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Let's stop avoiding the "d" words

When Someone Dies, How Do You React to the Phrase, She Got Her Wings?

I have written more than once about the “d” word avoidance our culture seems to practice. And when someone dies from cancer, I still say, it’s downright insulting to say so and so lost her battle with cancer. Irks the heck out of me. Do you ever wonder why so many work so hard to avoid using words like died, death, dying? I sure wonder.

And then there’s that phrase often used when a person (generally a woman, right?) dies that goes something like, so and so got her wings last night.

I mean, really?

Got her wings?

Every time I hear this particular phrase, I think about the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. I love this movie. It’s one of my favorite holiday classics and Dear Hubby and I try to watch it every year. Even if you hate this movie or have never seen it, you likely know Clarence, an angel, gets his wings at the end of the movie. And yes, I think it’s sweet and all that, but it’s a movie. Sweet and sappy work in a movie.

When talking about real life and real death, saying someone got her wings, sounds flippant and annoying to me.

I suppose we say this sort of thing to take some of the heaviness out of the situation death. Saying, so and so got her wings, isn’t so dark, so bleak, so final, or something.

When someone dies, how do you react to the phrase, she got her wings?
One of many from my angel collection

To be clear, I am certainly not implying others should not use this phrase if they want to. If the phrase makes you feel better, by all means, use it. I am merely sharing how hearing it makes me feel. And I am wondering if anyone else cringes when they hear it.

Maybe I’m just an oddball. (probably)

And btw, I love angels. I even have a collection of angel ornaments and figurines.

Dear Hubby and I have actually joked around about this. When I am being highly annoying (I know, hard to imagine, right?) he teases that should I die before him, he will say in my obituary that I lost my battle, or got my wings. Yes, we’re weird. I know.

As I’ve also written about before, when someone dies, why not just say the person died?

If the cause is known, why not just say what the person died from be it old age, a heart attack, cancer, a self-inflicted wound, a car accident, or whatever? And yes, saying a person took her/his own life is acceptable to say, too, or should be, because truth should always be acceptable, even when talking about death.

Perhaps especially then.

What do you think?

How do you react to the phrase, so and so got her wings?

Do you avoid using the “d” words or do you make a conscious effort to use them?

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When Someone Dies, Should We Stop Saying, She Got Her Wings? #death #grief #loss #wordsmatter

36 thoughts to “When Someone Dies, How Do You React to the Phrase, She Got Her Wings?”

  1. That phrase really annoys me, because it comes with the default assumption that the deceased and everyone around them follows the Western Christian faith. While percentage-wise, it can sometimes be a safe bet to make about someone in the USA, it is by no means absolutely certain. And it’s not ‘harmless’. The perpetuation of proselytizing, especially among cancer circles, can get aggressive and emotionally damaging. (Whether intentionally or no, many times the pressuring to ‘accept Christ’ meanders down a path which implies that the cancer or other circumstance is that person’s fault, that they lived ‘wrong’, that they need to be ‘fixed’. And for many adults who aren’t part of the faith, they were raised in it, and frequently have emotional baggage tied on that only makes the religious pressure more stressful.)

    So for those who weren’t followers of the Christian faith and believed in going to the Christian afterlife realm, to say they got their wings is insulting to their memory. That ignores who they are, what they believed, how they lived, and overwrites their choices with your own without their consent.

    (Likewise, don’t say they’re in a better place – they might no longer be trapped in these suffering, pain-riddled meatbags, but if we have a choice, we’d all rather stay with our families, I think. And ‘family’ doesn’t necessarily mean blood.)

    For the activists, like myself, I think of them as murder victims. Killed by the depraved indifference and greed that shoved metastatic cancer into the dark, out of sight, forgotten. To coldly ignore the fact that metastatic de novo has been rising in women in the 20-39 age bracket since the 1970s, to focus only on post-menopausal women, when one most definitely is aware of and has access to that information – that IS depraved indifference. To say to them that they’re being selfish for fighting for treatments to keep them here for their young children longer, to detect it, to prevent it from happening to younger women while claiming to want to protect their own daughters, that is depraved indifference. That’s why I say that.

