When my husband Peter died almost four years ago, yes, I said died, not passed away, not departed, and certainly not resting in peace, I had a refresher tutorial in bereavement terminology. I knew that saying Peter died was severe and uncompromising, but it clarified my situation and made me understand exactly the devastation that had befallen me. Western culture has a death phobia. We are afraid to utter the word die (unless referring to a pair of dice), because of the unknown aspects of dying and the superstitions that surround this veritable part of life.
Instead of using the d-word for death, we tend to use euphemisms in an effort to soften the blow. Right after Peter died friends used such cliché terms as: “he didn’t make it,” “he’s resting in peace,” “he departed,” “he met an untimely end,” and “he was called home.” Really? Called home? Was this like ET phoning home?
Those experiencing the death of a loved one cope with their tragedy in different ways. Some can’t comprehend the loss and don’t want to be punched in the gut with the word die. But for me the term death clarified my situation and made me realize that I was alone and had to find my way on the painful path through grief.
Loss is another term that needs to be deleted in talking about the dead. When Peter died, I suffered a loss of humongous proportions. I experienced a loss that catapulted me into the throes of grief on a major scale. One thing was clear to me. I didn’t lose Peter! Saying I lost my husband implied I was irresponsible and uncaring. I didn’t misplace Peter, he died and it is not my fault. When you lose your keys there is an expectation that you will find them again. When you lose your smart phone, there is an app that will help you locate it. Peter is not lost. Peter died and I will never find him again.
Which brings me to “sorry for your loss,” the gold standard of what is considered the socially acceptable thing to say to someone in grief. I don’t find this standard sobriquet particularly offensive. I do, however, find “sorry for your loss” on the edge of trite and uninspired. Grievers don’t trust people who say “sorry for your loss” because they are not sure that the person is really that sorry. I would prefer someone to say “I’m sorry you have to go through the pain.” This statement validates what grievers are going through and is more empathetic. Right after Peter died, I would have preferred someone to tell a story about him and reminisce with me about his life. I would have preferred someone to say “I know there is nothing I can say, but I am here to listen and comfort you.” I would have preferred friends to say “I am just going to sit here beside you and hold you.” Sorry for your loss slams the door shut on the conversation about your loved one and there is no room for growth.
The use of the words “you lost your spouse,” are not true in grief. Peter is with me all the time. I didn’t lose him. He is in my heart and in my soul. I often talk to him asking him for guidance. I ask him for help when I have a problem. OK ask isn’t the correct term. I weep and scream a bit, but I feel his presence in me. I feel his essence in me and that keeps me moving forward in my journey through grief. I experienced a great loss but my husband is not forgotten!
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