Oh, the phrases we use to avoid saying the “D” word. You know, the “D” word – died, dying, dead. That “D” word. It is so much more popular to use the “L” word as-in lost, or the “P” word as-in to pass, or passed on, or pass away.
I am not a fan of calling death anything than what it is. After my father’s funeral, I remember a family friend walked up to me and said, “I am sorry you lost your father.” On autopilot, I responded with, “Thank you, me too.” But in my head, I had a darkly funny image, of my father’s picture on a milk carton, with the caption, “Have you seen this man?” But he was not lost. His ashes were in the urn that my mother insisted on bringing home with her.
For some, there could be religious reasons for saying passed on. The phrasing of passed on or passing away begins to show up in English writings from the 1400s. It represents the belief that the soul physically moved on or passed on to the afterlife. Someone who refers to death as passing on could be expressing his or her belief in an immortal soul. But, in today’s world, no matter what someone thinks about the soul, it is most likely, that he or she is trying to soften the reality of death. That is unfair to my friend, the Grim Reaper, and unjust to all of us.
There is nothing like the reminder of death to serve as a motivator for life. When someone you know dies, it is an opportunity to take stock of your life. You consider your lifestyle and relationships. If you are off-track, experiencing death will help nudge you back on course. Don’t soften this potential lesson by calling someone lost or passed away. Our inability to accept death as an integral part of life is making us lost. Or, at the very least, allowing us to pass on or lose the opportunity to live a full life.
Is it ever OK to say passed?
Absolutely. Just as some of us prefer a direct and honest acknowledgment of death, others are ill-prepared for such blunt phrasing. In their time, they will be able to make the transition from, “I lost my partner,” or “My partner has passed,” to “My partner died.”
Immediately after my father took his last breath, my mother said, “Your father just died.” It would be several more months before she could use the “D” word again. In the days that followed the funeral, Mom would say, “Since your father is not here.” Shortly after that, she was able to say, “Now, that your father is gone.” Eventually, she could say that he had passed away. And approximately six months after he died, and she was ready to scatter his ashes, she could say that he was dead.
At no point during her journey, did it occur to me to force the phrase died or dead on her. I never corrected her. I just listened. I did not parrot her words back to her. I tried to avoid saying anything. When necessary, I would say as gently as possible, “Since dad died,” or, “Now that dad is dead.”
Please try to use the “D” word.
Even if others around you cannot say dead, or dying, or death, you can. You do not need to be in someone’s face about it, but you can act as a mentor. It is perfectly acceptable for you to show emotion and tear up as you say, “Yes, I am sorry my father died. I will miss him.” As others hear you accept death, and speak about death, they may begin to come to a place of calm acceptance. And that is an essential step toward embracing death and truly living.