People die. They don’t pass away. Here’s why I’m done with that euphemism.
I had little opinion on this when I was younger. I was fortunate — other than grandparents who died when I was young, I’d not really experienced losses of people close to me.
Since then I’ve had the chance to grieve people who mattered to me.
Bill Bluestein was a mentor to me at Forrester. He died at age 44 of an apparent heart attack in 2001. He was a brilliant man, taken far too soon.
Deborah Harding was my wife’s mother. She died at age 75 of cancer in 2013. I had become close to her; she was a warm and loving person and one who enriched our lives.
Josh Friedman was my best friend since childhood. He died at age 57 of cancer in 2015. Josh and I spent most of our lives as friends and he was a warm and generous soul. His death was a terrible loss to me.
Robert Bernoff was my father. He died at age 88 of cancer this year. We were fortunate to have so much time with him; he had a huge influence on my life and the lives of many others. The best parts of me exist because of what I learned from him.
Why it matters to say that people die
Mourning is a process. You feel the space where the person used to be. You want to turn and tell them things and they are not there.
I’ve dreamed of both Josh and my father in the last few months. It’s clear that my brain is trying to make sense of what I used to feel and what I feel now, dealing with some left over emotions.
For me personally, it helps to talk about people dying. The stab of pain and loss is because they died. It is not because of the word we use to describe it. When you say that someone has died, there is a finality to it. Saying it is a way to acknowledge that you know the loss is permanent. It is the beginning of living with only their memory.
Some of the people I mention in this essay believed in heaven. Some of them didn’t. I don’t. Whether they ended up in heaven isn’t what matters to me. What matters is how the rest of us will live now that they are gone, and how we will remember them.
I feel that euphemisms for death, like “passed away” or “entered into rest” (it actually says that on Josh’s obituary), don’t do much. They don’t soften the blow in any meaningful way. They don’t acknowledge the loss in a way that is different from just saying that someone died. They perpetuate the fetish we have for pretending that death isn’t something that happens to the people around us, or to us. Death is death, why not call it what it is.
When I hear of the death of someone close to a friend of mine, I try not to use cliched phrases like “Rest in Peace.” I doubt that anyone gets comfort from that. Instead, I try to offer my own appreciation of what I learned about the individuals from my friend who loved them, and wish them peace as they deal with the loss. To me, what matters is not what happens to the soul of the dead person, who is no longer here to feel anything, but what is happening with the people left behind.
If you cannot think of something original to say at times like this, I like the Jewish phrase “May his/her memory be a blessing,” because it rings true — regardless of whether you believe in heaven, I would hope that when you think of a loved one who has died, that the memory of who they were enriches you.
I won’t stop you from saying that someone passed away — in a moment of personal pain, it is not up to me to decide how you should feel, or how you should put those feelings into words. But the same applies to me in my moments of loss. My father, and Josh, and Debbie, and Bill, all people close to me — these people all died. By saying that they died, I’m saying that they are gone, and I’m happy that they were here for a while to enrich my life. I will honor them by acknowledging the plain truth in the words I use to describe their deaths.