The Lexicon of Death

Our culture struggles to deal with death. Many of us are unwilling to accept the inevitable will happen to us all, and to those we love sooner or hopefully later. We equip ourselves with an array of euphemisms to help us skirt around the subject – ‘passed away’, ‘gone’, ‘at peace’ and ‘departed’ are just a few examples.

Baby and child death is a particular taboo, and many people don’t know how to broach the subject.

Having spent years working for the NHS, I was aware that people of all ages die, including babies and children, and that life can be very unfair.

However, I never entertained the thought that that could happen to me. Baby loss was something that happened to ‘other people’.

That said, there really isn’t anything that can help anyone prepare for the death of a baby or child. When my baby son Hugo died at the age of 35 days I was distraught – my world ended.

Hugo

Hugo

One of the things I struggled with was how to say what had happened.

In those dreadful early weeks, I tried to find counselling for my partner and I. Hugo had to be born 16 weeks prematurely because I had the rare, life-threatening pregnancy conditions HELLP syndrome and preeclampsia. His entry to the world was due to my critical illness – the ‘triple whammy’ of the trauma of the illness, Hugo’s neonatal stay and Hugo’s death meant we needed professional help.

I had to make numerous calls to several organisations – the challenges around finding counselling is a topic for another blog. The thing I found particularly difficult was saying the words ‘death’ and ‘died’, and I really had to psych myself up to make the calls.

I had to think about why saying ‘death’ and ‘dead’ hurt so much. After all, it was an accurate description about what had happened to my son.

I had been in a state of shock and part of me hoped Hugo’s death wasn’t really true. Having to say those words made it real, so final. It rubbed salt in to my deep wounds every time I said them.

I couldn’t use any of the common euphemisms such as those described in the first paragraph. They just felt so trite and banal, and they couldn’t describe my pain. To me, death meant pain – physically and emotionally.

Death also feels scary, unknown. I had worried that Hugo had been scared during his final moments but I came to realise that babies have no such fear. He died peacefully in his favourite place, in my arms. The fear of death is learned culturally, and I had projected that fear on to him.

We often describe death as a ‘loss’. It’s a word I use a lot to describe what happened, as it does encompass so much about what I feel about it.

We have lost our little boy, who we wanted and loved so much. We have also lost our future with him, and we have lost the hope of all the normal family things we were looking forward to doing together.

I often feel lost, lost in deep grief. I feel like I have lost myself, because I am now a different person to how I was before.

Words do have different meaning for other people, however. I know of a bereaved father who does not like using the word ‘loss’ in relation to their baby.  ‘Loss’ can suggest carelessness, as if it is something that could be casually thrown away or disregarded. ‘Lost’ also implies something can be found. Finding your baby is something every bereaved parent dearly wishes for, and it breaks our hearts to know it is not possible.

Hugo

Hugo

There is also variety in how we describe our babies about where the are and what they are doing now.

I like to say Hugo is playing in the stars. Stars have a very special significance for me with Hugo – I loved singing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ to him when he was in my bump and during his life, and he loved boogying to it. It’s why the header for my blog features stars – one for each precious week of his life.

Many prefer to call dead babies and children ‘angels’. It reflects that these babies and children are pure and innocent. Baby and child death is an awful thing to comprehend, and in a way it’s a reassuring picture to think of them as angels.

It’s a personal preference, and I prefer not to call Hugo an ‘angel’ baby. Hugo, as tiny as he was, really wasn’t an angel, and I loved him for that. He was so full of character and personality – he could be a naughty little monkey. I was so looking forward to having my work cut out for me as mother to such a wilful little boy.

Whether you like to talk about babies and children in heaven, in the stars or angel babies, one thing that I think all bereaved parents agree on is that one euphemism that should never be used is that they are now in ‘a better place’.

There really is no better place for a baby or child than with a mummy and daddy who love them very much.

There is also, as I have seen discussed on baby loss sites, never any ‘at least’. The reason for the baby or child’s death is irrelevant.  Losing a baby is utterly devastating. I have never felt relief at Hugo’s death. I would gladly have done anything possible for him, and I am sure other bereaved parents share similar feelings.

Me and Hugo, on the day he died

Me and Hugo, on the day he died

 

Many of us don’t stop to consider the meaning behind words we commonly use. When you are talking to a bereaved parent, please stop and consider your words. As I have outlined, the words bereaved parents like to use are very personal – listen to the words they use and the way they describe their baby or child.

Having said all this, the last thing I want to do is put anyone off talking to a bereaved parent because they are worried about saying the ‘wrong’ thing.

Unless you say something deliberately offensive, there isn’t any further upset you can cause to a bereaved parent – the worst has already happened.

It may be helpful to remember two main points when talking to a bereaved parent:

  • Ask the baby or child’s name, and say it. Parents never tire of hearing it.
  • If a bereaved parent gets upset while talking about their baby or child, remember that you haven’t caused the upset. Crying can often be a much-needed release in grief.

Since Hugo’s death, I am much more fatalistic and very open in talking about death. It no longer seems morbid, like it once did.

I’d like people to think about the way they think and talk about death. Try to get rid of those clumsy old euphemisms. Being open about our feelings about death and grief can help us accept the sad inevitability that it does affect us all.

Being open about death can also break the taboo around talking about baby and child death, which is so important for us bereaved parents.

What words do you prefer to use to describe death?

 

 

8 thoughts on “The Lexicon of Death

  1. pleromama says:

    I also dislike euphemisms for death, but right after Owen died, I couldn’t bring myself to speak the words. I told people who knew he was sick he “didn’t make it,” and I didn’t talk to anyone who didn’t know our situation. The first time I heard someone refer to Owen as having died, it felt like I had been slapped. I had accepted his death, but there was a part of me that was still 38 weeks pregnant and hoping he would live. It was hard to hear such a harsh reality back then. I say it readily now though. Babies die. Our babies died. My son died. I think people should be willing to hear and accept the words because it helps bring them into our life and understand our reality, as uncomfortable as that may be.

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  2. Michelle Payne-Gale says:

    With regards to recent family deaths, I have found myself using the words “gone” and “leaving us/left us”. I guess it stems from my hope/belief (it fluctuates) that there is something beyond this world, and that they have left us to go there; that the end in this life is also a beginning somewhere else.

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