activities commentary Tyson Seburn  

Referring to loved ones who’ve passed

July 11 has a very special meaning for me.  It’s a day with happy memories, but also more recently, nostalgia.  With these feelings comes a curious language moment and more than likely a cousin to one of the PARSNIPs. More broadly, this post perhaps contains a social commentary on an often uncomfortable but common part of life.  How do we talk about and refer to family no longer with us? Let me lead by example.

The awkward linguistic transition that occurs once a loved one passes has always fascinated me.  Isn’t it odd that we often walk on eggshells when talking about loved ones who have passed away in order to avoid causing a tearful reaction.  Isn’t the sudden exclusion of the departed from daily conversation also upsetting?  How about the fact that birthdays and other special events important to the deceased  suddenly get wiped from our calendars? Beyond this, there’s that emotionally difficult movement from present to past tense description of that person.

Instead of speaking directly with family, some choose meaningful alternatives.  For me, on their wedding anniversary or his birthday, I made sure I called Gramma after Grampa died just to talk.  She knew why I called even though he was not our topic of conversation. But sometimes I wish I had overcome this cultural (?) discomfort and talked about him, not as though he was still here, but as though he still existed.

Gramma herself would have been 96 today.  She passed away more than three years ago now, but that doesn’t decrease the amount that I think about her ever-welcoming hugs, her genuine happiness to see me, and many of the little things we‘d do together, especially when I was a kid.

Gramma and Grampa went to St. Petersburg, Florida every fall and came back every spring from the early 80s to the mid 90s. I missed them so much during that time. I used to write them letters almost on a weekly basis. What 8-year-old has enough to write about, so I used to make up stories, draw pictures or pretend I was a teacher.  I’d create music or spelling lessons for my grandmother-student, to fill up the envelope.

Gramma would diligently write back and always make me feel like whatever I’d written, she’d given top priority. She’d comment on my stories, praise my drawings and complete the lessons I’d assigned her. She always made me feel like I had her undevoted attention, even if she was 1000 miles away.

Right until the end, at 92, Gramma made me feel loved more than any other person in the world.  She was caring, generous, loved children immensely, and made unmatched peanut butter cookies.  Whenever something good happens in my life, hers is one telephone number I inherently think of calling, so I can hear her perpetually excited reaction.  I wish she were still with us. I still want to talk about her like she exists.

This isn’t written aiming for empathetic comments or cheerful pats on the back. I also hope that by highlighting linguistic conventions for this context, no one feels the sentiment isn’t sincere. Instead, I hope that tributes and memories of loved ones aren’t seen as something uncomfortable to discuss with anyone.  And for our students, let’s encourage discussion and help them with contextualised language use appropriate for these discussions.

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21 thoughts on “Referring to loved ones who’ve passed

  1. Lisa noble

    Thanks so much for this. A friend’s reflection on childhood memories got me thinking about my own much-loved grandparents today, and reminded me to continue to share those memories with my kids. Those people did exist, and were very important in the formation of me, and my kids need to know that.

    1. seburnt

      Not long after she passed, I resolved to continue talking about Gramma whenever it seemed normal to do so. Glad you think it’s a good idea too for an important and influential person in your life.

  2. Ana K

    This was a real pleasure to read, Tyson. Thank you for sharing your reflections and I appreciated the language connections. While living in First Nations Deer Lake this past year, I have noticed that some residents refer to those no longer with us in the present tense. At first I would get really surprised at my discovery that would take place later on in the conversation, and it almost became a challenge for me to decipher if the person being talked about is alive or dead. However, with time what came to be more apparent and important is the way the story teller was relating to the person they were talking about and what they mean to them. Actually, just by using the present tense my conversational partners’ emphasized the fact that these people who are dead have made such an impact on their lives. So much that they are still very much alive and within them.