    I hate ‘got their wings’, ‘lost their battle’, etc. Loaded language that implies a specific faith, or suggests that the person ever had a chance of living at all. We don’t. The ‘battle’ is already pre-determined the instant a doctor says ‘metastatic’ or ‘stage IV’. All the best we can hope for is to fight against society’s own indifference and make enough noise that our own deaths becomes the pink ribbon’s own Battle of Thermopylae. That people will lose their taste for looking away and saying painting the town pink is enough to save lives.

    We deserve more than trite catchphrases that were old, worn, and tattered within the first twenty-four hours of their original birth. But we’re just the losers. Not the survivors. So we get the scraps and pink rose arrangements, and the ones who “beat it” say “there but for the Grace of God go I” and go back to pushing mammograms and post-menopausal warnings and cancer-free mythology.

    1. Susanne, Gosh, I really don’t quite know how to respond to your comment, you covered a lot of ground. Thank you for mentioning how the angel phrase might seem inappropriate just due to the religious angle. I hadn’t even thought about that part really. Good points there. Mostly, I just find the phrase trite, but as I said, some people are fine with it. I do not like the “at least they’re in a better place phrase” either. I’ve written about “at least” statements, too. I’ll stick the link in here just in case you come back. I sense a lot of anger in your words, understandably, however, I don’t feel the focus is only on post-menopausal women and I don’t agree that in general, people are calling young women “selfish for fighting for treatments to keep them here for their young children.” I agree pink ribbon culture has failed the metastatic community miserably, but to use blanket statements generalizing all early stagers isn’t fair. Many of us early stagers are not indifferent at all. Rather we care deeply and advocate as best we can. We don’t need more walls in CancerLand. But your absolutely correct, you deserve more. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

    2. As an agnostic, I very much agree with Susanne´s comments. It is quite presumptuous to assume a cancer patient who has died believed in heaven.
      We need to honor people with any/all or no religious beliefs.

  2. When my father died, a woman at the hospital said, “God took him because he needed another angel.” I said, “I don’t believe that!” I think those types of sayings are ridiculous and not the least bit comforting.

    1. Eileen, Good for you for saying that to the woman. Some find the phrase (and other similar ones) comforting, but I sure don’t. Seems you and I are on the same page once again. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I think this is one of those “to each his own” areas. As another premenopausal woman with stage IV BC, I have to say “earned her wings” really doesn’t bother me at all.

    Death is hard stuff and if pretty phrases help others deal with my eventual death, I’m ok with that. But, I’m also ok with “lost her battle” mostly because it feels pretty accurate to me, I am battling and I know someday unless something drastic changes in the metastatic beast cancer landscape, I’m not likely to win this one.

    Honestly, there’s just so much to deal with emotionally and physically with a stage iv diagnosis and it keeps on coming with every new treatment, every scan, every setback, I can understand why some people might not care for the phrases, but for me myself I just can’t get too worked up about how other people try and talk about these difficult things. But again, that’s just my own take, your mileage will vary.

    1. Kathryn, Thank you for sharing your take on this. Cancer language isn’t the most important thing in Cancer Land, that’s for sure, but still it matters. And “death” language sure could use some tweaking. Maybe if people started using the “d” words, death wouldn’t become such a taboo topic which would help everyone in the long run.

  4. The only time I have heard “earned her wings” was in the movies. Here people usually say “passed away, died, or (eg.) lost their spouce, whatever words are used the result is still the same, to me the words don’t really matter. A common phrase when speaking to the family members usually is “I’m sorry for your loss.”

    1. In the Bible angels are unique beings as opposed to deceased people who have become angels. Deceased beings do not according to the Christian faith become angels.

  5. It annoys the hell out if me, being an atheist, but everyone has their own beliefs, so I left it pass. Life’s too short to be bothered in my book. I’m a 1 year survivor. I do hate the pink and how metastatic is in the background and I do what I can to help. I fear I will die of metastases one day, but until then I’m going to live life to the full.

    1. Amanda, I agree everyone has their own beliefs and everyone certainly can say whatever they want. I’m merely sharing how hearing the phrase makes me feel. Feels a bit too fluffy to my liking and I agree, it’s not a huge deal in the scheme of things, but still…words matter. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Marie, Glad to hear I’m not the only one wincing upon hearing it. I think you’re right about people trying to gloss over or not face up to the reality of death. Thank you for reading and commenting, Marie.

