The plain language of death

I wrote a post a few years ago about the language of death. As a regular reader of the paid obituaries in our newspaper, I was fascinated with the many ways that survivors and funeral homes found to refer to death. I concluded that in these short summations of a person’s life, the terms such as "called home," "went to his (or her) heavenly reward" and "passed away" could be comforting to the loved ones of the person who died.

But I am a journalist and I had long believed that the best way to describe a death was with the plain language: A person died. I believed that euphemisms are unnecessary and even disrespectful to the human life that was ended.

This theory of language took on personal significance when my son, Jake, died on Aug. 30. He was about a month shy of his 21st birthday, and his death of complications after intestinal surgery was shocking and unexpected. He was our only child.

When Jake died, my husband and I needed to call family members, friends and colleagues to tell them. I was grief-stricken, but I was determined not to say that Jake had "passed away." I wanted to be clear and direct. I wanted to tell the plain truth. The odd thing is that at the moment Jake died, it seemed to me that he did "pass away." At that moment in the hospital room in the wee hours, I called to him, "Jake, come back." And, indeed, the doctors and the nurses tried to get him to come back. We all were trying to keep him from passing out of this life to whatever comes after this. He did not come back. He was gone. He died.

So, even though my voice cracked and my heart broke every time I said it in the days after Jake died, I knew I had to let the full force of the words come out. I had to tell people that my beloved, sweet, smart son had died. I owed it to Jake to be clear and direct. The truth was awful, devastating and final. My words had to be equal to the task.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.