    1. seburnt

      I had an inkling that not only the awkwardness of talking about the dead in general, but also the tense shift might be culturally relative. I’m sure like First Nations (and several cultures also mentioned in these comments), it’s a lot more common to speak easily and in present tense.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Ana. =)

  3. Sharon Turner

    Dear Tyson,

    Thank you for sharing such a personal but spot on post. Your grandma sounds like she was a wonderful person. These types of situations where you talk about someone who has died are usually so important in life but not raised in classrooms. I lost a dearly loved mother in law when I first moved to Turkey and I had to work out all of the protocals and language on the hoof with my basic Turkish. But what I do love here compared with the UK is that we can talk about the loved one who passed away so much more easily through stories of their life. They are still seen as a part of the family and it is often discussed about what would she have thought or the funny things she did. It is much more natural and free here to speak openly about this. Each culture has its own convention. We deal with weddings more in classes bit we do also need to cover what happens when someone dies and what are the conventions for talking about someone once they have gone.

    1. seburnt

      Sounds like a hard situation to be in so immediately upon being in Turkey, Sharon. I think we more often talk about deceased family members in terms of what they would have thought too (probably often negatively though).

      I do agree that it’s important to address contexts like this in class too, beyond just the happy ones.

  4. Vicky Loras

    Hi Tyson,

    This post touched me in many ways – I love how you mention your grandma and how excited she was when you sent the letters to her : ) I can only imagine what a great person she was to answer your puzzles and questions!

    You mention something very important – why are deceased people’s birthdays and anniversaries wiped out from our calendars? Many years ago, my dad’s sister died. She was like a second mom and a true angel. I always remember the day she died, but her birthday as well. Her birthday makes me happy to think that such a person existed and influenced my life.

    About the tense in which deceased people are talked about, I was thinking that mostly in English we speak in the past, as well as Greek, my second language. Interesting to see in the comments above how different tenses are used across cultures.

    I love her names, Mary Athelia : )


    1. seburnt

      Gramma was very special and the best grandmother I could have asked for. I always commemorate hers and my Grampa’s birthdays, moreso than the anniversaries of their deaths. It’s just weird to have birthday parties for them one year and then pretend those days aren’t still special the next, because they are still special.

  5. Louise Alix

    Tyson – a very personal piece to write and one which, in some way or other, rings true to all of us (being a total sensitive wimp I read this with a lump in my throat!).
    I don’t want to be crude here or in any way belittle what you have written, but to bring this sensitive topic back to a pure language (cultural) level: Have you every noticed the cultural divide when referring to death? I think that in the UK on television you’re more likely to hear “he died” whereas I notice many US tv programmes using totally different language such as: he passed, he crossed, he departed. And police series “he’s dead” becomes: he’s gone, he didn’t make it. What about the sentence “he kicked the bucket”? My goodness, what a lot of language (and culture!) we’re asking our learners to soak up.

    1. seburnt

      I’m glad to talk about the language aspect too, Louise. That was part of this post too.

      I’m sure there is a cultural divide when dealing with and referring to death. To say “he died” of a family member, it seems to abrupt and factual, heartless even. I think that’s why we (North America?) often beautify it a little more metaphorically. Kick the bucket definitely sounds when someone doesn’t care about the person at all.

  6. Naomi Epstein (@naomishema)

    Thank you for sharing this with us. You were certainly blessed to have had such a grandmother!
    I can only add to those who commented before me, citing cultural differences. Here it much more acceptable to talk about the deceased openly. There is a phrase (often used in acronym form) which translates into” may his /her memory be blessed) which allows one to easily refer to the person without worrying which phrase is acceptable (passed away, deceased, died, etc.). Memorial services are very common here, both the national sort and the personal. Its not unusual for a student to say that he won’t be coming in the next day because he has to attend a family member’s yearly memorial service.

    B.T.W, as I know you like Margaret Atwood’s books – I just read (actually listened, audio-book) the part in “The Blind Assassin” where the heroine is visiting the graveyard and she is musing on the common saying that speaking of the dead brings them back to life. Then I read your post!


    1. seburnt

      That’s a lovely sentiment to say. Koreans also have a yearly memorial service for their departed by taking food and drink to where they are buried and offering it to them, bowing to them, etc.

      Glad to hear you “read” one of my favourite Atwood titles! Very interesting that it brought you to my post, so to speak. I think it’s very logical to suggest that the more you talk about the dead, the more their memory stays alive and out in the air, like they exist. This is how I want to continue with Gramma.

