My mother died on December 26, 2015. Due to a complication from the vasculitis she had been battling for two years, she had to have emergency surgery and shortly thereafter, had a stroke and then another. She simply never woke up.
I tend not to say “I lost my mother” when I have to tell people. It’s a weird thing to say, isn’t it? To have lost something implies ownership of responsibility. I’m not responsible for my mother’s death and I certainly didn’t misplace her. This, of course, speaks to the very clumsy way we have for talking about death.
“I lost my mother” means I am the one (or one of the ones atleast) who takes on the burden of her death. She was mine; now she’s not.
For similar reasons, I don’t often say “she passed” either because I can’t say what exactly she passed (congratulations, you’ve passed life) or where she passed to – it seems like a mostly empty phrase for someone not-so-religious like me. I prefer to tell people that she left or that she’s gone away, but, then, that can bring up new problems during these death conversations because you’re not sticking to the script.
I hate the script.
For the first six months or so after my mum’s death, I loathed bringing up her demise to people who didn’t know. Not because it hurt (it did), but because speaking about my mother inevitably prompted an “I’m sorry” from the person I was speaking to – as if the very mention of her required some sort of apology.
I don’t mean to sound rude. I know that the “I’m sorry” is the best way we have to communicate our sympathy but I think we can all agree it’s inadequate at best. People die everyday and yet we don’t really have the linguistic ability to efficiently talk about death. As both a writer and designer, I feel like there’s room for improvement.
My dad’s favourite euphemism for death was “taking the big dirt nap”. Gallows humor. My family’s motto should have been there’s always time for a joke. (It is, in fact, the cake will not defeat us, but that’s a whole other story.) I know some people find it vulgar or immature, and there are definitely times when joking is not appropriate, but humor is a good weapon against the limits of our deathspeak – a chisel to pick away at the walls.
I remember sitting around the dining room table at my grandparents’ the day after my grandfather had died. My grandmother had decided that she would not inter my grandfather after the funeral (he was to be cremated) but, instead, would keep the urn in the house so that the two of them could be buried together at the same time when she left. My uncles were discussing this. I remember it like it happened yesterday. I remember the white doilies, the golden oak chairs with the uncomfortable flowered cushions and one of my uncles saying as casual as you like: “Well, atleast if something happens to the urn, they have central vac. He did always say he wanted to be in this house forever …”
I was eleven and this was the first death I really had the emotional capacity to feel. Death was less scary for me after this particular conversation though. Forget the talks about “going to a better place”, “he’s not in any pain anymore” (and all the rest of the greatest hits); this is what I needed to hear, my uncles treating my grandfather’s death just as they would anything else – by making a joke. That made it natural, I guess.
We fear speaking about death because we fear dying, but speaking about dying doesn’t make the grim reaper appear (he’s not Beetlejuice), so what’s the deal? How many people out there don’t have a will because they don’t even want to think about death, let alone speak about it? (Pro tip: Get a will done.) And for those who must console, we fumble with misshapen words and phrases, trying to make them fit because we have nothing else.
Humor takes the edge off. Directness skips all the awkward implications. I don’t know what the answer is yet, but it seems to me that it starts with deciding to talk about death. At the very least, let’s go off-script. The script needs some serious rewrites.
Death doesn’t happen to those who die; it happens to the living.