Euphemisms for Dead, Death, and Dying: Are They Helpful or Harmful?

Using Other Words and Phrases to Convey Death

Flatline on a Heart Monitor
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Euphemisms are a way to convey something without saying a specific word that may be considered too blunt or direct. "Death," "dead," and "dying" are terms that are often couched in more indirect, evasive, or protective language, such as a euphemism.

Let's look at some popular words and phrases often used in place of "death" and "dying" and discuss the pros and cons of using such euphemisms.

Popular Euphemisms for Death, Dead, and Dying

Here are a few common phrases and groups of phrases that are used to refer to death or the dying process.

Some of them may be considered to be a more gentle way to express death, while others refer to a specific spiritual belief of what happens after death.

  • Passed, passed on, or passed away
  • Resting in peace, eternal rest, asleep
  • Demise
  • Deceased
  • Departed, gone, lost, slipped away
  • Lost her battle, lost her life, succumbed
  • Gave up the ghost
  • Kicked the bucket
  • Didn't make it
  • Breathed her last
  • Went to be with the Lord, Went to Heaven, Met his Maker
  • Was called home, is in a better place

Different cultures, locations, and countries vary considerably as to which euphemisms are most commonly used.

Why We Use Euphemisms

For Protection

Euphemisms for death and dying are often used to protect someone, whether it's the person speaking the words or those hearing them. We may be looking for a more gentle way to deliver the news of death to someone or a way to provide comfort, despite the grief of the situation.

To Avoid Being Rude and Offensive

The goal here is to avoid increasing the hurt and pain of someone by being too direct since that could be interpreted and felt as being blunt, crass, or rude. We want to protect those around us by not "rubbing it in," so we might use a euphemism to refer to death.

To Avoid Discomfort

Death and dying are a natural part of life, but they make many people feel uncomfortable or anxious.

 Other kinds of language may be easier to use and less anxiety-provoking.

Our Own Grief Feelings

In order to use direct words about death, the speaker has to deal with his or her own feelings of grief and loss. Explaining to someone else that a loved one "didn't make it" is sometimes easier than saying that "she died." Death is final, and saying it out loud can be difficult when we're struggling to cope with the situation.

Out of Partial Denial

Similarly, using the word "dead" makes it difficult to deny the reality. And, psychologically, while denial clearly needs to turn to acceptance, a little bit of denial is not all bad as a short-term coping mechanism. Indirect language can sometimes be a helpful way to mentally and emotionally handle your feelings gradually.

To Offer Spiritual Comfort

For those who believe in certain faiths, the emphasis in death is the afterlife. Thus, saying that someone "went to be with the Lord" may not be an avoidance tactic at all but rather a shared reminder of the comfort found in that belief.

The Effect of Euphemisms on Children

Using euphemisms when speaking to children about death is usually not recommended. While the intention is to be gentle and protect the child from additional pain, indirect language is often confusing to a child.

A euphemism involving terms such as "asleep" or "rest" might cause them to misunderstand and become fearful of going to bed at night. Similarly, saying, "We lost Uncle Fred last night" could prevent the child from comprehending that the person died and instead prompt them to go looking for Uncle Fred because he's "lost." A child's understanding of death is typically quite limited because they often lack the experience of the death of others and, depending on their age, have an inability to comprehend what they don't know.

Hospice experts recommend using direct language with children to prepare for a loved one's death and in discussing death after it occurs.

For example, even though it may be difficult for the adult trying to talk with a child, it is recommended to talk about the child's sick mother as "getting ready to die soon," rather than referencing the mother as "not doing very well" or "going home."

The Effect of Euphemisms on Those With Dementia

People with mild cognitive impairmentAlzheimer's, or another type of dementia might not understand indirect language very well. Previous research has shown that in dementia, the ability to understand a proverb requires the ability to think abstractly. The use of euphemisms are similar to proverbs in that they convey information with subtleties that someone living with dementia might not fully comprehend. This can prevent them from being able to truly understand that someone died.

