On the narrative of dying

There are two terms I hate with a passion in relation to death.

Abel dying. Marble, reception piece for the French Royal Academy, 1785. Jean-Baptiste Stouf (1742–1826). © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

The first is “passing”. This has become a trendy euphemism that seems to have seeped into the popular discourse from the sewer of spiritualism. The transitive sense of the verb to pass is movement of something from one place to another. Even arguing that it’s passing out of life won’t wash, because the implication is that it’s out of life into something else. I’ve even heard atheists and humanists use the term, as if it’s somehow become more socially acceptable and compassionate than dying. Death is our ultimate finality; there is nothing beyond it for us as individuals. Euphemisms that detract from that finality remove the acute sense of ending that comes with death. Perhaps that’s why we shy from the term, it’s easier to suggest some sort of ethereal hope of reconnection when we speak to the bereft and grieving, rather than acknowledge the finality and completeness of their loss.

The second object of my bile this morning is “battling with cancer”. There is a scientific and societal battle with cancer, but there’s bugger all an individual can do who’s got cancer than seek out the best medicine available in terms of cure. In terms of mental wellbeing, then there is much a patient can do to live with the reality of the disease and the possible outcomes. There is always an implied criticism in the use of the verb battle for those who die from cancer; obviously they didn’t try hard enough. I consider this to be offensive and objectifying of cancer patients as either winners or losers when no-one would dream of using the same language for, say, pneumonia. But, again, I can understand that when someone is very sick, it’s comforting to say to one another “she’s a fighter” as if it somehow casts a spell of recovery over the patient. And perhaps that’s why we do it; to persuade ourselves that this dreadful thing isn’t going to take the ones we love and place the onus of their own fate on the person least able to change it.

And in the last, here’s a warning to my family. I’ve got as good a chance as anyone else of dying of cancer. And if any one of them refers to me battling bravely or passing or other similar bollocks, I’ll break all the rules of the universe and come back to haunt them.


3 thoughts on “On the narrative of dying

  1. Hust came across this. My daughter-in-law died of complications of leukemia two months ago. My son was very angry with those who say she “lost he battle with” the disease. It wasn’t a battle that she could win or lose, but a matter of cutting-edge medicine vs the vicissitudes of the illness.

    Liked by 1 person

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