The right words for dying

When my father died, I received lots of notes offering condolences on his “passing.” Still others sought to comfort me because daddy had “left us,” “transitioned” or because we had “lost him.” One writer even penned that my father was now “asleep with the Lord.”

There was polite gentleness to those words that was soothing at the time; a hopeful inference that the spirit of my father is, as I believe it is, in a better place. But I could never use delicate language like that to describe his death. When speaking of his dying, I always said simply, “My father died.”

To me, words like “lost,” “passed away” or “transitioned” just couldn’t communicate the devastating finality of the situation. Yes, my faith informs me that when a person dies some part of his being moves to a new and better level of existence. But because that is an event that is unobservable and, as yet, not completely knowable by me, when referring to a death, I prefer to use unequivocal words.

Saying — and hearing — the word “death” hurts sometimes. But I believe that making myself say this harder word helped me comprehend what actually happened. It’s a mental exercise of sorts so that I could get used to the idea that, from now on, my beloved’s life will have to continue only in my memories. I will never see him again in this life, nor hear his voice, nor receive his advice or comfort, nor laugh at his jokes.

Besides, saying someone has “passed” can mean so many other things. “He passed what?” “A drug test?” “The Tabasco sauce?” “Passed by your house?” “Passed out?”

“He’s lost, you say? Why don’t you try to find him?”

Perhaps because I’m a lawyer, I’ve grown more accustomed to the language of our laws, which tend to be based on cold, demonstrable truths, rather than articles of faith and uncertainty. Lawyers have to study the facts of a case carefully, and then trust themselves to declare their opinions in definitive terms. Under the law, for instance, what matters after death to the inheritors of an estate is whether a kinsman has either died or has not died. There is no middle ground.

And as an older professional woman, I’m constantly advising the younger women with whom I work to stop sugar-coating things the way nice girls are expected to do. “If you want to be heard,” I tell them, “find the voice to communicate clearly.” That means resisting the urge to embrace pleasing, palatable speech when to do so means you have failed to stare the unpleasant truths of human existence in the face and call them what they are.

Of course, no one should ever tell another what words to use to describe someone’s death. Using softer words can be benign, even necessary, when the need to prevent hurt feelings justifiably takes precedence over clarity. That said, when referring to my own father’s death, I have chosen to forgo the euphemisms for the word death because they are just too tame to describe a man as grand as my father was in life.

Leah Ward Sears is a partner in the Atlanta office of the Schiff Hardin law firm and is a former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.