The D word

Written by Angela Flood, Family Support Practitioner at Very Special Kids

With Dying to Know Day happening today, it is timely to raise the question of how we as a society of many cultures, faiths and beliefs talk about the inevitable d word: death.

Dying to Know Day aims to activate conversations and curiosity, build death literacy and help grow the capacity of individuals and community groups to take action toward end of life planning.

As an organisation that supports a family through their entire journey, it often means supporting up until and beyond the untimely death of a child. This means it is often exposed to the harsher realities of life and the often ‘taboo’ topic of death. It is a difficult topic, no doubt about it, but the fact that it is difficult is the very reason we need to talk about it and by ‘it’ I mean death.

There are many ways of framing the word Death – in fact Google will give you so many euphemisms you will be surprised. From the common ones such as pass away, gone to sleep and expire to the more slang ones such as Cark it, Give up the Ghost and Bite the Dust. There are many ways in which we as a society avoid saying the D word.

When working with families at Very Special Kids, it is important for us to be culturally sensitive and from time to time this means using a particular culturally preferred language, but this does not mean that the death is not spoken of or denied.

So what you might say, why does it matter if we avoid the D word? It matters for a number of reasons.

Some people use the other euphemisms because they feel it ‘softens the blow’ – having worked with bereaved families for a long time, nothing, especially not the use of a slang term softens the blow of losing a child. In fact it can often just increase the isolation they feel, as it can diminish their grief and trivialize it.

An inability to use the words dead, died or death can disenfranchise the bereaved and isolate families further. It can unfortunately send the message that you can’t handle the conversation if you can’t even say the word.

It matters that we use the words death and dying with children. Children are very literal in their thinking, so when we use terms like gone to sleep, pass over or bite the dust, children take that for what it is. They think that the person who has gone to sleep is going to wake up, or the person that bit the dust copped a mouthful of unpleasantness. It’s misleading and leaves them feeling confused on a number of levels.

Children need reality, truth and adults that lead by example and show that it is okay to talk about death. Not speaking the words death and dying is not protective, it is simply denying something that they are eventually going to learn about.

Finally it matters, because at the end of the day, we are all going to die and if we can’t find the words to talk about, speak of the inevitable then our own experience of death and dying and the experience of our loved ones may not be what we need nor want, shrouded in mystery and denial.

Slowly there is change emerging and death education is a bit of a buzz at the moment, almost trendy some might say.

Working in paediatric palliative care however highlights the fact that whilst society may be inching forward in the language of death, people still struggle with acknowledging that children do die.

By failing to acknowledge that children do die, where does that leave their grieving families? Alone.