Why is Death so Hard to Say?

July 27, 2009


I have been working hard for the last several months in the scraps of time around work, family and household chores to commit myself to a new project I am calling Kairos.  I got inspired to use this word from an article by psychologist and writer Mary Pipher in a Psychotherapy Networker article.  Mary noted that Kairos is a Greek word for synchronous time (as opposed to linear time or Kronos). She called it “spiritual time.” Yes”, I thought, “that is the perfect word for one of my passions, which is holding space for people to die in and for the caregivers that also do this work.” 

Unless we are heinously tampered with in our process, there is something mystical and wonderful about the one precious moment that we pass either into bodily life or out of it.  It requires a certain kind of support and a certain quality of care that is not easy to provide. So I have begun this organization called Kairos.  It is for helping professionals of all kinds, but it is starting particularly as a place for death, dying and eldercare professionals to meet and support one another.   Since creating from unspeakable experience, being witnessed in our work, and witnessing all seem to be potentially important things for people who work in these realms I have created this blog within the Kairos project for us to creatively express, ponder and process aspects of our work and experience.   

At the same time I have also begun some other death education projects in the last few months.  One is a program I call “Planning on Dying” for death contemplation and planning; another, called “The Core of Dying” is about the role of the heart and energy in dying.   I have talked with friends, family and enlightened souls about these projects.  They have been terrifically helpful in their support and reflection.   However, all of this has brought me to a peculiar and unexpected observation.  When I propose a title, I will often hear:”Do you have to use the words ‘death’ or ‘dying’ in your title?  Can’t you just say ‘end of life’, ‘passing on’, ‘crossing over’?”  ”Can’t you talk about life, not death?” ”Can’t you somehow be more reassuring in your title?”  “Can you bring in sex?”  “Can you make it entertaining?”   I hear that there is something off-putting about these words that will instantly drive people away in droves if I use them, much like a leaf-blower on an autumn driveway. 

I am stunned, actually, at the consistency of this kind of remark and the creativity of the euphemisms for death.  Obviously this is advice that I am choosing not to take in full.  I am taking the risk to say it.  But so it is that I start this blog with a challenge to contemplate this word.  Why is Death so hard to say?  Or perhaps more accurately, so hard to hear? 

Much of the difficulty of supporting death, dying and aging is that, because we deny the facts and the processes in our life and culture, they become traumatic events rather than simple and beautiful processes to be supported, borne, celebrated and even enjoyed no less than a first birthday, a wedding or a high school graduation.  My speculation is that we are making two faulty correlations:

1)  That death and trauma (as well as illness and pain) are the same thing.  This is probably because death CAN include these things, because there has been a lot of traumatic death in history and perhaps because Hollywood and the internet makes a lot of money obsessively re-creating these now fairly atypical deaths in visual form.

2)  That life and death are opposites.  This pervasive and fairly materialistic assumption is seen constantly in the way that these two words are paired in opposition “Life and Death”, “Life OR Death”,  ”End of life” (for death), etc.  We sometimes correct ourselves in moments of insight and sanity, at bedsides or wakes or with the bereaved by remembering what is perhaps more the truth:  “Death is part of life”.  

Indeed. This truth raises the logical problem of whether something that is part of something can also be its opposite.  The opposite of death is actually birth, not life. Though it can’t yet be proven, death is perhaps only a synchronous moment like many others, an end of one type of life. Life (big L), as far as I know is constantly pulsing, expanding and contracting ceaselessly, and has no opposite. 

The terrain of dying, though much contemplated through the ages and universally experienced, still in some ways  is a vast, unexplored realm.  And the  people who bear witness to death with open heart, willing to be taught and to speak their experience, have a lot to say. They are our guides over this terrain.  Let this be a place for us to write.  So that, one day, the word “death” may be restored to its rightful dignity and associated just as commonly with words like lightness, ease, delight, and joy.  Pain too, but also and even ecstasy and transformation. 

If you are interested in offering your stories and insights to this blog or joining the Kairos Network, please send me a note at linkedin.com (Jeanne Denney).

May the writing begin.

Jeanne Denney is a therapist and hospice worker in Rockland County, NY.  She directs the Rockland Institute for Mind/Body Education and Kairos, an organization for helping professionals.


One Response to “Why is Death so Hard to Say?”

  1. ginny said

    these are very moving and important. i wish i could type so i could share but it is so time consuming to peck it out, it would take me a looong time. maybe it is just laziness on my part, i have always had a hard time writing anything. probably why i work with my hands……

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