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How many ways to say ‘dead?’

“Hard to comprehend in the human mind
Impossible to envision leaving yourself behind.”
–Charles Aubrey Rogers
kick the bucket

Nobody wants to actually say the word dead.

We say “passed on,” “passed away,” “kicked the bucket,” “passed,” “gone to heaven,” “deceased,” “expired,” “gone,” “departed,” “fell asleep in Jesus” and a whole host of other phrases. Despite the fact that it happens to 100% of us, we are not the least bit comfortable with that subject and push it away.

Read the obituaries and see how many phrases are used to put lipstick on death. So entertaining to read some of them. Rarely does an obit say how someone died. Every time I read one that’s what I want to know. How did they die? Yet we omit that detail in a shroud of secrecy.

Doctors are taught in medical school not to mince words. When a patient dies, they are encouraged to use the word dead. Otherwise grief-stricken and shocked relatives won’t understand their relative has died. Saying they “passed on” elicited too much confusion and questions like, “What room did they go in?”

In the Western world, we bury and stuff our grief.

Granted, I wouldn’t expect someone to look forward to it like it’s happy hour. Or plan it with the excitement you’d plan a vacation to Europe. But when it happens, it’s not something to be ashamed of. Yet I’ve seen the fear in the eyes of others when I get teary as if my naked grief is an embarrassment.

We’re expected to somehow ‘move on’ when in fact it profoundly changes our lives–forces us to understand our own mortality and do something that makes our own lives more meaningful. Usually a brush with death does inspire people to take stock in their lives. Guess what? That’s actually a good thing.

I’ve decided to be very direct with my language.

I use the word suicide and died. You’ll never hear me use the phrase, “passed on” which makes me cringe.

The thought of sugar coating death with a pearly phrase that sounds like a gastrointestinal issue to make it more palatable is utterly hilarious to me.

I can literally hear Charles laughing in my ear and telling me fart jokes.

Published by

Anne Moss Rogers

I am an emotionally naked mental health speaker, and author of the Book, Diary of a Broken Mind and co-author with Kim O'Brien PhD, LICSW of Emotionally Naked: A Teacher's Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk. I raised two boys, Richard and Charles, and lost my younger son, Charles to addiction and suicide on June 5, 2015. I help people foster a culture of connection to prevent suicide, reduce substance misuse and find life after loss. My motivational mental health keynotes, training and workshop topics include suicide prevention, addiction, mental illness, anxiety, coping strategies/resilience, and grief. As talented and funny as Charles was, letting other people know they matter was his greatest gift. And now the legacy I try and carry forward in my son's memory. Mental Health Speakers Website. Trained in ASIST and trainer for the evidence-based 4-hour training for everyone called safeTALK.

4 thoughts on “How many ways to say ‘dead?’”

  1. I still have a hard time with saying “Whitten died” or “my son is dead”.
    It still seems impossible. I have to go over it over and over on business trips with my husband, because that’s all women seem to ask. ..”so do you have any children?” “do you work?”
    My answer of “no” to both, sends them on their way quickly, like they have no idea what else to talk about….and sometimes brings them to tears. I don’t usually end up in the “ladies’ group” at the bar or dinner. I have to try extra hard to be charming now.

    1. Oh Gray, just be you. I had that fear of being “depressing.” But what I found out is that in a group of women, if I talk about Charles it’s not more than 5 minutes and then I end up talking about a lot of other things with that group. The hard part is not getting that minute to say what happened to Charles. I blurted it out the first time I was asked. After that I practiced it to my windshield. I think Whitten’s legacy deserves it. You deserve it. Love you.

      1. I love this, Anne Moss. I struggle when I write sympathy cards. As a hospice social worker I am very comfortable with “death,” “died.” It feels strange to me to say “passed on” yet I know for some it is more gentle and compassionate. I continue to be impressed and thankful for your wise words. Much love to you…

  2. Anne Moss–I couldn’t agree more. I never sugarcoat Mark’s death. I always use the word “died”. I know it sounds morbid–perhaps even horrifying for some, but death IS morbid.

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