None of us particularly like talking about death. It feels unpleasant, uncomfortable, and a bit too morose to think about on a regular basis. Because we find death an unpleasant topic, we’ve created a large number of euphemisms to help us allude to death. This is both good and bad, appropriate and unhelpful, depending on the situation. Let’s take some time to dive a little deeper into situations where using euphemisms isn’t as helpful as we’d like to think.
As we go a little deeper into this topic, let’s first establish what a euphemism is and which ones we commonly use when speaking about death. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a euphemism is defined as “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.”
Some of the euphemisms we frequently use for death are:
- Resting in peace, at peace, eternal rest, asleep
- Didn’t make it
- Departed, gone, lost, slipped away
- Not here anymore
- Lost her battle, lost her life, succumbed
- Breathed her last
- Passed, passed on, or passed away
- Went to be with the Lord, went to Heaven, met his Maker
- Was called home, is in a better place
Euphemisms and the Grief Journey
Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally respected grief expert, counselor, and educator, tells us that during times of mourning, we have six needs as we walk through the grief journey. They are: 1) to acknowledge the reality of the death, 2) to embrace the pain of loss, 3) to remember the person who has died, 4) to develop our new self-identity, 5) to search for meaning, and 6) to receive ongoing support from others. When these six needs are met, we are on our way to reconciling ourselves to the loss we have suffered in a healthy way.
Understanding that the first need is to acknowledge the reality of death, you can see how euphemisms might pose a problem. By definition, euphemisms allow us to avoid an unpleasant topic, but in order to grieve well, we must actually face death head on. Dr. Wolfelt puts it this way: “From my own experiences with loss as well as those of the thousands of grieving people I have worked with over the years, I have learned that if we are to heal we cannot skirt the outside edges of our grief. Instead, we must journey all through it, sometimes meandering the side roads, sometimes plowing directly into its raw center.”
By using words like “dead,” “died,” and “dying,” we work toward acknowledging the reality of the death. You may not want to use these words at the beginning, while your emotions are still in turmoil and your mind rebelling against reality, but in order to move forward, you must one day acknowledge that “dead” and “died” are the reality and you are ready to face it.
Euphemisms and Children
Naturally, we want to protect our children from what we think could be harmful. However, having an understanding of death is not harmful; it’s necessary (as much as we might wish it wasn’t). In most cases, a child trusts their parent(s) more than any other adult, which is why this information should come from you.
For children, euphemisms can be particularly confusing. They are still learning the nuances of language and are often quite literal. For example, when you say someone “didn’t make it,” a child may think, “Didn’t make it where?” and not understand that someone has died. Or, when you say someone is “resting in peace,” a child may begin to fear going to sleep, thinking they will not wake up again. With children, it’s best to be straightforward, clear, and concise, but also gentle.
For more tips on how to talk with children about death and funerals, make sure to read 7 Keys Topics to Discuss with Children Before a Funeral. This article will guide you through preparing your child for attending a funeral and give you helpful information on how to talk about death and its complexities.
When is a Euphemism About Death Useful?
Euphemisms about death can be used in a wide variety of circumstances, and they are more appropriate to use when the death is far into the future. For example, if you want to talk to your parents (who are still in good health) about preplanning their funerals, you might say, “I wanted to talk about what happens when you’re not here anymore.” The death has not occurred yet, so it’s less abrasive and gentler to use euphemisms at that time. Or you can use a euphemism in conjunction with a dose of reality. For example, you could say, “After a medical battle, she died this week and is now at peace.”
In general, we use euphemisms about death to distance ourselves from the reality of death. While this habit might help us in the moment, it doesn’t address the underlying issue: most of us are afraid of death and don’t know how to grieve. While carefully considering when to use euphemisms is just one small step toward accepting the reality of death and our own mortality, it’s no small thing. After all, you take every journey just one step at a time.