Medical Euphemisms and Phrases for Dying, Dead, and Death

While some euphemisms are used by friends and relatives in an effort to be kind, gentle, and polite, there is a different set of euphemisms that are often used by physicians, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners. Common medical euphemisms include:

  • Not doing very well
  • Declining
  • Failing to respond
  • Might want to consider comfort care
  • Seriously ill
  • Isn't going to make it
  • Treatment is futile
  • Expired

Reasons Why Euphemisms May Be Used in Health Care

Despite working in a field where exposure to life and death issues may occur, many medical practitioners may still find it challenging to speak about dying and death directly. This can occur for several reasons.

Often, in an effort to deliver news in a gentle and tactful way, medical personnel may use euphemisms to convey bad news to a patient or his family members. This is driven by compassion and a desire to cushion or soften the blow. This can be appropriate and helpful for some families, but for others, it could prevent them from fully understanding the situation.

Additionally, some medical staff may be working to compose themselves in these situations, and indirect language may be easier to use to convey information in a professional manner. Despite being trained for years on healing the body, healthcare practitioners sometimes have little training on how to cope with the emotional impact of caring for patients who die.

At other times, euphemisms are used when there is a fear about how someone will react to the bad news. For example, indirect wording might be used if there's a concern that family will become angry or will blame the medical staff for the death.

How Euphemisms Impact Healthcare Decisions

Euphemisms may sometimes disguise the reality of the situation, and those dealing with an impending death need to be assisted in understanding what is happening. This potential lack of understanding could prevent the patient or a decision-maker from having a good grasp of the information and health condition, making it more difficult to make decisions about medical care.

Imagine this scenario with the following words:

  • The doctor states, "I'm sorry to tell you this, but John isn't doing very well. We would like to make sure he's comfortable by giving him this medication. Is that okay with you?"
  • The doctor states, "I'm sorry to tell you this, but John isn't doing very well. In fact, he's showing medical signs that he is likely to die in the next few days. We would like to make sure he's comfortable by giving him this medication. Is that okay with you?"

The different phrasing in these communications could give a very different picture of how John is doing and what his prognosis is. Some might understand both as meaning similar things, but others might read the first example as just a general statement that John is sick and that some medicine will help him.

Interestingly, a study was conducted about the language and processes used to inform families of their loved one's medical condition. The researchers found that despite the grief that resulted from hearing direct terminology used, family members preferred having more knowledge and a better understanding of how sick their loved one was. Even in cases where the patient did survive, family members reported long-term benefits of knowing that their loved one had been sick enough to die. They also were more likely to feel that the communication they received from their medical care team was effective and to feel satisfied with the care the patient received.

When Euphemisms Are Appropriate and Helpful

Indirect language to discuss death and dying might be appropriate if you're discussing a future possibility of death. For example, if you're speaking with your cognitively intact parents about why they should plan ahead and designate a power of attorney for healthcare, you might not need to be so direct with your language.

Also, as earlier noted, euphemisms can often be appropriate when used for protection and comfort.

When You Should Use Direct Language Instead of Euphemisms

The words death, dead, and dying should be used when it's important to be very clear about what is happening. This includes when critical medical decisions are being made based on the prognosis of the patient, when speaking with those who might not fully understand indirect language, and when there might be a language barrier that might hinder understanding.

A Word From Verywell

Several words and phrases can be used as euphemisms for death, dead, and dying. It's important to understand the benefits and potentially harmful effects of using indirect language and to choose your words carefully, depending on your purpose and the audience with whom you're speaking.

Sources

Gutierrez, K. (2012). Prognostic categories and timing of negative prognostic communication from critical care physicians to family members at end-of-life in an intensive care unit. Nursing Inquiry, 20(3), pp.232-244.

Krawczyk, M. and Gallagher, R. (2016). Communicating prognostic uncertainty in potential end-of-life contexts: experiences of family members. BMC Palliative Care, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12904-016-0133-4.

Livingston, G., Pitfield, C., Morris, et al. (2011). Care at the end of life for people with dementia living in a care home: a qualitative study of staff experience and attitudes. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 27(6), pp.643-650.doi: 10.1002/gps.2772.

Naik, S. (2013). Death in the hospital: Breaking the bad news to the bereaved family. Indian Journal of Critical Care Medicine, 17(3), p.178. doi: 10.4103/0972-5229.117067

Rawlings, D., Tieman, J., Sanderson, et al. (2017). Never say die: death euphemisms, misunderstandings and their implications for practice. International Journal of Palliative Nursing, 23(7), pp.324-330.

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