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Death. Dying. Have you noticed that most people dance around the subject of death when they’re in a situation that puts it in their face—whether it’s their dying or someone else’s.
Case in point—the funeral director I met with a few months ago. I was making my Plan B arrangements in case my body donation doesn’t go through. (This could happen if its condition is unsuitable at the time I die.)
Obviously, I wasn’t prepaying for a funeral since I don’t know whether or not I’ll need their services. But he was willing to meet with me, on that understanding, to fill out the paperwork. There are some tricky questions on the forms that must be submitted when registering a death, and I wanted to make sure the correct answers are on file.
Within minutes, it was obvious that the funeral director was selecting his words carefully in an effort to avoid causing me discomfort. Fair enough, in that we had just met and he was trying to assess where I was coming from.
I helped him out by saying something very direct about my death that let him know he could speak freely. The conversation was much more satisfying after that.
Elders have a responsibility…
I think it’s our responsibility, as elders, to get over ourselves and any preciousness we may feel about dying. Shifting our mindset leads to more constructive behaviours, and we will be modelling a better way for our children, grandchildren, and perhaps also our friends.
We Baby Boomers have grown up in a death-phobic culture in which dying has been sanitized and commercialized—like most of our life experiences. This has left us crippled, unable to handle death well. And that’s what our children and grandchildren are learning from us. This is the time for us to turn the tide—to learn what death requires of us and become comfortable talking about it.
I’m not a fan of euphemisms…
In a death-phobic culture, it becomes the norm to use euphemisms—substituting mild, indirect, or vague expressions for those thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt. Legacy.com, which hosts more than 20 million on-line obituaries, lists the top ten euphemisms used in death notices. If ten isn’t enough, here’s a longer list.
Went to be with (the/his/her) Lord
Entered eternal rest
Was called home
Left this world
Lost his/her battle
Somehow, the word “die” is culturally perceived as offensive, harsh, and blunt. Yet its actual definition is straightforward: To cease functioning, to stop living or existing, to undergo the complete and permanent cessation of all vital functions.
Euphemistic expressions for death and dying have been described as “verbal tranquilizers” and I think it’s a fair description of how we attempt to avoid what are seen as harsh realities.
In her excellent article about whether euphemisms are helpful or harmful, social worker Esther Heerema says:
…using the word “dead” makes it difficult to deny the reality. And, psychologically, while denial clearly needs to turn to acceptance, a little bit of denial is not all bad as a short-term coping mechanism. Indirect language can sometimes be a helpful way to mentally and emotionally handle your feelings gradually.
She also points out that euphemisms may be used for reasons other than denial. These include protection, to avoid being rude or offensive, to avoid discomfort, to offer spiritual comfort, or because of our own grief.
Her article highlights several considerations, including using euphemisms with children and principles for knowing when direct communication is the best choice.
Using euphemisms when speaking to children about death is usually not recommended. While the intention is to be gentle and protect the child from additional pain, indirect language is often confusing to a child. A euphemism involving terms such as “asleep” or “rest” might cause them to misunderstand and become fearful of going to bed at night. Similarly, saying, “We lost Uncle Fred last night” could prevent the child from comprehending that the person died and instead prompt them to go looking for Uncle Fred because he’s “lost.”
…When you should use direct language: The words death, dead, and dying should be used when it’s important to be very clear about what is happening. This includes when critical medical decisions are being made based on the prognosis of the patient, when speaking with those who might not fully understand indirect language, and when there might be a language barrier that might hinder understanding.
Talking about death over dinner…
Death Over Dinner, an initiative by Michael Hebb, is a deliberate opportunity to talk with others about death. For the past 20 years, Hebb has been working to “understand the secrets of human connection. His projects have turned into international movements and impacted millions. His second book Let’s Talk About Death was published in 2018.”
You might wonder why anyone would have a conversation about death over dinner. Here’s how it’s explained on the Death Over Dinner website:
The dinner table is the most forgiving place for difficult conversation. The ritual of breaking bread creates warmth and connection, and puts us in touch with our humanity. It offers an environment that is more suitable than the usual places we discuss end of life.
So, it’s an intriguing idea. What I really like is how they’ve created a structure that helps you plan an event tailored to your interest in the subject. After filling in a simple questionnaire, you receive practical planning and hosting help, including
- Suggested dinner invitation text, including the read/watch/listen resources you chose to share with your guests
- Proposed conversation prompts for your dinner
- Post-dinner activities and ways to share your experience with the community
The cool thing is you can try this out even if you don’t go ahead with the dinner. I found it a really good way to gain perspective on the breadth of the topic of dying, to review the variety of resources they have included, and see what conversation starters they suggested. I highly recommend checking it out at deathoverdinner.org
What do you think?
Would you be inclined to organize a dinner to talk about death? If not, do you wonder why you wouldn’t? That might be revealing…