I have always loved the phrasing used in India after someone dies: “He is no more.” Stark, simple, powerful. The being has ended.
Compare that to our various euphemisms. “Passing” can also suggest deception, pretending to be White or female or whatever might prove an advantage. Or traveling—“I’m just passing through”—but to where? A hopeful phrase for a next world, this one evades the absence in this world. “Gone to Jesus,” same. “Slipped away” does have a sense of mischief, a deliberate and wily escape from the mortal coil. And “at rest” is nice, especially if someone has suffered before death, or if you are an exhausted caretaker. But “gave up the ghost” seems just wrong; it is only now time for the ghost to appear.
Silly as “passed away” can seem, the Yiddish equivalent is fabulous: oyshoykhn di neshom, to breathe out one’s soul. We still have no idea where that soul is going, but now I no longer care, because the image is so vivid; I picture a rainbow-striped streamer, exhaled, lifting into the clouds, which seems to be our favorite location for heaven. So much seems more colorful, precise, or lyrical in another language—is that because the strangeness itself works as a euphemism? Or because other languages of death use the poetry English is scared to capture?
The poet Elizabeth Alexander likes “passed” in the Black sense, she says, because it implies movement, and the idea that the two worlds, this one and the next, are connected. She does not like talk of “losing” someone, as though you should still be looking. What I loathe is the bland, ubiquitous “Sorry for your loss”—its syntax so circuitous that you are extending compassion to a void instead of a person. Still, “loss” comes from “lorn,” as in “forlorn,” which does rather sum up the feeling….
Our clinical words for death are atrocious. “Deceased” no longer sounds like its origin, the Latin dēcessus, meaning departure. The dear departed do not sound nearly as beloved when they are merely deceased. A cold, bureaucratic word fit only for forms, its modern usage forces us to think of ceasing as a full stop, not the start of a journey. Demised, moribund—these words send chills. “Expired” commodifies—and implies that one may have stayed past one’s freshness date. “Succumbed,” “fell victim,” and “lost the battle” turn life into a duel with death.
It worries me that we are still afraid to simply say that someone is dead. They died. They are now dead. Dead and gone, if you must; the slangy addition underscores their absence. But definitely dead. What other state, short of an ethically confounding coma, is as distinct?
Too agnostic to be sure of heaven’s “better place,” I need a metaphor of my own. Perhaps a flower that bloomed and now has crumpled, wilted (am I still afraid to say died?). But a flower would be yet another euphemism, holding out the false promise of renewal the following spring. A Christmas paperwhite, forced to bloom in December and dead forever after? Now that I know those bulbs are temporary, sterile, exhausted, the forcing seems cruel, done only for our own delight.
After discarding a dozen possibilities, I land on art. A human life is an installation: elaborately designed, performed, experienced. If that life is created thoughtfully and lived well, then by the time it is deconstructed, it will have had a powerful effect on all those who encountered it. That particular installation will have slid itself into their memory, maybe even rewired a few connections in their brain. They will continue to think about it and talk about it, and thus it will live on in them, still wielding influence. It will be remembered and compared and celebrated long after that well-lit white room at the museum has been emptied.
This is the change we have to face head on, though: the emptying. The absence. The silence. The dead person’s voice speaks only inside our heads now, and the acoustics are different. We cannot go to that person, sit in their company, bring friends to see them, drink tea with them, learn from them in real time. We can only interact with, and learn from, who they were.
Grief is a measure of loss, whether I like that phrase or not. But grief is also a measure of love. And admitting the grief and loss is a way to acknowledge the love. It is also, as Leonard Cohen (and before him, Rumi) reminded us, the crack that lets the light in. The wound that opens us to the world. Grieve fully, and you will never be afraid of sadness again—your own or anyone else’s. Toss around euphemisms, and you will be on tiptoe for years to come.
Euphemisms let us dart away, pretend, avoid that absence the way we pull back from touching someone who frightens us or might be contagious. We are good at distancing death. We hang onto the dead person’s possessions, forget the death anniversary, stall when it is time to have the bare facts of death engraved in marble on the headstone. Euphemisms refuse to let the light in, to let the truth hit us squarely.
Shakespeare had it right in Macbeth: “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.” But we lack plain words because there is really only one, and “dead” scares us. Look at the way it threads through our vocabulary. Dead space. Dead zones. Dead air. Dead means barren, inanimate, obsolete, numb, ineffectual, stagnant. If someone is “dead to me,” I have cursed them.
Imagine if our associations with death conjured Laurie Anderson’s definition: a release of love. Imagine if we used “dead” to mean peaceful, complete, freed. It would change everything. Because let us be honest: death scares us not only because it snatches away someone we love, but because it reminds us that we could be next. There are Jewish communities in the U.K. that say, when they greet someone who is mourning, “I wish you long life.” That strikes some oddly, because so often the mourner is old and tired and sad, and they snap, “I’ve lived long enough already, thank you very much.” But psychologically, the words are astute. They address the secret fear. And the phrase is far more comforting than saying, as someone who is Chinese might, “Jie ai shun bian,” which translates as, “Please refrain from sadness and adapt to the change.” Spit-spot.
We want the grief to stop asap, because we do not know how to name or speak about death. Online, there are quite a few guides to condolences, some wise and some silly, but the best message of all is one Cohen emailed to a grieving friend: “I’m with you, brother.” Simple as that. Because the guy was sad. Because somebody died.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.