list passed. The loved ones I mourn are dead. The only thing they have passed is go. Use whatever you need to ease your grief and your pain, but my will will stipulate that anyone who refers to me as passed (past?) is disinherited. Thanks for giving me a chance to vent, Josh.

  3. My 50 year old son died of cancer last October. His wife, his mother and I are still mourning his death. Although we generally say “Dave died”, sometimes we say he “passed away” or simply “passed.”

    For me, saying “passed away” doesn’t soften the blow of Dave’s death or, as you put it, “perpetuate the fetish we have for pretending that death isn’t something that happens to the people around us, or to us.” I like to use those other expressions occasionally because it’s just boring to use “die”, “die”, “die”, “die“, “die”, “die” all the time.

    English is a very rich language. Why not use this richness to speak about someone who has checked out, croaked, bought the farm, crashed and burned, expired, departed, succumbed, popped off, perished, flatlined, departed this life, joined the choir invisible, breathed one’s last, kicked the bucket, ceased to exist, given up the ghost, met one’s maker, shuffled off this mortal coil, or passed away?

    What does soften the blow of Dave’s death – a little – for me is an adaptation I made of one of Dr. Seuss’ sayings:

    Don’t cry because he’s gone, smile because he was here.

  4. Don, we’re grieving too, and I can’t thank you enough for your Dr. Seuss adaptation. It’s a great reminder to “accentuate the positive” (thank Johnny Mercer for the lyrics).

  5. I rarely comment on forums for many obvious (and, sometimes, not-so-obvious) reasons. I think that likely, with the situation I am currently experiencing, I’m probably extra sensitive; I apologize if my response is prickly.

    I agree with much of what is expressed herein; lots I don’t agree with. I lost my younger (and only) sister a week ago. The harshness of the delivery of the news when it was given to me was a shock that made it difficult to take seriously and process in the moment in which it was given to me. I understand; the person who gave me the news was distraught themselves and distraught for me.

    Words are just words on the one hand, but also part of the communication process, and so aren’t really “just” words. Unlike many mentioned in the post, my sister was young when she passed—died, as emphasized in this post—hadn’t had a chance to marry, have children, or live a complete life. She had had some fairly serious health issues growing up, but had been able to successfully improve her health up and until she passed—died. Everyone’s pain and experience is theirs, is unique, is important, and cannot be compared, which I hope no one will think I’m trying to do with these comments I’m making. I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes it’s better to kindly “hand” a ball over to someone—’to soften the blow,’ as mentioned—than to drill them with a “fastball”—if my analogy/metaphor makes any sense.

    I agree that Western, and especially American culture is hypersensitive/hyper-politically correct, and frequently fetishizes a fear of death and the subject of death—which I do disagree with. Nonetheless, there is a time and a place for everything, including softening the blows of death, especially when it is sudden and/or the news is harsh. Just my uneducated and very personal opinion. I’m not “right,” and I’m not trying to convince anyone of my opinion. But it is what I’m feeling about the language and the variety and richness of language and its ability to adapt and serve our purposes in all occassions. Thank you kindly for reading this. And, thanks to Mr. Bernoff for all the very useful and interesting content he posts on his blog.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I hope that the pain you and your family are experiencing becomes easier to bear. What you have described sounds sharp and awful.

      Your comment made me realize something. Real caring when you share the news of the death of a family member is difficult. It takes time. And failing to do it is cruel.

      You can be careless and thoughtless and still use the word “passed.” And you can be empathetic and thoughtful and gentle and still use the word “died.” I think my problem is people who say “passed” as if to say, “Hey, I used a gentler word, isn’t that a sufficient amount of caring?”

      1. First of all, thanks so much for your kind condolences. The pain is sharp. But, I’m glad we had a good relationship that was getting better and we were learning to really love each other more and more. I am very grateful for that.

        And, secondly, I agree with you 100%. People—and especially writers—must always strive to be precise in our communication, especially in expressing condolences. It’s like avoiding comparing losses. Regardless of one’s own pain, the “other’s” pain is theirs and is as sharp as it is for them.

        Again, thanks for your insight, I always enjoy your posts as well as the comments by others here.