  6. This is an excellent post about a topic I’ve often thought about. I’ve never used that phrase and it bothers me for several reasons. It reminds me of Catholic school and all the BS I went through. I am not judging the religion, everyone is entitled to believe what they want, but the idea of “being punished” for anything and suddenly becoming an angel because I died, always bothered me. Death is terrible for me and I haven’t been able to accept it as something “natural’ (and I really want to). I think because I’ve lost quite a few young people in my family, it never felt right. In Spanish, I’ve always used the word “death”, nothing else. I think in my culture people say “she or he has finally rested” or “stopped suffering”, which doesn’t bother me as much but it still makes me feel uncomfortable. Because to me, being dead is the worst state you can be (and maybe it isn’t). Have I thought of the possibility of there being another life? Yes. And not necessarily a “life” but a form of energy. And this is mostly due to my desire of seeing my grandma again. Anyway, not to change the subject, I think everyone feels uncomfortable with death and most people desperately want to comfort. The one phrase that really bothers me is “she/he is in a better place now”. I. Can’t. Deal. When I think of myself, I want to be with my loved ones and not buried 6 feet under. I can keep going with this topic. You made me think of another saying and one I might write about soon. When people say “the great ones die young” or “good ones die first” — something like that. I guess I still got a lot to learn.

    I must confess: I like the rainbow bridge phrase and have read the story to try to calm myself down when I am missing a dear pet I’ve lost. And I love the idea of it being real.

    Thank you for another thought-provoking post, Nancy. It made me reflect about things I’ve said too. xoxo

    1. Rebecca, Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. Death is a complicated topic, that’s for sure. With your experiences, it’s understandable you have lots of discomfort with many of the phrases casually tossed around. I do too. And yes, the great ones die young, hadn’t really thought about that one. Hmm…Another one that irks me a lot is, everything happens for a reason. That’s the topic of my next post, actually. I think we all still have much to learn about death and life, too. Thank you for reading and sharing your insights. xo

  7. I find it coy, infantile and patronising; presumes we all believe in God. But people say things like this because death is so hard to deal with; I can’t bring myself to get angry about it.

  8. Sometimes people just don’t know what to say when somebody has lost a loved one. I’ve never had anyone say this to me but I guess I’d have to give them a pass and appreciate the fact that they were trying to comfort me in terms they were comfortable with. When I was young and untried by life’s challenges I think it would have bothered me more.

    1. Lennox, You’re right, of course. Often people do mean well and don’t know what to say. It’s up to each of us to decide if we want to give out that free pass or not though. Every person, every situation differs, but bottom line is, if something really bothers you, you have the right to speak up and say so. Thank you for sharing.

  9. As an atheist I felt I really cannot weigh in on this, because yes, this phrase annoys me. But reading thru comments a couple thoughts come to mind.
    It is the assumption that really gets me. I remember early on a nurse urged me to give over to God (or something) and then asked me about my husband and kids. So there I was a white woman in her 30s and she made all these assumptions about me and I was so shocked I couldn’t respond. The stupidest aspect was that this took place where I was treated–Rehoboth Beach, DE–known for a large LGBT community. I mean, I’m not LGBT, but all I could think was, hmmm the local LGBT community group’s sensitivity training didn’t reach her.
    As for this need to find euphemisms for death/die/dead etc. I’ve been very clear on that, as you know. I think I will repost my D-Word thing on my blog. I am so tired of niceties. Society cannot pussy-foot around this. Cancer can and often leads to death. Couching it in softer language does not change that. Be HONEST. Sorry if I come off harsh, but life, cancer, and death are harsh. What did you expect? My favorite cancer lesson is that patience is overrated. Well, I have no patience for not facing the cold hard reality that cancer can and will lead to death. How can we move forward and progress without that honesty?

