Be Careful what you say – Part 2

Yesterday I took a look at the language that we use and how important it is when we are supporting someone who has had someone special who has died. Today I want to look at semantics and the importance of using the right language and, if you will allow me, a lighthearted but powerful look at this, often, difficult subject.

There is a very unique language around death that is important. It is a very unique time that is unlike anything that we will ever encounter and there is a language that is connected to it. However, this language is something that we are so scared of.

  • Someone has died
  • Someone is dying
  • This is death

They seem like such hard and harsh words but they describe something that is unique and powerful. We shy away from grief and the language we use mirrors this. There is a fear that if we utter these words we make the situation more real, or somehow make the situation worse. So we use words like passed on, lost them etc. we roll out stock phrases and quotes that skirt around the subject and make us more comfortable and yet all they do is not quite ever express what we actually feel.

Lets take passed on / passed away as an example. The meaning of the word passed is the past tense of pass which is to move or cause to move in a specified direction or to leave behind. So there is something to be said for suggesting that I, as someone who is bereaved, will move on from that point in time away from the person who has died and in essence leave them behind.

Yet we can also be passed over on a job promotion, where we think it is our turn yet our bosses move on from us and our colleague is the one promoted. So the word or phrase can mean different things for different people.

Also, my personal experience of bereavement does not fit with a standard model of a 4,5 or 7 stage of grief whereby we reach a point when we reconstruct and move on. No, instead the theory of continuing bonds is one that is more powerful. In this we carry the memory and relationship of the person in a new way. I don’t feel that I have moved on from my Dad or my Brother. I feel that I carry the memory of them in new ways. Ways which enable me to move effectively through life but which still mean that they continue to be part of me.

So the idea that they have passed on to me is incongruous with my connection to them. However, this is my experience and not yours and therefore you take on these expressions may be different and this is the problem. When we have such a unique moment in our lives when someone had died we need to name it for what it is. Not confuse it with other moments. Not use language which is abstract and easily confused with other mundane day-to-day experiences. We name it for what it is.

In training that I have delivered around bereavement I share the following section from an article written by Adrian Plass entitled Have you moved on yet where he talks about a conversation he had with someone at the one year anniversary of his friends husband. In it he shares some of the variety of cliché’s bereaved people put up with.

It is a useful reminder of how powerful the language we use is. These may seem flippant but there is truth in them that is powerful. Enjoy and let it start to challenge the words you use.

She’s just slipped into the next room
The next room? Slipped into the next room? She’s been in the next room for the last eight years. I’ve nursed her and fed her and read to her and watched her dying in the next room. I can assure you she is not in the next room any more. She’s not in any room. I’ve looked. She’s somewhere else.

Time is a great healer
Not for him, it wasn’t

Do you know, my uncle died of exactly the same thing.
That is a huge comfort.

Well, he had a good innings
You don’t know much about cricket, do you? When you have a good innings you don’t want it to end. In fact, the nearer you get to the magic of a century the more determined you are to get that last sweet boundary. One hundred runs – or more! Now, that’s a good innings.

She’s gone before
No, definitely the first time, never went before, never dead before, always alive before.

At least he’s in heaven now, so he’s happy and at peace.
Gosh! I do so admire theological certainty. Do you have as much faith for yourself as you have for him?

She’s in a much better place
Thank you. This was quite a nice place when she was here. Actually, it was a very nice place. I’m afraid I never did realise just how nice it was.

I know exactly how you feel.
Do you?

At least you’ve got the children.
Yes, I’ve got the children. And they’ve just got – me.

In a way it’s for the best
For the best? Whose best? My best? Your best? The Duke of Edinburgh’s best? Shirley Bassey’s best? It’s not for the best. It’s for the worst.

He didn’t suffer at the end
No, and I’m glad. But I did. I suffered.

She wouldn’t want you to grieve.
Okay, I won’t then. Actually, I think she might be a bit disappointed if I remained – totally unmoved. What do you think?

You mustn’t blame yourself
Mustn’t I? Well, I do. I do blame myself. I blame myself for all sorts of things. I blame myself for not telling her I loved her three million more times than I did. For not changing the little things in me that would have made all the difference. Whether I must or mustn’t blame myself – I do.

He’s with you now just as much as he ever was.
No, he’s not.

You’ll be able to join her soon
Ah, right, I’d better cancel tomorrow’s milk then.

I’m sure you could think of plenty of other phrases that you have heard over the years. Perhaps some of these are helpful to you. However we mustn’t assume that they are helpful to someone else.

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