Use Honest Language to Talk About Death

I don’t approve of this current anti-death culture where everyone treats death as though it was some horrible event that’s never meant to happen to any of us.  People have forgotten how to respect death, to acknowledge its rightful place in our lives as the natural other half of life.  No one gets to live without dying.  No one who’s died has been denied the chance to live, even if only for a minute.  They come together.  You can’t have one without the other.  Life and death are part of one whole experience.

I’d like to address how we all talk about death when it happens to someone in our lives or in our circles.  No one is ever expected to repress their feelings of sorrow, surprise, shock, or to not fall apart.  We all react differently to the news that someone we know has died and I’m not trying to take away honest feelings.  However, I would like to suggest that the language we use to discuss these feelings be one without denial, without inanity, without false balm.

The basic fact is that there’s no such thing as a time that someone is “supposed” to go.  All of us would like the people we love to never die but they will.  Most of us don’t want to die ourselves, but we will.  Let’s agree that most of us are hoping for the most amount of time to live possible.  We are hoping we will live to be pissy old men and women who see everyone else they know die and finally, when there’s nothing left to do, we pass peacefully into death in our sleep.  Hoping is one thing, expectation is another.

No one has a right to expect to live to be old nor does anyone have a right to expect their loved ones to live to be old.  That is our hope, but it is not based on any rights or any facts or any promises the universe or God has made to anyone, because, of course, no such promises have ever been made to a living soul.

So when you lose someone it’s using a language of denial to say “It wasn’t her time” or “He died too soon” or “They weren’t supposed to go like that”

There is no “supposed to” and no “too soon” because none of us are in control of these things.  We all go exactly when we are meant to go.  We all go when the time is right or we wouldn’t go.  There are no accidental deaths where god “oops!” took someone by mistake.  I don’t believe in God but I’ve heard a lot of people who do say things like “Susie was taken before it was her time” and it strikes me as grossly sacrilegious that anyone accuse God of making mistakes.

What I’d like to see more people do is use more direct and truthful statements about how they’re feeling.  Instead of saying “Susie wasn’t supposed to die this young” (not factual or remotely true, since she obviously died ‘this young’) how about saying “I’m devastated Susie died so young!” (true) or “It’s so sad she didn’t get to live longer” (presumably true) or “I’m so fucking angry that Susie is dead and I was never going to be ready to lose her!!” (probably most true of all is anger at losing someone you liked).

No one is ever ready to lose the people they love.  That’s the bottom line.  That’s what most of us are feeling.  So let’s put more truth and strength and acceptance of our feelings in our language about death and erase the inane platitudes that don’t really make anyone I know feel better.  There is so much more power in saying what you really mean.

There is an urge in humans to distance themselves from death.  We do it in our language before we do it anywhere else.  I hear people say things like “I don’t know how to make sense of his death” and I want to shout out  that you don’t have to “make sense” of it.  It isn’t confusing.  It’s just personally painful.  I think dealing with loss would be much easier if we all stopped trying to make death mysterious and understand why it has to happen.  Do people really not get it?  Or is it that they just don’t want to express death in personal terms like saying “Death sucks!” or “I’m angry that people have to die!” which is very honest and most of us could relate and agree with those sentiments.

Death just is.  It is as much a fabric of all of our lives as births are.  It’s generally one of the least comfortable parts of life but it’s necessary.  Why?  Cause people insist on having tons of babies and if none of us ever died this planet would have been overcrowded to mass starvation point before Christ ever came along.  It’s that simple.  People die because if they never died they couldn’t keep being born.  You like birth, right?  You all feel warm and fuzzy when life is ejected from wombs but that cute and fuzzy event comes with a price.  Someone must die for the new life to thrive.  We all have our turns.  Some of us get a few seconds on earth.  Some of us get over a hundred years.  The fact remains- every single birth is also an eventual death.  When I hear of babies being born I already understand that the baby caries a burden of death into the world with them.

In summary:

Instead of saying the inane useless crap like “Henry died too young” let’s all be more truthful and say what we’re really feeling which is “I feel slugged with sorrow that Henry’s dead because I’m going to miss the hell out of him” and then we can proceed right on with the natural stages of grief and in being more directly honest about what’s happened and how we feel about it I think we do more honor to the person who’s died.  We get right to talking about what we’ll miss and what we loved about them.  Let’s start creating a culture of acceptance and honesty and respect around death.  This doesn’t diminish the sorrow and pain we all feel, in fact, it brings us straight to the heart of our devastation and that’s where we are able to actually honor both ourselves and the dead.

As a last note:

I am definitely hoping to live long enough to get my book published and to see my son become a well adjusted adult member of society.  I am hoping for more time than just today, however, if I die today I will be a fiercely angry ghost if anyone who knows me DARES to suggest I died too soon or that I wasn’t meant to go that way or anything patently stupid.  I promise that if I can figure out how to do it, I will haunt your ass until you stop talking in such useless shabby platitudes and just accept that this was always going to happen whenever it was supposed to and please watch over Max and get my books published posthumously.

Other topics I wish to discuss about death, dying, and mourning:

How to mourn: different methods to suit every taste.

How to eulogize without telling lies about dead people.

 

 

3 comments

  1. Karmyn R says:

    I think in this country we are very removed from death. it is very sterile. – it happens in a hospital. The body is taken away and then we see it again all neatly laid out inside a coffin….

    In the “olden” days – someone usually died at home, the family washed, prepared, and sat with their loved one. I think there is a lot of healing in this process.

    When my Father-in-law died, we were all there to say goodbye – even my kids. He laid in his bed until the next morning when the funeral home came to get him. My children sat and held his hand, my daughter stroked his head and even kissed his cheeks. Some people thought this was kind of morose – but kids learned not to fear death. They saw his pain before hand. They watched him leave and it was peaceful. (of course, not all death is peaceful – )

  2. angelina says:

    Wow- that’s a valuable experience your kids had! I think it’s lovely rather than morose. I address this a little in the Cricket and Grey book. I have imagined that funeral home services will become a big luxury again in the future and people will have to relearn how to tend and prepare their own dead. I think you’re right that people got more healing from the process of cleaning and dressing their dead loved ones. It doesn’t allow you to distance yourself or fool yourself because you’re right there with the body and the process of what’s happening.

  3. Allison says:

    A thought-provoking post, and likely an aspect of our culture that most people would never think to address. In times of loss and grief, I am always brought back to the closing scene of Shakespeare’s “King Lear”, wherein, after a spectacular array of devastating consequences have unfolded, the last remaining voice of sanity closes the play with:

    “The weight of this sad time we must obey;
    Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

    While I agree that in a literal sense, declaring someone has passed “before their time” is entirely inaccurate and untrue, I think the sentiment of those who survive simply having not been prepared for the loss is the intended, unspoken meaning of such a statement. Death is certainly a mistreated subject in our modern world, with far too much distance between the experiences of physical and emotional loss to truly understand death as our ancestors did.

    I’m making the choice to celebrate a pseudo Dia De Los Muertos observance in my home, during which special remembrance and tribute will be paid to those who are now absent from my life. Honoring their memories with a life well-lived will hopefully keep the ghosts at bay… 😉

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