It is important to examine how we speak. Our words often betray hidden stashes of denial and avoidance. I was comfortable with my euphemisms for death and dying. In the Methodist church my parents took me to as a child, we said "passed away" or "passed over." And in the contemporary pop-healing lingo, we would say that someone made their "transition." Whatever the term, it's just poetic license for the basic fact that human beings die.

But the question many people ask, including the intern chaplain who'd been corrected that first morning of her internship, is "Well, since I know that people die, why must I be so harsh and literal with my words? Especially when it just makes everyone else uncomfortable?" Or to put it another way, why must we say and think "she died" instead of something more pleasant? To begin with, using the "d" words is a practice of undoing. Part of the work in living our dying is to undo our hidden compartments where death issues hibernate undisturbed. This undoing takes time. So we begin with "she died" and return to this literal impermanence daily. There is an important grounding in owning the fact of worldly impermanence. If you really practice using only the 'd' words, you'll see what I mean. Try it.

A basic practice is to notice your use of euphemisms for "death" or "dying" and to begin replacing those euphemisms with the actual "d" words. When I first started this practice it was rough going. I eventually had to stop myself in mid-sentence — like, "I remember when my grandfather passed awa ..." — and, after taking a slow breath, correct myself aloud — "... when my grandfather died." It was embarrassing. Most of the time it felt harsh to make that correction publicly. But who was I really protecting from that harsh reality? The public or myself? The closer I looked at the issue, the more I realized I didn’t want to face, on a very subtle level, the fact that death really happens. So I kept practicing.

Make a conscious effort to use the "d" words and notice your feelings. Are you embarrassed? How does your body react to the word? Does it contract or tighten in a particular place? For me, I'd always drop the volume of the "d" word a notch or two, sometimes almost to a whisper, like I was having to say the word "masturbation" in the same room with my mother. Notice yourself. It's a simple but profound practice. Notice but don’t condemn. The point isn't to be clinically correct, but to be self-aware.

Also, now that I've done this practice so often and worked with death and dying all these years, you might think that I'm free to go back to the nicer, safer euphemisms, right? Just recently, in speaking of the recent death of a friend, I found myself fumbling over the euphemism 'laying the body aside' — and, through noticing my bodily contractions and fumbled speech, I realized I was using the euphemism to avoid some of the pain caused by my friend's death. So we're always having to return to this basic practice of using the 'd' words instead of euphemisms. Or, at least, I certainly am.

Joseph Sharp in Living Our Dying