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You might have found yourself searching for a euphemism for death when talking to a bereaved person. ‘Passed over’, ‘gone to rest’, ‘found peace’, all seem much more tactful or peaceful ways of saying ‘died’, but are they as helpful as we think they are?
A number of leading charities including Age UK, Marie Curie and Child Bereavement UK recommend using simple and plain language when discussing death, especially when talking to children.
We discuss below the potential benefits of talking directly about death and also look at some occasions where euphemisms might still be a benefit.
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What are some common death euphemisms?
Before we go into the effects of euphemisms, it’s worth looking at some common examples. Below we’ve listed a selection of euphemisms for some of the common concepts surrounding death. These are key-words that carry meanings we might want to soften by instead using alternatives and euphemisms.
Another word for death: Demise, departure, exit, passing, resting
Another word for die: Cross the great divide, go to meet one’s maker, draw one’s last breath , lose one's life, meet one's death, lay down one's life
Another word for grief:, Broken-heartedness, gloom, sorrow, anguish, suffering, heartache, loss, dispossession, deprivation
Another word for deceased: Expired, no more, passed on, departed, gone, passed away, perished
Are death euphemisms harmful?
Hunting for euphemisms in the face of death may seem like a natural and kind thing to do, but perhaps they are more harmful than you first thought.
In British culture, discussion about death has traditionally been seen as a taboo. That may be why Britain seems to have such a wide variety of euphemisms on hand for the topic.
Whether someone has ‘popped their clogs’ or ‘kicked the bucket’, begun ‘pushing up the daisies’ or ‘shuffled off this mortal coil’, we seem to have more ways to say someone has died than we can count.
Why might euphemisms be a bad thing?
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It has been suggested that the harmfulness of using these euphemisms comes from the fact that they encourage the bereaved to avoid processing death in a healthy way.
That’s not to say that every instance of using a euphemism over plain language is an inherently bad thing, but that it’s worth considering whether you are helping someone to avoid a natural part of the grieving process.
Should I use a death euphemism when speaking with a child?
Research suggest that using euphemisms in place of matter of fact language can hamper the grieving process. In fact, when it comes to discussing death with children, it may even be harmful.
When discussing death with young children, being indirect can leave room for children to fill in the blanks themselves; often with ideas that are worse than the reality you’re trying to protect them from.
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Besides this, young children lack the ability to think in the kind of abstract ways that make euphemisms understandable. If you tell a four year old, for example, that their grandfather is resting rather than dead, they might take that literally.
It may seem like your shielding them from harm, but they most likely won’t then comprehend that a death has taken place. Beyond that, if they are able to understand that a death has taken place it might cause even more harm. As their concept of language and understanding of the world develops, they might subconsciously link the idea of ‘resting’ with something to be afraid of.
How should I communicate death to a child?
Study suggests that you should be honest and clear with children, without overloading them with information. They will likely ask questions, and it’s best to answer them as honestly as possible without overloading them information, if possible.
When explaining that someone has died to a child you can say something like ‘their body has stopped working and the doctor can’t fix them anymore’. Younger children may not be able to understand until they’re older, but you can be sure that you haven’t added any crossed wires to their developing understanding of how the world works.
When are euphemisms good to use?
As we’ve said, there might be times when using another word for dead or another word for die might be appropriate or comforting. Not every situation will benefit from an absolutely factual approach.
Religious euphemisms Some euphemisms have religious or spiritual connotations, ‘gone to the lord’, and these might genuinely provide comfort to someone who holds certain beliefs. By connecting with their belief and sharing in it, you might be able to provide comfort for them at a difficult time.
In this case it wouldn’t be so much about avoiding a direct conversation about, but rather acknowledging a belief system that they associate with.
Medical euphemisms Amongst medical professionals there may be a shared language used to convey death and dying to their colleagues while sparing the feelings of any relatives or loved ones present.
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Similarly, they may use a euphemism to appraise someone of the situation, without being too blunt. When discussing how someone is doing, saying that ‘their condition is declining and we are unable to help’ is more tactful than announcing that their loved on is moving towards death.
For more information on how to speak with a grieving person, Grief Demystified by Caroline Lloyd is an excellent place to start. We also have a thorough guide on how to spot when someone might be experiencing complicated grief. And for further reading, we’ve taken a look at some of the top myths that people believe about grief.