      1. Louise Alix

        Me again – one of my Romanian students told me of the custom in Romania whereby the ‘official’ headstone is only placed a year after the burial and is followed by a huge party to celebrate the life of the deceased. They spend that year apparently ‘coming to terms with’ the loss, talking about the person and celebrating his/her life. I can’t quite remember what happens after the anniversary ‘celebration’ (am sure it’s on google somewhere but I’ll ask my student next time I see her) but I know that my student was really looking forward to going back there for her father’s service and party – it has a huge cultural/religious meaning in her community. I really love this idea of ‘allowing’ people a year to keep talking about rather than getting over; the simple change in terminology seems somehow more positive.
        And yes – keep on celebrating birthdays and anniversaries! My Dad calls me “for a chat” every year on the same day (wedding anniversary) and has reminded me that he’s been married for ‘x’ years whereas my Mum died many years ago.These sorts of days are important to us and don’t just cease to be important because someone’s no longer there. 😉

        1. seburnt

          That Romanian way seems very healthy. I like it. Thanks for sharing both it and your personal situation, Louise. =)

  7. Brad Patterson

    Wow, Ty. Nice to have an ‘open-heart’ post like this, and I’m a fine promoter of Parsnip when the context is right.

    We’re all different creatures on this planet and I, like you, enjoy processing emotions and sharing my experiences very openly. This isn’t the case from culture to culture, and I’m always seeking ways to engage a dialogue that is comfortable and yet challenging at the same time… a fine line.

    Peanut-butter cookies, eh? My great grandma’s meatloaf was the bomb 😉

    Empathetic pat on the back, even though i know u weren’t looking for it.


    1. seburnt

      Thanks, Brad. I can appreciate that you strive for a safe environment where learners can feel comfortable sharing, but also risk taking with the language. It’s in these types of contexts though, that learners need the most help with what is appropriate, eh? Otherwise, you end up getting “my uncle is dead.” and other such blunt blows.

      Meatloaf? Love it. Great grandparents – never had any during my lifetime.

  8. Carolyn

    Tyson, I am way too emotional a person to talk about things like this. I’d have a hard time seeing the screen through my tears – I’m ridiculous, I know (it’s also long distance commercials, life insurance commercials, phone calls from my sister in Tazmania…) However, I am always happy to engage in this discussion with students. By learning (and sharing) different beliefs and ways of talking about death, funerals, etc. It allows the class to create a safe environment where their discussions of such things isn’t offensive to others. For example, I would say that my grandpa has ‘passed away’ and my students might say that someone is ‘dead’. I enjoy those discussions of degrees where students take notice of smaller language choices and others’ reactions. Excellent post – thanks for sharing.

    1. seburnt

      I can understand the sensitivity some would have about this topic, particularly if it’s fresh. I tend to tear up when people do extraordinary things to make others happy or when family members are happily reunited. This topic though definitely is a great one about appropriate language in specific context!

  9. 12 posts from 2012 I love | 4C in ELT

    […] Referring to loved ones who’ve passed – I wish [my gramma] were still with us. I still want to talk about her like she exists. (Seburn) I didn’t know then that I’d say the same 6 months later about my beloved puppy, Rocco…:( And left to their own translations, our students can unintentionally come out with awkward and sometimes hurtful comments when trying to be consoling.  They need to know how to do it appropriately. […]

  10. silviacortese

    Hi Tyson, I loved this post linguistic conventions included. The first time I used the past tense when talking about my dad, who had recently passed away, I was in a classroom and I started crying. I didn’t get out of the room. It was cathartic and I will always remember my students’ sensitive reaction. It created a very special bond between us. I tend to be quite open in my classrooms but ss of course don’t need to be. Sharing the same background culture with them helps though. We get each other. And bringing parsnips in the classroom becomes easier.

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Thanks for leaving a comment, Silvia! 🙂 I’m very sorry to hear of your dad’s passing. I understand how revealing such a thing can definitely be a bonding experience within the classroom. I’m not sure I’d be that open in my context (my students are MUCH younger than I am and not interested in much of a personal interaction with their professor),but I’m glad you can.

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