And death’s the final word

Categories: Care, Featured, and Opinion.

Ian Leech, Community Engagement and Supportive Care Manager at St Giles Hospice in Whittington, Staffordshire, believes we should think more about the language we use in conversations with people relating to death and dying. Here he tells e-hospice why we need to concentrate more on the message rather than the words.

“Passed away”, “lost”, “gone to the angels”, “popped their clogs”, caught the last bus”, are just a few of the euphemisms that people shout out during the ice breaker in our Understanding Bereavement workshops.

Yes, euphemisms are alive and well and are being used regularly in our everyday language. So my question is, should we be trying to encourage people to use death, dead and dying instead or do we focus so much on the language that we lose the conversation? Do we insist our communities speak our way and not their own?

I accept that euphemisms can be problematic when used inappropriately – telling a young child that their loved one has ‘gone to sleep’ can present all manner of issues, as can telling someone with dementia that someone is lost, but I believe that we should educate people when to not use euphemisms, rather than dictate that they shouldn’t use them at all.

If we want people to engage in conversations around matters relating to death and dying, I believe we have to do so in their language and not tell them that they can’t use words that are preferable to them as individuals. Who are we to tell anyone which words they should and should not use? Our concentration should be on enabling people to discuss matters around death and dying and not worrying about how they do it. But that begs the question, are the conversations we have with our communities about death?

When I started working in community engagement nearly six years ago, my mission was to change the world. I wanted everyone to talk openly about death, dying and bereavement, but I’ve realised over time that not everyone wants to and we have to respect their choice. I’ve also realised that the conversations I have in the communities where I work are related to death, but are very much about life. Death is the final moment, the second when life stops. Up until that point everything is about life so our conversations should focus on the ‘life’ aspect and not the death. Even supporting people through bereavement is a life conversation, because the grieving person is living, and what they have to deal with is part of life.

It was interesting recently listening to a group of people who told me that the language they use depends on who they’re talking to. If it’s their mates they’re chatting to, then it is more ‘popped your clogs’ than ‘passed away’, but they’re happy using any language, they just choose the appropriate phrase for the occasion. We should allow people to use common sense.

I no longer have conversations about death. All my conversations are about life and I want people to speak comfortably, without having to worry whether they’re saying the right words. The conversations we need to have in our communities are more important than the language. By engaging with people on their terms we will have better conversations and become more informed about their needs.

We often talk about ‘doing with’ rather than ‘doing to’ but if we are trying to change the way people speak, then are we not guilty of the latter? Far better that we educate our communities about when is the right and wrong time to use euphemisms, rather than trying to stop them being used altogether.

I want people to consider the benefits of having a Lasting Power of Attorney, to record their funeral wishes, make wills, and fill in care plans, and I don’t need to force the ‘D’ words on them to do these things. If they use them, great, if they don’t that’s great too, because ultimately it’s the conversation that matters.

Ian Leech is Vice Chair of the People in Partnership Forum