There are three words that Australians really, really don’t like using: died, death and dead.
Why do so many people find those words so unpalatable that, instead, they use old-fashioned expressions full of religious allusions they probably don’t even recognise? For a nation of an increasingly secular – if not irreligious – disposition, the deference we show to “the final act” is unlikely, to say the least.
“Pushing up the daisies” is a funny old thing, isn’t it? Well, no, not ‘funny’ exactly. More ‘curious’ than ‘funny’. “Pushing up the daisies” is a curious thing, isn’t it? It’s all around us and everyone experiences it some time, yet it’s also an intensely personal thing with intensely personal responses. In some cases it’s also an unexpected and shocking thing, all at once stressful, frightening, life-changing and distressing in equal measure. But it’s an inescapable fact of life that we all eventually “cease to be”. Whether the result of a tragic accident, a terminal illness, by our own hand or from old age, “the Pale Rider’s” bony finger comes to us all sooner or later.
More than 50 million people “shuffle off this mortal coil” every year, but millions more never want to mention it. Rather than knowing what their loved ones want when they “join the choir invisible”, they carry on as if “when the worst happens” is something they’ll never need to deal with, never acknowledging the reality of what “when the time comes” actually means.
What’s really strange is that when a person loses their life due to the actions of another, they’re almost always described as having been murdered; if they’re involved in a fatal accident, they’re said to have been killed. The connotations of both words are very much of something awful, distressing, even frightening. No one ever describes a murder victim or accident fatality as having “passed against their will” or that they “involuntarily passed away”. It stands to reason, then, that if the thing that rendered life extinct was awful, most people feel OK about freely and openly using awful words to describe it. But if the extinction of life was entirely natural – or at least of naturally occurring causes – the word used to describe the act has to be something flowery and inoffensive, as if to somehow take the edge off the reality. This effectively implies that a natural death is more awful than a fatal accident or homicide… can that be right?
So why is it all so taboo? Of course it’s sad when those we love go “wandering the Elysian Fields” and nobody wants to start imagining details of how and when it might happen. But everyone is “called home” someday and, in my experience, the conversation you should have – the one about what they want you to do with them once they “join the departed” and establishing if there’s anything you need to know about – is far easier to have when they’re not staring the Grim Reaper in the eye-socket than it is when his bony finger is about to go in for the final tap.
For as long as I can remember, people who “entered eternal rest” were said to have “passed on” or “passed away”. I was raised Catholic so I eventually put two and two together and I subsequently assumed that anyone who used either term was, obviously, devoutly religious. Indeed, the sobriety that invariably surrounds “going to the big house in the sky” is rarely a topic made light of, which is all part of the mystery because practicing religion in this country is something of a dying art (pun acknowledged). While people may claim to be one thing or another, the number of places of worship with greatly diminished congregations tells another story, so it seems improbable that the merest hint of “the stairway to heaven” should have so many Australians donning a hushed veil of clerical solemnity.
Everyone’s “so sorry to hear your sad news”; “thoughts go out” and “hearts go out” all over the place; people who’d never ordinarily pray apparently offer prayers up the ying yang, for you and your family, for the “recently departed” and their friends and almost anyone else they ever knew; distant relatives and occasional acquaintances who you never see from one millennia to the next appear, as if by magic, telling you to let them know if there’s anything they can do (though the parameters of “anything” are rarely, if ever, defined); and social media folk post comments like some awful hybrid of The Sermon On the Mount and a really bad Hallmark card: “May you find strength in knowing that he/she is in a better place”…. “our hearts/love/thoughts/wishes go out to you at this most sad/difficult time/in your time of loss”… OK, just stop it! Nobody ever actually says stuff like that face-to-face, so how come so many people say it in writing, just because someone’s “gone to meet their maker”?
Believe it or not, grieving people won’t actually break if you speak to them using normal language – that is, words and phrases which openly reference the fact that their loved one has “assumed room temperature”. Word to the wise: the grieving do actually know why they’re sad. All the whispering, banal euphemisms and priestly platitudes in the world won’t make them forget, they just make the “passing” sound like a bizarre secret.
And exactly when did this “passing” nonsense make the grade, anyway? It certainly seems to be the phrase du jour where “resting in peace” is concerned. Passed what, or where, I wonder? Unless you’re devoutly religious you surely wouldn’t use terms so clearly proceeding from religion? The etymology of “pass”, as it pertains to the act of dying, is most certainly a North American euphemism, so the spread of a more ‘global’ language via social media is, presumably, responsible for increased “passing” in Australia over the last decade? Either way, it sounds rubbish and it needs to stop.
There are actually loads of euphemisms for death with clear links to religion. I’ve used a whole bunch of them already and – for reasons probably best explained by ‘listaholics’ – the Internet is littered with pages dedicated to listing (and, often, lampooning) death euphemisms. Many of these terms are actually derived from, based on or directly reference a religious belief or concept. But in a contemporary secular context, even though their usage continues their original meaning – and, almost certainly, their etymology – are lost, so it’s entirely possible that the religious connection is less intentional and more habitual. They get trotted out every time someone dies, so we just keep using them – could that be how it works?
People get so put off by the merest hint of death and go to great lengths to apologise if they feel they’ve unintentionally made even the slightest out-of-place comment. Six years ago my Dad was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. About a year later, at a friend’s funeral, another friend who hadn’t seen me for about six months asked how Dad was going. “He’s dead, actually”, I responded, matter-of-factly. My poor friend. I can’t really apologise for my response – my Dad really was dead, there was no getting away from it. I knew it to be so because I’d seen it happen with my own eyes so, to my mind, there was no other way to respond. But for my poor friend, whose mind probably functions more like the majority of people’s minds than my own does, it was a bit of a double whammy: here we were, already at the funeral of a friend who’d died at far too young an age and then, he imagined, he’d gone and put his foot in it in just about the worst possible way. I’ve never seen anyone try to apologise quite so profusely. For my friend, it truly was the definition of one of those horrible moments when you wish the ground would open up and swallow you. I didn’t think twice about it, though. Dad had actually died, therefore Dad definitely was dead. My friend didn’t do it, he had nothing at all to do with it; nor had I been in touch with him since Dad died, so he wasn’t to know. In fact, I had no feelings one way or the other about him asking me how Dad was. Anyone else probably would have lowered their voice, adopted a more serene whisper-like tone and advised my friend, with mouth cupped by hand, that Dad had “passed away” recently and sorry for not letting you know. I probably could’ve done that too… nup, that’s just not how I roll. I call a spade a spade.
We should all call a spade a spade. Life is life. Death is death. Loss is hard and grieving is forever. But let’s call it what it is. Last year a friend of mine – one of the bravest ladies I’ve ever known – came out and openly, repeatedly, acknowledged that her youngest son had committed suicide. She didn’t soften the blow by saying he’d made a “life choice”, she said he’d committed suicide. Her daughter also said it like it was in her wonderful blog too when she spoke about her brother killing himself. There was no delicacy applied to it, because none was needed. He’d done what he did and, as a result, he was dead. Saying he’d “made a life choice” wouldn’t have changed that outcome, just as choosing not to dress up what he’d done with flowery euphemisms didn’t change the way my friend or her daughter felt about their endlessly loved son and brother.
The sooner we learn not to be afraid of using the words openly and honestly, the better equipped we are to deal with life, death and all of their friends.