While finishing up with my attorney last week, having FINALLY gotten around to having a will drawn up, the attorney, a friend of mine, stopped purposely and stared at me. She seemed somewhat puzzled, and not uncomfortable, but hesitant. After a moment she said to me, “In all the years I have been a practicing probate attorney no one has ever sat across from me and used the words death or die, but you do.”
I was somewhat taken back at first and had to retrace our conversation some, yep, yes I had used those words during our conversation, many times probably but the snippet that I could recall went something like this, “I want to make sure when I die that it is easier for my family than it was for me. That everything is together because death and lost is hard enough on it’s own without all the craziness of looking for documents and trying to figure out where stuff is.”
Then it was my turn to be surprised, my mind turning the information over and over again to understand it clearly, no one EVER had used those words? Not the parents coming in for guardianship of young children, not even really, really old people? I asked her simply, “No one ever has used the word die?” She shook her head no and explained that instead of using the scary “d” word everyone uses some euphemism such as, “if something should happen to me” instead. She went on to say, motioning with her arms, that for her the word death is a given, she handles wills and estates daily. That she says the word all the time because it’s what her business is and so it doesn’t bother her to say, I’m going to die, you’re going to die, people die, but no one she knows who isn’t in the biz so to speak has ever used the words of death so easily.
She then asked if I thought I was so comfortable using the words death and die because John had died, that his death had made it easier for me to use “the” word and not shy away from it’s reality. I suppose it was some to do with it. His death has certainly made me use the word more whenever I might have been tempted to sugar coat for someone else what happen. Still, when John died I used the words dead and die right away even on his Facebook page to let people know what had happened (John knew hundreds of people and there was simply no way to let that many people across the country know in any other efficient way). I never thought about it being unusual at the time but I suppose that it was, and in light of my attorney’s question, it was likely socially impolite as well.
For myself, especially early on, I needed the concrete, real word not just so that I, myself, would know the finality and reality of his death but so that others would not be able to minimize what had happened to him, to me, to the life we had. Death is final. Dead means gone forever. If you say lost or passed away instead of dead it seems, to me at least, to minimize the devastation that comes with death and it minimizes the fact that it really is final. Say lost, and I think where to? Maybe I could find him! Say passed away and I think passed on what? That makes no sense at all. No really, think but it, that phrase makes no-sense-at-all. No, I needed the reality of the words dead and death if I was going to keep myself from going out to search for him, from sinking into a world where there was a possibility that I could “fix” this.
For the first month I practiced saying it out loud, John died, my husband is dead or the worst to say, but I really only said it to myself, John’s dead. I said the actual words of death not only to stop the minimizing of what happened, but also to help my confused and scared mind attempt to grasp the reality that he really was never coming home again, that he wouldn’t come home again, no matter how much he or I or the world wanted it to happen. IT COULD NOT HAPPEN, the concrete words of death were the voice of reality and they helped to anchored me in those early months, if only barely, the the truth. John was dead and I was left to figure out the now very foreign world without him, alone.
I have to admit that it bothers me a lot that we cannot say the words, that we would rather live in a world of denial and euphemisms and not just because I think it makes lighter of what has happened but because I think it makes the world even harder to openly grieve in. We are scared of death so we don’t say the words associated with it, but I think this only makes us more scared of both death and the process of grief and of those who grieve, who are in the throws of learning the world after the death of their loved one. If we deny that death is real, then there is no solid way for us to fully stand and witness or help those we know who are grieving. After all they go they go hand-in-hand. You cannot have deep grief without death.
I think if we can use the word death without flinching at it, without hiding its meaning, then maybe we will be better able stand with those who grieve in a way that is helpful and loving instead of condescending and impatient. After all, that’s what those who deeply grieve need so desperately, they need to be acknowledged as someone in pain, their loss needs to be fully acknowledged, they need their grief process to be respected and to have a non-judgmental space to heal in. That non-judgmental space is a key component to healing after the death of a loved one.
I plan to continue to use the “d” word, in my personal life, in regards to John dying and in my writing. Because, for me, I’ve learned that sugar coating a reality with pretty words doesn’t make anything better, and in fact, for many fellow grievers I know, the pretty words of euphemisms stings in a way the actual words do not.
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