Sunday, November 07, 2010

Say "Died," Please

When I was in Auburn yesterday, my Bodily Blessings editor (a completely lovely guy by the name of John Shorb), sent me links to the next two columns. The second of those was heavily borrowed from one of my blog posts a few years ago; the first was my story about my mother's death in hospice. I'll post links to these when the final versions are up.

John is a wonderful editor: smart, sensitive, skilled. But this summer an intern did some editing, and that person (whose name I don't know) appears to have both been sloppy and to have suffered from the "if it's not broken, fix it anyway" school of editing, wherein editors feel obliged to leave their own scent markings on perfectly workable prose. That approach is especially infuriating when such folks insert errors into the text.

I'm a very careful writer. I don't commit many technical errors, and my stylistic choices are deliberate and planned. I'm not perfect, and I certainly benefit from close readings by other people, but most of the editors I work with feel that my writing's very clean and doesn't need a lot of line-by-line attention. I have a small but trusted group of Ideal Readers who've proven their ability to point out places that could benefit from reworking, while staying hands-off otherwise. John Shorb is one of my Ideal Readers; so's Gary; so's Patrick Nielsen Hayden, my editor at Tor; so are several friends here in Reno.

Nameless Intern is not an Ideal Reader. Nameless Intern, from the evidence, may not even be a very good reader. And Nameless Intern did a hatchet job on my column about my mother's death, changing things that didn't need to be changed and removing small but crucial details.

For instance: I mention in the column that five hours after Mom went into hospice, I was on a red-eye to Philly, arriving at six in the morning after a sleepless night. Nameless Intern removed all this information, even though it conveys a crucial sense of discomfort and desperation, which in turn creates a crucial contrast with the comfort hospice offered me and my sister, as well as Mom.

There were other problems: sentences rewritten for no reason, information moved to other places (without always being removed in the original location, so one sentence occurred twice), incorrect punctuation changes. But the revision that put me over the top replaced specificity with euphemism. In the original, I talked about how my sister and I stayed at the hospital from the night before Mom died "until the undertaker wheeled away the body." This line establishes that we didn't leave the hospital until she did, until her mortal remains were removed from our mortal sight.

Nameless Intern changed the phrase to, "until she passed."

Passed? Passed? I loathe this euphemism. Say "died!" As I told John in my exasperated note, the verb "pass" makes human lives sound like gas or stool. I know many people use this word because they're afraid that any direct mention of death is somehow too harsh -- even though it's the truth -- and maybe also, if the person's religious, to convey the sense of passing to another life. (Plenty of religious folks I know just say "died," though.) But I've always hated it. Listening to other people use it sets my teeth on edge, but that's their choice. I'd never use it myself.

If Nameless Intern wants to write a column about the death of his or her mother and chooses to use the verb "pass," fine. That's her or his choice. But for someone who's never even spoken to me to apply such a heavy hand to my own story -- about one of the most difficult moments of my life, mind you -- makes me want to scream.

So, anyway, the messenger got shot: poor John got an earful about this! I sent him a copy of my original column, since Nameless Intern had made so many changes that fixing them all would have been a real headache, and said, "Please remove the current version on the site and use this instead."

He did, bless him, and apologized for the messy editing, and sent me a link to the restored version. Reading it, I discovered one typo which was my fault -- and which Nameless Intern had fixed (yay!) -- and e-mailed John about that, too.

Poor John! The life of an editor isn't easy. I hope they give him a raise.


  1. ahhhh! ahhhh! it burns!

    i have only ever used the euphemism "passed on" once, and that was to describe the passage of a person whose "passinng on to the next world" did not immediately follow his death.

    so yes, he died. and yes, he passed on. if you only ever knew him btween points A and B, things can get confusing.

    long story; nevermind.

  2. Hah,

    I too HATE the word passed.

    Be well!


  3. I HATE 'passed' (although I don't recoil with quite the same rage from 'passed away'). I can't understand how in just a few brief years it's become so commonplace - newsreaders, police and fire department spokespeople, people who could normally be trusted not to use 'comforting' euphemisms.

    Your restraint in this situation was admirable!

  4. Ouch! That sort of bad editing hurts. My extreme sympathies.

    And I agree with you about "died" vs. "passed on/away" and the like. At one point, after my mother's death, I actually did find myself saying, "I didn't 'lose' her, thank you -- she DIED. She's not going to turn up in a box somewhere."

    My sister then corrected me: "Actually, she is going to turn up in a box. And we're putting it next to Dad's box. But we didn't lose her; we know where she is."

  5. We struggle with this in health care, don't we? While I gently encourage staff to talk about patients dying, they continue to think families aren't so comfortable with it - and, indeed, quite a number of them aren't so comfortable.

    I do have one euphemism that I use with staff, but never with families. I will speak of a patient who has had a "celestial discharge;" and sometimes of a suffering patient with no hope who needs one. Perhaps because it's hopeful, this one seems particularly attractive to staff.

  6. I heartily dislike the euphemism "passed" as well. I also dislike the substitution of the term "celebration of life" for funeral. The Episcopal Church has it right; its "The Burial of the Dead." Don't blame you for being extremely irritated.


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