Bite the dust, the big one. Buy the farm. Cash in your chips. Check out. Croak. Cross over. Depart. Expire. Give up the ghost. Good to go. Gone to your reward. Kick the bucket. Meet your maker. Off the mortal coil. Pass on or away. Pushing up daisies.
What do these phrases, these substitutes for “dying, die, and died,” these euphemisms, have in common? Well, they buffer a range of emotions around dying, from bravado to abstractly hip to quietly sensitive. But after their initial palliative effect they block us from experiencing feelings. More frightening to me, they prevent us from figuring out how to make a future or impending death better before it gets worse or terrible.
There’s nothing wrong with cushioning strong emotion arising from devastating situations. In this blog I write from a different place: a bit further along the path, examining the practical impediments to dying in peace. In my experience, research, and reflections it’s evident that dying in the twenty-first century is usually an obstacle course, and that both we and medicine set up those obstacles. It’s very hard to see all that when when in the thick of it, smashing into, bouncing off of, and trying to progress past those obstacles…by that time it’s too late for patient-families to experience peaceful dying.
Maybe I leapfrog over a batch of emotional stuff when I introduce Windrum’s Matrix of Dying Terms with the thought that we’ve had only one non-euphemistic word for dying, and that ‘dying’ fails to forecast or describe the range of experiences ahead of all us, most them full of obstacles to our goal of dying in peace. You may have to be familiar with my prior writings to understand the emotional places I’ve gone through and the rational work I’ve undertaken to try to get to the bottom of things. Things I’ve experienced as obstacles and which I usually describe as real-world impediments to dying in peace.
After all these years at this, since my parents’ crummy hospitalized demises in 2004 and 2005—brutal emotional and existential times which inform all that I offer—I repeatedly tear up easily. I’m beginning to hear, maybe “get”, that some people find value in hearing my story. That learning of my journey would be a value. To me that feels egotistical and irrelevant because what I have to offer is not my story, but my *learnings*. No one can take my story and apply it to themselves; each death differs. But anyone so inclined can assess my learnings and use them to navigate their own circumstances. I should say, however, that my book is anchored throughout by anecdotes of those events that serve as springboards for describing what I subsequently learned. It’s not that I’m bereft of emotion or story (quite the opposite; it fills me daily and keeps me at this mostly solitary work), it’s that for me, as I learn more and more about how we may, possibly, overcome dying’s complexity—and because my time with most audiences is so limited—I perceive my lessons as far more valuable to you than my story. What I’ve learned is actionable by you; my story is not.
Which brings me back to euphemisms. I recognized and pointed out their inadequacy and danger as conversation frames around life and death matters back in 2008 as I began presenting on end-of-life matters. Aside from temporary comfort, euphemisms offer us nothing; no way out, no resolution, and most importantly no guidance whatsoever about how to achieve the peaceful deaths we all say we want. Euphemisms obscure reality, and using them regularly in place of rationally examining what actually occurs in life is a cop-out at best (although I don’t perceive any good in copping out about these matters) and dangerous at worst.
When thinking about, discussing, and trying to plan for the deaths we want, rely on euphemisms at your own, and your loved one’s, peril. If you want a tool to unravel dying’s complexity, use Windrum’s Matrix. It’s not a quick read and certainly not a quick fix; the Matrix may take some effort and discipline to understand up front but I guarantee it’ll pay dividends you’ll be grateful for by helping set you up to assess, navigate around, and possibly remove obstacles to a peaceful death. It took me three months of mostly on-again work to create the Matrix, and several weeks elapsed before I found myself speaking in its language—actually saying the words I’d selected. Now I speak the Matrix more or less fluently. I find it liberating to be able to identify options and outcomes clearly. I think you will, too.