“He died”, “he passed away”, or “he left me.” “Giving up” or “after evaluating her options, she made a different choice for her treatment.” …Do you believe that words matter when having conversations about living and dying?
17 years ago when my husband was a cop, he made a bold statement: “When we tell someone that their loved one has died, we say, outrightly, ‘He died.'” I froze.
“Where is the compassion? The empathy?”, I wondered. “How would I feel if this news was delivered in this manner to me?”
Years passed before I truly began to understand. Shepard’s explanation started to ring true as I experienced more loss. People in shock, grieving and fearful, may place meaning to words that aren’t really what was said. “She passed” might be taken in “denial” (the first stage of grieving, per Elizabeth Kubler-Ross). They might try to rationalize that “she passed me in her car on the way to the grocery store”. “She left me” a) might imply choice, and b) does it beg a question similar to “did she leave our house to go to the grocery store?”
As part of an online ‘grieving parent support group’ I frequently see the wording similar to “it will be four years since he left me”. Oh, my heart just breaks for these parents! For me, personally, I don’t think I could bear to live daily with the thought that ‘leaving’ (aka ‘dying’) was ever an option my daughter actually yearned for…
As a professional end-of-life companion and caregiver as well, I sometimes hear ramblings amongst the families of those fighting a particular disease: “I’m so mad that he’s ‘giving up'”! Might this choice of wording make a difference in how one views his choices, treatment options, and ways he wants to live (or die) on his terms: “Evaluating all of his options, he’s choosing this path instead”?
Yes, words matter.
I earned first-hand experience in both realms as I experienced the deaths of my step-mom, grandma and mother-in-law just a few years after first learning my husband’s method of delivering such news. My patients living the last stages of their lives continue to teach me that living and dying can and should be on their terms. This ‘words matter’ theory struck home even more deeply just last year when my 25 year-old daughter, Lauren, while living in her final stages of cancer asked, “if I choose to not do this treatment anymore, will my daughter think I ‘gave up’ on her?”
When evaluating her prognosis and all of her treatment options, she ultimately choose to, at least temporarily, halt treatments. She needed to live a better quality of life in her last days versus having greater quantity of days while in so much pain. No, my love, I will never view your choice to live more fully as “giving up”!
When telling her sister, her dads, and her 3 year-old daughter, I used those once unfamiliar and uncomfortable words “Lauren died” versus “she passed” or “she left us”. With compassion and empathy, I didn’t want them to ever ponder the ‘what ifs’ ~ yes, she really, truly did die. She did not pass us in a car, and she certainly didn’t leave us by choice. She lived the way she wanted to live. Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s cherish what her life and her death means to each of us and move forward together as we grieve the loss of our wonderful girl…. It felt like the most compassionate delivery I could think of.
Yes, words matter.
What other word choices have YOU questioned, or appreciated, when having conversations about living and dying? How did they affect you, positively or negatively?