That Word . . . That Talk


At one of the churches I served, I led a class entitled, “Living Fully, Dying Well.” It encouraged participants to learn about and share their views on . . . Death. I asked the group of mostly parents, ranging in age from 30s to 70s: “Did you ever have a talk with your kids about sex?”

A few had toddlers, and that talk was years away. A few never had kids: no need for the talk. But the majority, recently or decades before, raised their hands to acknowledge covering that subject with their kids.

“What about death?”

They stared at me.

“Have you told your children about what your thoughts are about death? About anything having to do with your wishes if you get a terminal illness, or what you want if you can’t make decisions?”

Maybe one or two hands were lifted. Most of the group had not chatted about—or hinted at—dying and death, even with their adult children. We avoid death like the plague. Hey, we even avoid the word. Our culture has created—and frequently uses—dozens of banal to bizarre euphemisms to give death as wide a berth as possible.

  • Crossed the Jordan
  • Deep-sixed
  • Departed
  • Dreamless sleep
  • Entered the pearly gates
  • Expired
  • Gave up the ghost
  • Had the last curtain call
  • Kicked the bucket
  • Laid to rest
  • Left the room like Elvis
  • Left us
  • Met Davy Jones
  • Met his maker
  • Passed
  • Passed on
  • Passed over
  • Perished
  • Returned to dust
  • Shook hands with Jesus
  • Six feet under
  • Sleeps with the fishes
  • Succumbed
  • Surrendered
  • Taken by angels
  • Taken by God
  • Taken up to heaven
  • The big sleep
  • Was lost
  • Went home to God
  • __________________ . . .

Can you think of phrases or words I’m missing? I suspect you could, and I haven’t searched for expression the Germans or Bolivians or Russians would claim. I’m quite confident other words from other regions, cultures, and religions would quickly expand the list.

Last week, I purchased a new car. The easy-going, chatty car salesperson eventually shifted to the forms we had to complete as our negotiations turned into a deal. One of the questions he had to ask was, “Where do you work?”

I told him.

A hospice.

He nodded, soon asking several more necessary questions. He jotted information on the papers in front of him. But then he paused and awkwardly smiled at me.

“So, with where you work, what do you say to people who are, you know—”

His incomplete sentence hung in the air.

“Say about what?” I asked.

“Well, if they are—” He gazed past me. “When they are—”

Another sentence never ended.

I guessed him around thirty. He had mentioned a fiancée, and had briefly spoken about a passion for mixed martial arts. He seemed a nice, young man. But he couldn’t get the words dying or death out of his mouth.

At the hospice where I work in grief support, I listen to the nurses and social workers discuss death. I read the medical charts and the notes doctors make. I’m not breaching confidence when by revealing that the professionals and their official charting also avoid death. Variations of the patient passed are popular. I get it. I understand that passed on or passed over reflect the faith tradition of earth and heaven, of passing from the known land of fast food, area codes and cloverleaf freeway exchanges to the Biblical dream of paradise.

Or it’s possible my colleagues simply don’t want to overuse the inevitable word, “died.”

Or maybe they are uncomfortable too?

When making bereavement calls to family and friends, I usually say death or died. I prefer the truest and simplest words when in conversation with a grieving loved one because maybe, just maybe, my choice of words will model honesty for our private time on the phone. But whatever words I speak—or whatever words I avoid for my so-called honest attempts at honesty—death will enter my life and break me down. It will. Once, how breathtakingly fast and cruel that my mother changed from being a lively octogenarian to breathing her last. I recall early 2014, when my wife and I had four fun pets: three snippy cats and an easy-going dog. Sure, they were “elderly,” but they were a fixture in our lives. By October of 2014, all four had died. That year staggered me.

It would be easy—and yet nearly impossible—to create the short list of the deaths of my friends or family whose death would also devastate me. It is like that for most of us.

And so, we use words to avoid the unavoidable. How many of us are like my car dealer, a nice young fellow with a bright smile and a brighter future. He seemed as if he could talk about anything to anyone. Except for one subject . . .

Still, words are all we’ve got, and I hope you’ll be honest with your loved ones about what you want in your dying and in your death while you’re still a citizen of this known land of fast food, area codes, and people that love you more than life itself.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. I would need to reference the Monty Python Dead Parrot Sketch for a full list, but ‘joined the choir invisible’. could be there.

  2. I’m a Hospice chaplain. I try to use the word “die,” “dying,” and “death” when talking with patients and families. I remember the look of sheer confusion and even panic on the face of an accident victim in the hospital where I volunteer as on-call chaplain. His wife had been killed in the accident. He was on a gurney in the ER with serious injuries of his own. I arrived to find him with a social worker on one side and a doctor on the other both trying to tell him his wife had died without saying the words. The man spoke limited English. “I’m sorry to have to tell you your wife did not survive the accident…” the social worker said. The man looked from one to the other in confusion.” The doctor added, “We did all we could but her injuries were catastrophic.” The man looked desperate, obviously not understanding. I stepped forward and said, “Your wife died, sir.” I endured withering looks of disapproval from both doctor and MSW, but the man grabbed my hand and began sobbing. He finally had his answer and could begin greiving.

    Another time, a family of a Hospice patient intercepted me on the way into a patient’s room. “Don’t mention Hospice to her, she doesn’t know how serious it is,” they all said in various ways. As soon as I entered her room she said to me, “I’m dying. My family won’t let me talk about it.” And the stories go on and on.

    Thank you for your article. I’m passing it on.

    • Thanks, April!

      As a hospice chaplain, I would never bet against you going “on and on” with these painfully true stories!

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