Is 'Passed Away' the Best Thing to Say? Phrases About Death and Dying

Saying the right thing when it matters most

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Liz Eddy

There are many euphemisms surrounding death and loss. We use kinder, gentler phrases to navigate difficult emotions and to provide support without exposing our loved ones to greater trauma surrounding death. 

This is not always a bad thing. There are certainly times when the implication of your meaning is more appropriate than some of the more honest and difficult to digest phrases. The important thing is to know when to use euphemisms and when to dig deeper, to the core of grief, loss, and human healing. 

At Lantern, we understand that the grieving process is deeply personal. We work with your individual needs to provide resources, support, and information on how to navigate the difficult emotional and logistical steps required after loss. A guide to the phrases and vocabulary associated with death and loss is just one of the ways in which we wish to help you along the process. 

The Times and Places for Euphemisms

The euphemisms and phrases that refer to loss are important for a reason. Not every situation is an appropriate one in which to discuss death, and not every relationship is intimate enough for those deeper conversations. 

At the Funeral

At a funeral, emotions are very high. Your friend or family member will likely be both busy and emotionally overwhelmed on the day of, and it can be difficult to know what to say at the funeral

Unless your friend asks for some time alone together, you’ll want to keep it simple and comfortable. While funerals are for mourning and honoring the loss of a loved one, your friend or family member will be inundated with well-wishers and supporters throughout the day. 

Navigating so many other peoples’ emotions is challenging, particularly in a period of grief. If they need further comfort and more honest conversation surrounding their loss, a more private gathering or even a shared meal may be the place to do so. 

At Work or School

While we may be grieving, we often have to carry on with our day-to-day responsibilities, and that includes returning to work or school. It may be difficult enough for your friend to return, and they don’t need to dive into a personal and deeper discussion about loss and grief, particularly in a professional environment. A simple condolence and the offer to spend time together when they need or are ready, serves the purpose of sharing your support, without putting them on the spot. 

If you are looking to offer condolences to a co-worker, take a moment to decide what is most appropriate. If you know them well, you may want to wish them a simple message of support, without prying. If your relationship is very casual, it may not be appropriate. Consider your relationship and environment and decide what is best for the situation. 

In a Large Group

It’s usually best to offer condolences in private or as privately as is possible. Grief is very personal and many people may keep loss close to the family. If you do see a friend or acquaintance and want to share your condolences at an event or a large group, simpler is better. You can show your support and kind wishes without overwhelming them or putting them on the spot in a group environment. Consider writing a card and handing it to them at the end of the gathering. 

When Direct Language is Needed

While there is a time and place for euphemisms, so too does direct language play a role in discussions around death. Speaking openly and clearly can help individuals come to terms with the situation, better understand what is taking place, and communicate with those who don’t fully understand loss, such as children. Here are some instances in which it may be more appropriate to speak directly about death

In Discussions Regarding Healthcare

There are many euphemisms within the healthcare field, and they are used to put patients and families at ease. But it’s also important to balance those softer phrases with clear, unequivocal ones. This will help to provide the family or friends of the patient or the deceased with an honest picture of what is happening. 

We want to avoid providing false hope or making light of a serious condition, so frank discussions regarding health and wellness are essential. If you are speaking to your family members about the health of a parent or other relative, it’s important to be clear. Explain the options plainly and allow others to contribute to the conversation in the same vein. Too many metaphors can muddy the truth and make your next steps even more challenging. 

When Speaking With Those Who Don’t Yet Understand Death

It’s natural to want to shield our children from the difficult truths of life. But when we talk about death in unclear or romantic language, it can provide a false sense of the world and make it difficult for your child to understand loss. 

While challenging, explaining death and loss to those who don’t yet fully understand what they mean, including children, as well as those with memory loss, is important. Children are more resilient and emotionally adjusted than we often give them credit for, and they deserve the opportunity to grieve for their loved ones and also to say good-bye if someone is ill. 

When talking to children about death, be gentle and patient and answer any questions they might have. This can help to prevent confusion and give them the information they deserve in order to process their loss. 

What to Say When Someone Needs More

If someone close to you has lost a partner or relative, they will likely be in need of more support than simple condolences. At this stage, speaking directly and acknowledging the loss can be very helpful. In the safe and intimate space of your friendship and conversation, they won’t have to maintain an outward persona or help navigate other people’s grief, so metaphoric language isn’t as helpful. 

Using the direct phrases can show them that you’re open to having the discussion and that you are not taking their loss lightly. It may feel difficult to know exactly what to say when a loved one is grieving, but take your cue from them. They may simply need someone to listen to stories or to hold them closely and let them feel safe. You may find that by simply acknowledging the scope of their loss, you give them a sense of grounding and support that cannot be achieved with euphemism or metaphoric language. 

Pay attention to how they describe their loss and what they need to navigate their loss and grief and respond accordingly, but with honesty and care. Sometimes, direct language, difficult as it may be to hear, can be the most healing. 

What to Avoid When Speaking About Loss

Before you approach a grieving friend with condolences, here are a few phrases you’ll want to avoid. 

They’re in a Better Place: This may sound comforting, but it can often make the person feel as though they weren’t good enough to keep their loved one close. It’s best to avoid trying to make light of the situation. 

I Know How You Feel: It’s not about you right now. You may have had a similar experience, but that’s something you can discuss later. Rather than assuming you know how the person is feeling, give it distance. “I can imagine what you’re going through” can help to put them at ease. 

What Can I Do? This puts a lot of pressure on a person who is grieving. If it is appropriate to your relationship, offer to take care of dinner, the kids, or other specific tasks, rather than forcing them to delegate. 

In Conclusion

When it comes to talking about death and loss, euphemisms have their place. They allow us to acknowledge loss in less private environments and make it possible to offer condolences to people with whom we are not well-acquainted without overstepping. 

But there are also times when direct language is the better option for having difficult conversations. When your friend needs more emotional support, when you have to explain loss to young children, or when it’s time to navigate medical and healthcare choices, direct language is key. Ultimately, it reduces confusion, allows for honest grieving, and gives you a way to navigate your emotions and help others navigate their own. 

The situations will vary, but knowing when to use metaphors and when to be direct is one of the most helpful and supportive ways you can be there for those you care about during loss.

Categories: Managing a Death, Supporting Someone Who's Grieving, Talking About Death

Lantern provides guidance and support for navigating life before and after a death.

If you're looking to manage a loss, check out Lantern's after-loss services. Or, if you're looking to prepare your own just-in-case plan, check out Lantern's digital pre-plans.

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