How do we talk about death?

How do we talk about death?

Does the language we use when we talk about death shape the way we deal with it? In ‘Public Opinion on Death and Dying’, a 2016 survey by Dying Matters, just under half of those interviewed thought that discussing death ‘made it feel closer’. No wonder, then, that we have a hard time addressing death directly.

When someone dies, we hear a lot of words used to describe it that can seem to make it more distant. We say, she passed away, or, we’ve lost someone; that someone has ‘slipped away’. With many studies showing that talking about death, rather than make things seem more scary, can actually make us more open and less fearful and anxious of death, it’s perhaps time to address the ways in which we talk about the subject.

The way we talk about death can make it seem like a kind of failure

When it comes to terminal illness, particularly when speaking about the ‘C-word’, our language really shows our discomfort with death and dying. Those who are diagnosed are talked about in terms of ‘battling cancer’ or ‘losing their fight’. Even if they make it through this particularly unfair match, they’re deemed to be ‘survivors’. With these kinds of military metaphors, death and dying is seen as a failing of a body rather than a natural cause.

The way we talk about death can keep it at a distance

Death becomes just the task of hospitals and funeral directors, rather than the stuff of most of our day-to-day lives. The topic is kept at a safe distance, or couched in terms that make it sound like an altogether different thing. But what if we made an effort to speak openly? While it’s a daunting and often quite alien conversation, by opening up it may help to change the narrative. Acknowledging that the end is inevitable can be more appropriately heroic or celebratory.

There have been a few studies looking into how talking about death can change our behaviour, the way we react to others and our own mental health. An interesting 2010 study found that, in simple terms, the more mindful we are of our own death, the less fear and anxiety it can give us. Honest and open conversations about death and dying are equally as important for helping us to live a good life too.

Maybe it’s just a part of us and a comforting way of dealing with things

As a study looking at all the ways people talk about death has shown, we’ve talked about death using euphemisms and metaphors for centuries.

‘Passed away’ and ‘kicked the bucket’ are all old expressions; even the phrase ‘six feet under’ has its origins in a 1665 plague outbreak in England. Archaic phrases intended for poetic melancholy and theatricalities from the 1600s still make sense to us today.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet our tragic hero contemplates death ‘that undiscovered country’, providing us with the ever-dignified phrase ‘shuffled off’. In recent popular culture, ‘sleeping with the fishes’ (from the film The Godfather), for those who live out their lives as if they were a gangster from the ‘50s, has become a well-known euphemism. These phrases still make sense today; they’re recognised and easily understood, perhaps more so than ‘death’.  

It may be that we take comfort in giving the formless thing – death – a kinder or more knowable quality. Those who took part in the study used euphemisms because the words “dead” and “dying” seem too harsh in a given situation.

On a final note

While it’s clear that we need to talk about death more directly, it seems we find comfort in sometimes shrouding death in something more understandable. There’s perhaps an opportunity to get creative here with our euphemisms for death.

Here’s one of the most profound entries to our ‘metaphors for death’ list, by the obscure aphorism-writer Malcolm de Chazal. Poetic though it is, we wouldn’t recommend putting it in any eulogies you might have to give: 

“Death is the bowel movement of the soul evacuating the body by intense pressure on the spiritual anus.”

There’s no better way to start talking about death than to plan for it. Start here.

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