How We Talk About Death

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Elissa Stein Owner: High School 411, Author, Designer, Kidney donor, PTA president

Yesterday, while walking down Christopher Street, I got a call. A kidney was available for my brother who had recently been placed on the transplant list. A friend of a friend of a cousin of ours had an aneurysm and her family generously offered her kidney to someone in need. From that moment on there was a nonstop flurry of phone calls, of questions, of concerns. We were nervous, excited, hopeful, scared--plunged in that moment into the unknown. Waiting. Waiting for answers, for experts, for affirmation of a positive match, for the family of the donor's final decision to pull the plug.

It hit me. Amidst the confusion, the swirling emotions, the planning and conferring, how appalling those words are. Pull the plug. I'd casually used that expression many times, never thinking beyond the phrase to the reality of what it meant to the the family who had that decision to make. Or of the person who lay there, a body without a mind, who's very being was in the hands of others. This woman was a daughter, a friend, perhaps a wife and mother, perhaps a grandmother, aunt, cousin. Her life had abruptly changed, her loved ones had been plunged unexpectedly into despair. And still, within that grief and pain, they were giving hope and life to others. This woman, this saviour was not a vacuum or a toaster. That's when you pull a plug. By referring to such a monumental moment with such dismissive words, the enormity of it was shunted off to the side.

Language has a power that's so often underestimated--words and phrases shape how we think and feel. Expressions that we use on a regular basis create a collective mindset that all too often minimizes the reality of a situation. Think about how the word "soldier" was replaced in the media with "troop" in the not too distant past. To me, a soldier is a man or woman in uniform. There's a face, a body, a person, while "troop" is detached, a word with no humanity. It's far easier to hear that we lost 35 troops in Iraq than 35 soldiers died that day. Someone in a position of power decided to re-work our societal vocabulary. People were dying. How could the immediacy and sting be taken away? Call it something else.

We hide behind words because the reality can be too painful. We try to soften the edges with euphemisms or oblique references. I will never say "pull the plug" again. Ending life support is a decision fraught with bravery and grief. It deserves to be acknowledged for what it is.