Ep. 72 What’s in a Name? Semantics, Euphemisms and Taboos About Death

Let’s talk about HOW we talk about Death!

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In today’s episode we’ll look at some common euphemisms for death and learn how and why they came into use, how to break down our societal taboos against talking about death, and when it might actually be appropriate to use euphemisms.

Remember that this podcast is an offshoot of the End-of-Life University Interview Series, which includes two interviews per month with experts from all aspects of the end-of-life arena. If you are not already registered sign up here to get email notification each time a new interview is posted.

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In a new feature for this podcast I will start by highlighting some recent “death-positive” events in the news:

  1.  First a wonderful story appeared in USA Today about Morrie Boogaart, a 91-year 0ld man living out his last days in an assisted living facility in Michigan. While he his mostly bed bound due to his physical health, Morrie spends his days knitting hats for the homeless. So far he has given away over 8,000 hats! Thank you Morrie for being an inspiring example of how to live fully for all your days and use whatever energy and capacity you have to be of loving service to others. You are my hero!
  2. Next a study reported in the Journal of Psychopharmacology and on ScienceMag.org demonstrated that cancer patients who were given the hallucinogen psilocybin experienced a significant decrease in depression and anxiety. According to the author, the patients who had a “mystical experience” while using the hallucinogen were the most likely to have a reduction in fear. This compelling finding supports the data from consciousness studies that show that as consciousness develops there is less and less fear of death at each expanded stage of development, which will be significant later in this discussion.

As we turn to look at the use of euphemisms about death I want to explain why I use the term “end of life” in many of my discussions because some people have accused me of “soft-peddling” death when I use that phrase. But here’s what I mean when I refer to the end of life: I see End of Life as the final stage of human development that incorporates the process of dying, death itself, and the time after death.

For me, End of Life describes the phase on our journey through life when our attention finally turns to the fact that we are mortal and death is inevitable. When we begin to prepare for our eventual death we have entered the End-of-Life Stage in our human development. For some this stage doesn’t start until the process of dying is underway, but for others of us it begins earlier, when death may still be many months or even years in the future. So “end of life” is not a euphemism for death – it is a term that incorporates much more than the moment of death or the dying process.

An interesting article from the Journal in English Lexicology describes the functions of euphemisms throughout human history:

  1. To protect from discomfort over a subject that is “taboo”
  2. To mislead or misrepresent (as in some advertising)
  3. To present in a more positive or “aspirational” light (e.g. using “senior living facility” rather than “old folks’ home”)
  4. To reveal the hidden truth of something or remove a stigma
  5. To bind a group together and create a shared identity
  6. To entertain and lighten the burden of something that is difficult to bear (e.g. medical staffs using humorous references to cope with emotionally heavy situations)

To refer to all euphemisms as dishonest or misleading is to miss the fact that they have had a positive purpose throughout history: they allow people to discuss a taboo subject using terms that are less uncomfortable and triggering for them.

Most euphemisms change over time as taboos are confronted and dismantled. But some of the alternative terms for death have survived for centuries:

  • to “lose” a loved one to death has been in use since the 12th century
  • “pass away” or “pass on” have been commonly substituted for the word “die” since the 14th century
  • “deceased,” “departed” and “no longer with us” have been used since the 15th century

Interestingly not only have those euphemisms survived over hundreds of years they still have exactly the same meaning as they did when they first became popular. This is evidence of the fact that the “death-taboo” has not changed or broken down much during all of those centuries.

But we are part of a pioneering group that is trying to dispel the taboo about death so we freely use the words “dead”, “die”, “death,” and “dying.” But the majority of people in our society are still not comfortable with those words.

In fact, the consciousness of most people in our society has not yet evolved to a level that diminishes the fear of death. So they react to direct language about death with fear and rejection.

To break down a societal taboo there are at least two different approaches:

  • The rebellious approach, where unfair practices are exposed and denounced publicly, while advocating for openness and freedom. This approach brings much-needed attention to the taboo issue and pushes toward change. But it risks triggering resistance and strengthening the taboo for those who are afraid of the issue.
  • The quiet approach involves using positive language and energy to engage conversations that are not too confrontational. This approach also normalizes the taboo subject and even celebrates it with special events (such as Dying to Know Day.)

While the rebellious approach is needed to draw public attention and to shine the light on areas where change is desperately needed, the quiet approach is equally important to draw people closer to the issue by helping them to feel safe and to verbalize their fears.

This “quiet approach” may require us to use euphemisms judiciously so that we don’t repel or frighten away those who want to talk about death but do not yet feel comfortable with the language. Insisting that everyone use our appropriate and preferred terms for death may actually discourage and alienate them from conversation.

So if someone needs to say “My father passed away last year” or “I lost my father last year”, don’t correct them at that moment. Allow the conversation to unfold on that person’s terms because for now it is better to talk about “passing away” than to shut down the discussion altogether. Remember: that person does not yet have the same consciousness, awareness and comfort level with death that you have attained. Have compassion and meet people where they are so that you can gradually encourage and guide them to grow.

Until next week when a brand-new episode will air, remember to:

Face Your Fears.               BE Ready.            Love Your Life.

Author: kwyattmd

Karen Wyatt MD is a family physician who has spent much of her 25 year medical career working with patients in challenging settings, such as hospice, nursing homes and indigent clinics. She is interested in a spiritual approach to medicine, illness, death and dying and is the author of two books. Check out her website at www.karenwyattmd.com

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