- Some fear death so much they cannot refer to what it is.
- Using euphemisms for death is an ancient practice for protection from death and misfortune.
- To ease the fear of death, journal about your worries and concerns about death and practice saying the words death, dying, and dead when alone.
There are two things that we all have in common: we are all going to die, and we all have some fear about it. For many, however, the fear is so intense that they avoid the topic of death completely. This avoidance often includes not even saying the words “death,” “dead,” or “dying.”
Since 2011, the "death positive movement" has been working to encourage people to talk openly about death and use words that clearly name it. At death cafe meetings, people are encouraged not to use euphemisms for death. We are all familiar with euphemisms that people use when discussing death and have likely used them ourselves. Euphemisms are substitute words for something that might be disagreeable or offensive to others. The word itself comes from the Greek word “euphemismos” which means words of good omen.1
I took a random survey of professionals in my office building and asked them, “What are some euphemisms that you have heard used when talking about someone who died?" These are just a sampling of terms used for death.
Passed away, Passed on, Departed peacefully, Lost, Kicked the bucket, Gone home, Gone away, Gone to be with the Lord, Gone to a better place, Went to sleep, Demised, Expired, Gave up the ghost, Went to meet his maker, In a better place now, Entered into eternal rest, Ceased to be, Ate it, Done for, No longer with us, 6 feet under, Pushing up daisies, Rubbed out, Checked out, Transitioned into paradise, Cashed in their chips, Belly up, Shuffled off this mortal coil
Checking the obituary column for a week revealed that the word died was used only once. The phrase “passed away” was the most frequently used.
Some may believe that not talking about death and using euphemisms helps them to avoid their fear, but it actually serves to increase their anxiety about death. Therapeutically, we know that recognizing and acknowledging our strong feelings helps to lower stress and anxiety levels. So what makes us so avoidant? The answer may very well stem from beliefs held by ancient civilizations. While much has changed since the time of the ancients, the fear of death has not.
In earlier times, people believed that words had the power to summon evil things and that saying certain words was to invite that thing into your life. To protect themselves from harm, people either avoided saying the word or called it something with a positive connotation. For example, you might refer to bad spirits as sweet angels. Using euphemisms and idioms for death has gone on for thousands of years in one form or the other.2
Another way people try to protect themselves is by using expressions such as “God forbid.” It is used when you do not want something bad to happen. For example, “God forbid nothing happens to your new car.” I was raised in a home where Yiddish was spoken. “Kenahora,” meaning “no evil eye,” was used in a similar manner to God forbid. For example, “She is a beautiful, healthy girl, kenahora.” The evil eye is an ancient curse based on envy that can bring bad luck and death. Even today, many cultures still have words and phrases used to ward off the evil eye. More recently, amulets to protect one from the evil eye have become fashion statements.
Would that we could avoid the deaths of our loved ones and ourselves. Unfortunately, that is impossible. No matter what we do, say, or don’t say, death is a part of life. We will all have to face this someday. Acknowledging the inevitable helps us plan our lives and our deaths. I have included six ways in which you can confront and lower your anxieties about death:
- If you can, find a death cafe to attend. It is free, and you do not have to participate to benefit from it. You could find that others may have the same concerns about death as you.
- Journal about your worries and concerns about death.
- When alone, practice saying the words death, dying, and dead.
- Find someone with whom you would be comfortable talking about death.
- Watch online talks and videos about dying.
- Read about near-death experiences, deathbed visions, and dreams. For some, this can help decrease anxiety. Many people report that simply reading about the experiences lessened their fears.
The death-positive movement has a saying that is important to keep in mind: Talking about babies will not make you pregnant, and talking about death won’t kill you.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
1) Keyes, Ralph (2010). Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms. Little Brown and Company, New York.
Rosten, Leo (2001) The Joys of Yiddish. Crown Publishers, New York