I had a death in the family this weekend. It’s been kind of a lousy year for me what with folks close to me dying, nearly dying, being institutionalized, attempting suicide, etc. It’s given me many useful, if not exactly pleasant, opportunities to reflect on death and dying. It would be self-indulgent and preachy-sounding to share most of them, but I will pass along this one insight:
I fucking hate the term “pass away.”
I understand that people like its connotations of peace and transition, but “pass away” raises my hackles. Dying happens. Death might come in ways that are scary, violent, sad, painful or even ridiculous. But death is not offensive or perverse or a reality we should be protected from. It does not require an insipid euphemism. We don’t have euphemisms for “born” and we don’t need any for “die.”
I don’t know about y’all, but I am not some hankie-waving Aunt Pittypat who needs to have reality—even harsh reality—sugar-coated for me, and I don’t think sugar-coating death does anyone any favors. Using a euphemism doesn’t make the reality of death any less distressing for the survivors, but refusing to refer to death directly seems disingenuous. To say that someone “passed away” due to a car accident, war, murder or some decidedly non-peaceful cause strikes me as dishonest—almost ludicrously so. Unless you’re one of the rare few to die painlessly in your sleep of old age—and may we all be so lucky–chances are your “passing” was not the equivalent of slipping gracefully out of the room, as the phrase implies. Even death by cancer or a heart attack is rarely peaceful or easy, and it seems wrong to minimize human suffering, even after the fact.
Still, people treat the word “die” like a cuss word. “Pass away” or “pass on” is the go-to prissy-sounding substitute, although my religious friends back home also favor “went to be with the Lord” or “resting with Jesus.” The latter don’t bug me as much because that’s what your average God-fearing Southern Christian thinks happens when you, y’know, die. But you can’t beat specifics when it comes to conveying meaning. I was once told that someone “is in a better place” which left me wondering if he’d died or just caught the next flight to Maui.
Maybe people have good intentions when they default to euphemisms. But I’d rather they didn’t. When I die—whether by cancer, terrorism or shark attack—please just say “she died” and leave it at that.