I posted this on the Grief Support site Doing Well about a year ago. I am making it the third installment of our Grief Series because it is so applicable to the discussions we have had on Depression and Denial. Part 1, Depression, can be found HERE. Part 2, Denial, can be found HERE.
Having grown up around the funeral industry I have heard almost every euphemism ever invented to describe the death of a loved one. “They passed.” “They passed away.” “They went home.” “They kicked the bucket.” Oh, and my personal favorite, “They expired.” If you do a Google search for “euphemisms about death” it returns pages of results of terminology that has been used throughout time to refer to death. Early on I was taught, and it was further emphasized in my training as a grief specialist, that the correct phrase is, “they died.” But a lot of people do not understand the meaning of the words they choose to describe this event in their lives where the physical relationship with their loved one is permanently severed. I would like to unpack the word usage we choose and explain why it affects our grieving process.
Merriam-Webster defines “pass” with twelve definitions. Whenever I see multiple definitions in the dictionary I always put the most credence on the first few; I believe this is probably because of the tendency of the human mind to “check-out” after the first few things it sees or hears. With the word “pass”, part b of the second definition is simply DIE. I must admit that I was not expecting that definition to appear but then when you look at the influence of popular trends in society to affect the words and definitions that appear in the dictionary I can see why that definition was added (how many of you remember saying as a kid that ain’t was not a word because it was not in the dictionary – well our kids cannot say that because now it is). Knowing that I had been told for years not to use the term “passed” I decided to look more closely at the definitions that appear before the one that equated “pass” with “DIE.” The first definition is simply, “move, proceed, go.” Part a of the second definition, the one that immediately precedes “DIE”, is “to go away: depart.”
“Pass” is a verb. It implies action. It implies that someone went somewhere. That they “moved”, “proceeded”, or “went away” to some other place. It should be beginning to get clearer now WHY people throughout the ages have chosen the word “passed” to describe their dead loved one. The way a person looks at death through their “spiritual lens” in many cases can influence the way they refer to death. In Christianity the death of a person that has accepted Christ into their life is a movement from this physical world into the presence of God in a Spiritual world that cannot be seen by those of us left behind. In other religions death can mean the beginning of life in another form, as another person, or as an animal. It is clear that many religions around the world believe that death is a “moving” into another existence; thus the word usage “passed away.” But then the crux of the question is why then do people who claim to have no faith still use the same terminology. If a person believes that death is the final stage in our human existence then why do they choose to use a word that implies action to describe the death of their loved one? I am sure that if pressed, these people would simply say that they use that terminology because it is the most prevalently used terminology in society.
So why then was I raised and trained to use the term “DIED” to speak of the death of someone?
Well, for this I returned to my good friend the dictionary to look at the meaning of the word DIE. I was greeted with five definitions for the word and I was completely taken aback by what society has done to influence the meaning of the word DIE. The first definition of the word DIE was, “to pass from physical life : expire.” You notice above I referenced the fact that the usage of the word “expire” was one of my favorite because of the sheer absurdity of it. When I would take death calls from local nursing homes or hospices I would be greeted with, “[insert name here] has expired and the family wants you to come and get them.” EXPIRED. Seriously! I have looked for my expiration date and the last time I looked I didn’t have a label anywhere on my body. The only person that knows my expiration date is God and we are not blessed with knowing when that is. But after reading the FIRST definition of the word DIE and seeing the meaning EXPIRE I feel like the only label I need is one across my forehead that says I GUESS I WAS WRONG. Another thing that is important to notice is that the word PASS is used as part of the definition for the word DIE, “to PASS from physical life.”
SO again I ask, why the professional emphasis on the usage of the word DIED when referring to someone who has died?
In training we are taught that the words DIE or DIED implied more permanence and when you are trying to help someone through their grief they need to grasp the permanence of the death of their loved one. They are not coming back from this thing we call death. They will never be with us in their old physical body again, at least in this existence. They have DIED. Throughout years of working with people who are bereaved over the death of a loved one the hardest thing I have seen them have to surmount is the usage of the words DIE, DIED, or DEAD to refer to their loved one. Some would say that holding on to the usage of the word “passed” or “gone on” is simply an acknowledgment that they are now in a different place than they were when they were here with us; and that may very well be the case. However, in working with the bereaved I have seen the results of simply switching the word usage from “passed away” to “died.” I have seen the struggle someone has in grasping the permanence of the word “DIED.” I have also seen the amazing restorative and therapeutic nature that replacing their “passed away” with the word “died.” The word “died” draws a definite line between the loved one’s existence in this physical world and their movement into whatever afterlife your beliefs may hold. Drawing that definite line provides a start for the healing from the pain and anguish that they may find themselves in as they attempt to grieve their loved one’s death.
As the title of this post asks, “did they die….or did they pass away….or expire?”
I believe that the answer to that complex question is YES. YES your loved one passed away from this physical life into a different existence that is better understood from your particular spiritual beliefs. YES your loved one expired as they came to the end of this physical life. And YES your loved one died as their physical existence in this world ended. The terms or phrases that you choose to use to describe the death of your loved one are up to you, but I ask you to remember that until you completely grasp the permanence of the death of your loved one, their absence from this physical world, you will not be able to heal correctly. More correctly, you may heal but there will always be that part of you that misunderstands the permanence of your loved ones absence from this physical world.