Dying is final, but passing on lives forever

It is hard to believe that those we love will die.

We can’t bear it. It’s too harsh, too complicated, too fraught with emotional baggage and unfinished business and things never said. It’s too final. Dead is dead, after all. From the moment of our birth, we are dying. Death can be painful, tragic, too soon, too quick, too slow, too easy, or too hard.

So we soften it up a bit.

She is dying, the doctors tell us.

She is passing on, we tell ourselves.

Dying implies finality and the end of the road. We cannot cheat death.

Passing on implies going through, transitioning, skirting the physics and the metaphysics involved and coming out on the other side, changed somehow, better, calmer, whole. Keeping company with the better angels of our nature while shedding the demons like a skin.

So, we mourn her passing.

No. We might mourn her death, for a short time or for the whole requisite black-clad year, veil of tears and all.

Passing on should be celebrated.


For passing is not going through for naught.
Passing on is not like passing by.
Passing on implies tarrying a little while, leaving something behind, imparting gifts, whispering wisdom.
Passing on goes both ways, forward and backward.
Passing on means leaving that spark, that essence of yourself in someone else.
Passing on means being seen again every time the grand daughter smiles that little smile that everyone knows was first yours.
Passing on means having that song on the piano that you played or sang conjure up memories of an outdoor stage in the park in 1948.
Passing on means leaving a love for the Dying Swan and his fellows every time they perform on stage, whether it’s for the King of Siam or the students at a local magnet school.
Passing on is knowing that there are three little maids.
Passing on is knowing what an angklung is and how to play it.
Passing on is hearing over and over and over again from students and parents and associates and countless others who were cajoled and taught and touched and pushed and told to try again.

Passing on is staying in so many ways while leaving.

Dying, yes, but that is so final.

Passing on.

Now, that lives forever.

Greg Smith is a psychiatrist who blogs at
Shrink Rapping.

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  • Nerdse

    Passing on probably came into being because it’s true to those of us who believe in an afterlife. If you believe in reincarnation, one who dies is passing on into another incarnation. If you believe in an afterlife, you generally believe in a good one & an evil one; no one wants someone to pass on to the “smoking section” instead of “nonsmoking;” to “frying” vs. “flying” with the angels. If the one you love shares your faith, then they are passing on ahead of you to a place you will go when you die. So, the body dies, the spirit moves on, depending on your faith.
    I believe my Mom graduated to heaven, passing on to a place where she is no longer deaf, blind, arthritic, & dealing with end stage heart disease. She’s with her brother, who at 51 escaped the sequelae of a car accident that should have killed him, and her mom, who escaped blindness & terrible GI problems. When I die, I will pass on to a place where I don’t hurt 24/7 & where I’m not unbelievably worn out constantly.
    I know many (I’m guessing you are one) believe I’m using a crutch, & you know that I believe the reincarnation people have as much of a right to be wrong as you do. And you likely feel sorry for me for “deluding” myself. To this, I say: If I’m wrong, I’ll have lived my life in hope, doing my best to add what I believe God wants me to add to this world, & I’ll just be dead. If you’re wrong, well, you end up in the frying, smoking section. If you want to take a chance on that, well, that’s your choice.

  • http://myheartsisters.org/2009/05/22/know-and-go-during-heart-attack/15/reporting-impaired-incompetent-doctors/ Carolyn Thomas

    I’ve worked in hospice palliative care for the past 10 years. We once had an elderly patient who loudly warned everybody within earshot: “When I die, I don’t want people to write in my obit that I ‘passed on’ or ‘passed away’ or ‘went to be with Jesus’. I want everybody to say SHE DIED. SHE IS DEAD. SHE IS DECEASED!”

    Even among those who work in the field, however, the “D”-word can be controversial.

    When our Management Team was brainstorming on a vision statement for our Hospice Society, there was quite a staff debate about even using the words “end of life care”. One doc recommended we simply say things like “life-limiting illness” instead. Good grief – arthritis can be considered a “life-limiting illness” for many – but it’s hardly in the same category as end of life palliation.

    We live in a death-denying culture that wants to sugar coat this truth: none of us are getting out of here alive.

  • Kristina M.

    Well said, Carolyn! When my grandma died, everyone around grandpa refused to use the word “die” when talking about it with him. They always said she “went to heaven,” “passed away,” “was with Jesus,” and (my personal favorite) “was in a better place now” claiming it was out of respect for his “fragile heart.” And they went through hoops to get around having to have a real discussion about the disease that killed her (Alzheimer’s). I mean, what is the man–five?! It just drove me crazy how they’d baby him like that.

    So one day, I just said “screw it,” and I sat down and had a real discussion with him about Alzheimer’s disease, what it does to a person and how the end result is always death. We talked about studies and news reports we had seen on the disease, and whenever the conversation turned to grandma, we never used euphemisms. We always said she died. And you know what? It really helped him. Turns out he’d been blaming himself for the fact that he couldn’t take care of her in the end. But after discussing the disease, he was able to see that as just another step in the progression of the disease. All patients with Alzheimer’s get to the point to where their relatives can’t care for them anymore. It’s inevitable. And he had done more for her than anyone else in that family. A huge burden was lifted from his shoulders, and he’s finally beginning to move on.

    Stop pussyfooting around death and talk about it. We’re all better people for it in the end. You’d think that a society that sees or hears about somebody dying in the news, on TV shows and in movies every ten minutes that we’d at least be a little desensitized to the subject.

    • http://myheartsisters.org/2009/05/22/know-and-go-during-heart-attack/15/reporting-impaired-incompetent-doctors/ Carolyn Thomas

      Here, here!

  • gzuckier

    You’re not really dead until the last person who remembers you has passed on.

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