Language · Notes from West London · On my radio

Fell asleep, passed, lost, slipped away

Some years, during the season of Lent, I make regular visits to the graveyard where my mother is buried. In those years the grave will be made ready for her anniversary, on 10 April, without too much of a rush. Other years, like last year, we only plant new flowers a day or two before the 10th. Last year, along with pansies and a shamrock plant, some bulb-based flowers were planted, and they might flower again this year. It’s too soon to know, and any early blooms might be affected by the sudden chill that has descended on the UK, brought on by something that newspapers are calling “The Beast from the East”.

This year, less than two weeks into Lent, I have already been able to make a few visits to the cemetery, and both of my children have accompanied me at least twice. I would like them to know their way around the place well enough to find my mother’s grave in the years ahead. They are aged 11 and 13, so I don’t expect them to be troubled by such visits. I point out the graves of relatives of people they know. I have lived in the same part of London all my life and there are dozens of people I knew who are buried there. The priest who said the mass last year on my mother’s anniversary (and who was mentioned in this piece) died last summer and he is buried there. The children knew him and remember him.

We have read headstones of people I knew, and headstones of people we know nothing about. Most of the former (from Irish Catholic families like my own) include the simple word “Died”, as in “Died Aged 92”. Many of the other headstones use different expressions: “Passed away”, “Slipped away”, “Fell asleep”. The last of these always makes me think, “Fell asleep? What’s she doing here then?” I don’t feel too strongly about the euphemisms people use for death. I prefer to say “died” rather than “passed” or “passed away” but have never corrected anyone who uses alternative terms. I know that some people are sensitive about hearing “died”, “dead” and “death”, and if I’m not sure will use the phrase “no longer with us” rather than any of the d-words.

This subject came up in this recent interview with the actor Greg Wise (husband of Emma Thompson). He cared for his sister Clare when she was dying of cancer a year or so ago. They created a Blog, which has become a recently published book. As the interviewer, Kate Kellaway, notes:

“When I ask whether losing Clare taught him any big things, he reacts instantly – not cross but urgent: ‘I didn’t lose Clare – she died. We’ve got to be clear about that. Passing. Losing. Slipped away. Please… We have to be able to speak death. We don’t know how to talk about death which is odd because we’re all going to die. So: my sister died, she didn’t go to sleep… or pass… or whatever else.’ And yet he knows from his own experience that we end up, for all sorts of reasons, skirting around the subject …”

Doctors, clearly, have to be sensitive to this. I have never heard a real-life medical practitioner tell someone that one of their friends or relatives has died (or passed, or slipped away). I have heard plenty of actors playing medical roles breaking the sad news. My daughter and I heard one last Sunday, driving out of the cemetery. We often hear the last minute of “The Archers”, just before “Desert Island Discs” begins, and joke about the kind of bombshells that you get just before the closing music. “No, I can’t marry you Natalie, because … I’m an alien”, or “It’s no good Marjorie, I’ve been living a lie for years. I’m not the person I pretend to be. I’m really … a hippopotamus”.  There were no laughs at the end of last Sunday’s episode. Nic Grundy, who scratched her wrist on a rusty nail earlier in the week, has died of sepsis. You can read all about it here, and you can hear the episode in question here for the next 25 days. Right at the end, just before the theme tune, at 12:30, the doctor tells the newly-widowed husband, “I’m so sorry to tell you, Mr Grundy. We’ve done everything we possibly could for your wife … but I’m afraid she’s gone.” We don’t hear what his response is but I doubt if he corrects the doctor for her choice of words.



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