    1. CC, Cancer is harsh. And you know how I feel about glossing over the reality of it. Those assumptions made about you were really inappropriate, and they were made by a nurse, no less. Geez. Society needs to get over its fear of using the “d” words. Trying to soften things up with niceties, as you called them, seems ridiculous this day in age. And yes, patience…I hear you. Actually, I still think I am a pretty patient person. Relatively speaking anyway. Must be a teacher thing. ha. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Let’s not forget that it’s actually inaccurate to say someone became an angel when they die. Humans and angels are two separate things. According to the bible, humans become greater than angels. They don’t sprout wings and shed their clothes. K bye…

  11. Hi Nancy,

    Excellent post, and Nunyo is right about the inaccuracy, although I’m far from a religious scholar. The phrase “got her wings” — it is never a male who gets his wings — is, in my opinion, a phrase stemming from denial and designed to pretty-up death. I do understand that, for some, saying this phrase is comforting, especially if they are spiritual. I guess to each his/her own. It’s not a phrase that I would ever use.

    1. Beth, I agree, to each her/his own. The phrase just irks me and I was wondering if it was just me…Thank you for sharing your thoughts about it.

  12. I hate hearing that someone “got their wings” or “became an angel” but usually you hear these phrases as people are grieving and so we do need to talk about it more, at different and easier times! Yes there’s that assumption that we all believe in heavenly places too. I also cringe when I hear “she lost her husband” ……. really? Like you’re suddenly going to find him? Help!

    1. Allison, The phrase irks me too. And yes, saying someone lost her husband or other loved one, is better, but still somewhat lacking. I think like you and wonder – oh can she just go find them again like a misplaced set of keys?

  13. I agree on “lost her battle.” Our nine year old daughter took her last breath on this earth in May 2018 after a two year battle with cancer. But her bravery, her lust for life—her holding her eye open with one hand so she could draw with the other ten days before she passed—- none of that seemed to describe someone who lost. And at the celebration of her life, I said celebrations are for the victors, and nobody has having a celebration for Rhabdomyosarcoma tonight. None of us know when we will take our last breaths, but what is important is how we live when we do. If I die of a heart attack tomorrow, people won’t say I lost my brief battle with a heart attack. Harmony, our daughter, said “this isn’t real” three days before her last breath. She was lucid, not heavily medicated, no tumor mass in her brain. We were all there as her oxygen level plummeted, and poured our love out to her, but she showed no signs of fear. Wings or whatever, religions are trying to understand the same thing quantum physics and astrophysics are trying to figure out, the ineffable experience that Harmony and others see but can not describe as they walk from here to wherever. I’ve never been a believer or much of a seeker of any sort, but watching my daughter’s experience with “dying” has awakened a curiosity in me. One day I’ll know what she has come to know, and I suspect it’ll feel like returning to a universal consciousness that I’ve forgotten while looking through my own eyes. That’s what the sum of my experiences has made me feel intuitively.

    1. I’m agnostic athiest, so I don’t like the phrase because it refers to Christianity, and most people who get breast cancer in the world aren’t Christians.
      I do use the phrase “passed” and “passed away”, because I, like many people, don’t like to say someone died. It does sound a little cold. But if someone uses a religious platitude, I will say something along the lines of “sorry to hear about their death”.

  14. It has been mentioned multiple times already, so I won’t “beat a dead horse” stating what’s been said. As with others, it does imply a religious connotation for me. I’m not religious, atheist, or agnostic ~ if that’s understandable. However, I do try to be very conscious of any religious implications when responding on social media. Some are even annoyed by the emoji – which can be interpreted as high five, or praying hands.

    I never say someone “gained their wings,” but it doesn’t annoy, insult, or cause me discomfort when someone else uses those words.

    To be honest, I’m more annoyed by overly (& constantly) annoyed, hypersensitive people than I am by comments that I don’t agree wIth 100%. Those people lurk on social media, almost as if engaging in conflict provides them pure pleasure. They tend to pick apart & twist peoples words, regardless of how innocent they are.

    I’m completely ok with saying someone died, or passed away. In fact, it’s one stipulation I have in my “end of life” wishes. Just say I died, or if that causes you too much discomfort, say I passed away. Because, in the end, we all die.

  15. I agree, My son died, and I hate all euphemisms for ‘he died,’ though some are worse than others. As a Christian, I especially dislike ‘got his wings’ because nowhere does the Bible teach that we turn into angels when we die. I hate ‘lost,’ because I know exactly where my son is, and I don’t need to find him. I dislike ‘passed,’ or ‘passed away,’ because they mean what? Just say ‘he died,’ it is exactly what happened.

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