An introduction to death, dying and grief
An introduction to death, dying and grief

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An introduction to death, dying and grief

1.1 Talking about death

The meanings people ascribe to death (i.e. what is important to people, or what matters to them) are not static. They change over time, within and between cultures. In the west, death is sometimes considered a taboo topic and we use careful or sensitive language when talking about death. In Activity 1, you will explore different perspectives on talking about death.

Described image
Figure 2 How we are introduced to the topic of death as children or young people can shape our attitudes later in life.

Activity 1 Talking about death

Timing: Allow approximately 1 hour.

Part A

Think about the terms to describe death that you have used or heard. What do you think might be the purpose of these terms, and do you consider them to be helpful?

When have you heard these terms used, or when might you use them? Enter the terms against the following categories in the table below (there is no right or wrong answer here). Two examples have been added to the first box, to help get you started.

Table 1 Talking about death in different contexts

ContextLanguage or words used to talk about death
Talking to family/friends about the death of a loved one
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Expressions in popular culture (TV, film, music, books)
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Language used in funeral services
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Talking about death with colleagues
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Talking about someone you don't know personally (for example, a famous person)
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Talking to someone who is ill, or vulnerable
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Words: 0
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Discussion

You may have noticed that the language you use or hear in association with death and dying varies depending on the context. Perhaps there are some terms that you would use with colleagues but not with vulnerable people. Perhaps you adjust the language you use depending on the belief system of the person who you are talking with; maybe your own belief system means that the terms you use are consistent. You may have found yourself using humour to talk about death as a coping mechanism, or have been aware of others doing this. Many people adapt the way they talk about death depending on the context they find themselves in.

An Open University academic wrote: ‘After my mum died, I struggled for a long time to find the words to talk about what had happened. I fluctuated between expressions such as ‘she passed away’ and ‘I lost my mum’ (to which a close friend replied, jokingly – ‘how careless of you!’), until eventually I found the confidence to say that ‘she died’ (which somehow felt more final to me). But when talking to others about the death of their loved ones, people often feel the need to ‘say the right thing’. This can be very hard to do, and may explain why many bereaved people feel that others avoid them, for fear of getting it wrong.

Part B

Now watch this short clip in which Open University lecturer Dr Erica Borgstrom describes why language matters when we talk about end-of-life care or death and dying. As you watch the clip, note down some of the key points made by Dr Borgstrom that really made you think.

Download this video clip.Video player: k220_ol_act1_vid.mp4
Skip transcript

Transcript

ERICA BORGSTROM
She's poorly? He's really unwell. She's palliative. These are phrases that I often hear when I'm doing research in palliative and end-of-life care, but what do they really mean?
As an anthropologist, it took me a while in my field work in hospitals, hospices, and care homes in England, to figure out that these phrases were code.
Code language can be really useful, if you want to keep information between certain groups of people only, but when talking about end-of-life care, it can actually, be quite unhelpful.
It can make it really unclear for the dying person and those around them, to know what's going on and what they might be able to do.
There's lots of examples of unclear language use in medicine, particularly in palliative and end-of-life care.
In England, people might use euphemisms to talk about death and dying because they think it might make it easier to talk about a difficult subject. But we know cross-culturally, that other places talk about death more openly and frankly. And that death isn't necessarily, a taboo not to be spoken about.
The language we use to talk about end-of-life care matters. It matters because it conveys the values we attribute to life and death.
For one of my latest projects, I'm looking at the language used when decisions have been made to provide no further medical intervention or treatment.
For example, there's the cliche that we say, there's nothing more that can be done. Now, this is often uttered at a time when palliative care teams might still be exploring alternative methods for symptom management and treatment.
There seems to be a contradiction then, between what we're saying and hearing and what people are actually doing.
Now, from my research experience, rarely, when there is an absence of medical treatment, is there actually, an absence of care. So why are we using language, or code, that might make us think otherwise?
End transcript
 
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Discussion

Here are some key points that were identified by an OU academic:

  • phrases are code which can help control the flow of information
  • code language can make things unclear for some people to understand or follow
  • euphemisms in death and dying might be perceived as being an easier way to talk about a difficult subject matter
  • the use of code gives some indication of how taboo the subject is, or whether it’s a more open culture around death
  • language conveys our values about life and death.

This first activity shows that there is a lot of variation in our language and the words that we use to describe death and dying. It is important to remember that our language can convey our values and may reflect culture and wider society. Words do not necessarily directly reflect what is thought to be reality, but language can provide some clues about the openness, or otherwise, of society to the idea of death. The use of language is just one aspect of how death is expressed and understood, but language is something that is shared between groups in society and can provide a wider perspective than the individual expression of what death means to that person. Exploring how language connected with death and dying is used provides a brief glimpse of its power and its role in the social fabric of people’s lives.

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