Note: names of clients and friends have been changed to protect their privacy.
Last year, my friend Lynn, a medical practitioner, phoned to convey this news about a doctor we both knew: “Herb was very tired so he went home to Jesus.”
At first I was confused. “Tired?” “Went home to Jesus?” After 18 months of trying to keep-up on a heavy patient workload during the pandemic had Herb finally decided to take time off to renew himself? Was he now on vacation, away at a church-sponsored retreat?
When Lynn provided more details I finally understood what had happened; after just a few days in the hospital Herb had died of covid 19. As the sad news began to sink-in I found myself wondering why Lynn hadn’t just said: “I’m so sorry to tell you - Herb has died.”
Why We Use Euphemisms for Death
He went home to Jesus, was called home, was called back to God.
She entered eternal rest, is at rest, went away, is gone, has gone to a better place.
They passed on, passed away.
A euphemism is a mild or indirect word or phrase that’s a softer substitute for a blunt or direct expression. Death can be difficult or uncomfortable to talk about.
And even if we have a deep faith in eternal life or an afterlife, what happens after we die is ultimately uncertain and unknowable. So we wrap our discomfort and uncertainty in euphemisms, the most common of which is “passed away”. But is saying “passed away” rather than “died” helpful to us in processing grief and the pain of loss? Well… yes it can be. But there are times when “died” can be helpful, too.
It's Okay to Say "Died"
Since the 1980s there has been a growing movement in the United States called Death Positive. People who are death positive use unambiguous language when speaking about death because they believe that the cornerstone of a healthy society is the ability to have open and honest conversations about death and dying, subjects often considered morbid or taboo or impolite by our society.
According to death positive practitioners, fully embracing death as a part of life frees us to more fully appreciate life and live life to its fullest. On a personal level my beliefs are very much in alignment with the Death Positive movement.
As a grief support professional I also tend to embrace using clear and unambiguous language with private clients and public audiences. Both my personal life journey and the work I do have taught me that acknowledging death as a part of life is beneficial in emotionally, mentally and spiritually coming to terms with the impermanent nature of earthly existence. So I tend to use words like dying. Died. Dead. We all know what it means to die. Using direct language always makes clear what is happening or has happened in a way that euphemisms such as “went home to Jesus” do not.
Saying "Died" Can Help Us Accept the Reality of Loss
Accepting the reality of a loss and then working through the pain of that loss are tasks assigned to us in the grieving process. Both of these tasks honor the reality that the grief journey is not about missing someone but rather about learning to live in a world without our loved one in it. Using “passed away” and other indirect language about death can serve to emotionally and mentally distance us from what was lost, leaving us vulnerable to magical thinking.
My client Richard used to cringe at the word “died” – he preferred the term “passed away”. After his father’s death, Richard would periodically drive past his father’s house, hoping to get a glimpse of him. Richard knew this wasn’t possible - he knew he was engaging in magical thinking - but because he greatly missed his father he found it hard to give up the hope and emotional comfort that magical thinking provided. Over time in our work together, Richard found himself consciously changing the language he used to describe his father: His father had died. Was now dead. Using more direct language signaled Richard’s readiness to learn ways to live in a world without his father.
This is just one example of how unambiguous death language can help us to process grief.
Direct Talk Is Important When Speaking to Children
After a loved one dies, we sometimes refer to them as being “gone” or we say that they “went away;" these are common euphemisms similar to “passed away” but even more ambiguous.
We are especially prone to using these words when speaking to children about death, thinking it will soften the blow of loss. But the opposite is true.
I once attended a funeral in which a four-year-old child was told that her grandmother had “gone away to a better place” and wouldn’t be coming back. At the funeral home (note: for more information about children attending funerals, visit the Youth and Funerals section of this website) the child became distraught because the grandmother who had “gone away” was now before her in a casket, unable to speak or move no matter how much the child begged her to wake-up.
Age-appropriate direct language is especially important when speaking to children about death; such language can be put in the context of religious and spiritual teachings the child has already been exposed to. And/or it can be done by connecting the child’s understanding to a previous experience (such as the death of a pet, etc.). This approach will provide a beneficial understanding about the reality of death that will serve the child well in life.
The Time and Place for "Passed Away"
My friend Tammy is part of a faith community that believes in reincarnation. When her mother died, Tammy referred to her mother as having “transitioned”. Therefore when speaking to Tammy about her mother’s death, I use the words “transitioned” as well as died.
My client Bob is a man whose faith doctrine includes the belief that upon death a person’s soul “passes away” from this life into the next life, an eternal life to be lived in Heaven. Therefore when I speak to Bob about his sister’s death, I use the word “died” to be direct but I also use the word “passed away” to honor Bob’s understanding of death.
While I may believe that direct language is important when having conversations about death as it can help ease our societal discomfort and fear about death, I use a direct language/ honoring language mixed approach with my clients, friends and family in the understanding that the words we use to describe death reflect our comfort level, personal preferences, belief system and life experiences, as well as where we currently are at on our grief journey. The intention when talking about death is to help soothe rather than contribute to someone’s pain. In that context, no words are right or wrong; just being open and willing to talk about death is of benefit to us all.