"Crossed the river."
"Went to be with the Lord."
A euphemism is "the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant" (Merriam-Webster). This website offers more than 200 euphemisms for death.
It's still hard, a year and a half later, to say the words, "Aidan died." They stick in my throat like a cinnamon challenge. When I say them, I have to clench my jaw and swallow to hold my facial muscles in place. I don't mind the tears one little bit -- but I hate my lack of control over the ugly, contorted facial expressions of grief.
But I refuse to make this unacceptable death more palatable with euphemism or spiritual platitudes. I don't want anyone to get the impression that there is anything right or OK about the fact that I have to live the rest of my life without seeing, touching, or hearing my son. Aidan, a fourteen-year-old boy on the cusp of manhood, gentle and kind, enthusiastic about learning, funny, quirky nearly to the point of diagnosis--this child died a sudden, harsh death; and we are left with memories, photographs, and flashes of PTSD.
Both C. Peevie and M. Peevie dreamed about Aidan recently; and both of them woke up sobbing into the reality that Aidan is gone. Euphemizing this death does not make it easier. In fact it makes it harder, in a way, by minimizing the harsh reality of our future without him.
I recently attended a funeral where the euphemisms, especially the spiritual ones, were on everyone's lips. There seemed to be a conspiracy to substitute spiritual bromides for real emotion and authentic grief.
"He's in a better place," they said. "He's still with us; I can feel him."
At one point I offered my condolences to a relative of the deceased. He said, "It's OK. Everything is OK."
I looked at him in disbelief.
"No," I said, "It's not OK. Nothing is OK."
Mr. Peevie echoed my words: "It's NOT OK," he said.
I saw him two more times that afternoon, and both times he reiterated, "It really is OK."
I realized in retrospect that this was a coping mechanism--but at the time I felt so furious at those words I wanted to have a temper tantrum and say fuck a lot.
I am still -- almost exactly one year and nine months later -- in the place where every death is Aidan's death, and every funeral is Aidan's funeral. Every grief, every sorrow, every loss is connected to Aidan in a way that I don't really understand. When the grieving relative said, "It's OK", it felt like he was telling me that I should feel that Aidan's death is OK.
A few days ago the New York Times printed a letter in Philip Galanes' Social Q's column from a woman whose 18-year-old son died a year ago from an undiagnosed heart condition. She said she and her husband
find it extremely distressing when people we haven't seen in the last year rush up to us at social events to tell us how sorry they are and how they 'just can't imagine' our loss. We know they mean well, but it makes us overwhelmingly sad and ruins festive occasions...What can we do to stop people from launching into their grief for us?
Mr. Galanes suggested a line to divert the conversation--but then took it one step further.
And for the rest of us, hold back, even though our hearts are pure. Sending a condolence note or even an email allows the bereaved to deal with our sympathy in their own time. Let them bring up their loss in conversation, not us.
All of this is very upsetting to me. If I see someone for the first time since Aidan died, I expect and hope that the first words out of their mouths are,"I'm so sorry about Aidan." Because guess what? This is in the front of my mind. All. The. Time. Someone expressing their condolences doesn't make me overwhelmingly sad because I'm already overwhelmingly sad. It doesn't ruin festive occasions because for me, there is already a damper on every occasion, festive or otherwise. We are never without the presence of Aidan's absence.
I find myself avoiding festive occasions not because I dread people bringing up our loss, but because I resent it when people avoid the subject.
And this whole business of 'let them bring up their loss' is for the birds. I'm sorry, but it is. I will gratefully accept your sympathetic concern and your fond remembrances of my son. But I am not going to hijack the conversation at a social occasion by bringing it up myself.
The letter writer, of course, gets to deal with her grief in whatever manner feels most helpful and appropriate to her. But please do not take Mr. Galanes' advice about avoiding the one topic that is foremost on the mind of any bereaved person. Say your words of condolence--and then follow her lead. Respect her choice if she says, "Let's talk about this another time." But chances are, she will be grateful you took the risk. For a brief moment, you will have given her a gift, and you will have made her sorrow a mite less lonely.
Eventually, I hope, I will be able to keep my own grief separate, and allow others the comfort of their own coping mechanisms, rituals, and euphemisms graciously and without judgment. But not yet. Not yet.