Our fear and denial of death – our common approach to it – has created a bunch of pat phrases that we all tend to use when death is near at hand or when death has happened. You will hear them at hospital bed sides, in doctors’ offices and at funerals.
They come rolling off our lips often times in an awkward attempt to make the person feel better and to ease the pain. Well intended for sure. Often not so helpful though.
Here are a few examples;
” They are in a better place.”
” I am sorry for your loss.”
” I know how you feel.”
” You can beat this cancer.”
” You will beat the odds.”
We speak this way for a bunch of reasons, and we are doing our best with the customary sentences. They don’t work though. Here is a piece from When Death Speaks that addresses this language issue around dying and death.
“Without skipping a beat she said, “Now here are some things that didn’t work for me. Don’t make promises and then not keep them. I was so busy and so overwhelmed that I really did need the help. I needed help—not just a promise. I know that people meant well, but broken promises at that time really hurt.”
Appreciating her approach, I asked her to continue with what didn’t work. “When people tried to fix it or make me feel better somehow, it really didn’t work for me at all. My grief had a mind of its own, and a time schedule unique to me. I wasn’t broken and didn’t need to be fixed. I just needed to be heard. Advice wasn’t helpful either, nor were comparisons.”
Jen remembered a time when someone with the best of intentions said that she knew how Jen must have felt. Though Jen bit her tongue she remembered thinking, “You have no idea how I feel, and don’t assume that you do.” I felt her anger and hurt, so I asked about it.
“Look,” she said firmly, “ My journey along my own grief path is mine, and it is unique to me. Yes, others may have had a similar experience, and I get they want me to know they understand or feel for me. But they don’t, and can’t, so please don’t assume you do.” She completed with, “It’s much better to be quiet and listen.”
It is time to create new language, different phrases and sentences that would be more real, more human, and more helpful.
Instead of my battle with cancer how about my walk or journey with cancer.
Instead of making a statement – “I know how you feel.” how about asking a question – “How do you feel?”
A death and dying dictionary hmmm..
Warmly and with Love