Winning the battle in the universal language of dying

Reframing the language of death will better enable people to deal with the emotional loss of a loved one, writes author.

    "Just this past summer in the Daily Mail,  the obituary for best-selling Scottish author Iain Banks read that he had "lost his battle" with gall bladder cancer." [AP]
    "Just this past summer in the Daily Mail, the obituary for best-selling Scottish author Iain Banks read that he had "lost his battle" with gall bladder cancer." [AP]

    Athletic events are not battles, no more than lives are. But it seems we cannot escape the language of war when it comes to speaking and writing about either subject. The football team battles for a touchdown. The patient wins-- or loses-- the war on disease.

    And in the cases of notable sports figures who die—such as boxing legend Ken Norton just last week—the war metaphors are inescapable and amplified.

    On the online obituary site, individuals who have succumbed to long illnesses are listed like dead soldiers-- casualties of some engagement in a lopsided war.  Such language has spread globally beyond American media and dialogue as well- and into cultures I had always assumed were more comfortable than death than were we.

    Just this past summer in the Daily Mail,  the obituary for best-selling Scottish author Iain Banks read that he had "lost his battle" with gall bladder cancer. That battle was against an aggressive foe-- and lasted only two months.

    The International Business Times reported this past week that  Paul Karason "who gained wide popularity across the globe for his blue coloured skin, died after battling various health complications, at a Washington Hospital."

    And closer to home, the Toronto Sun wrote that arguably the world's greatest poet of recent times, Seamus Heaney, died not in a war against cancer- but in one against "ill health." I would argue that the Irish wordsmith- who left a gift of such memorable language to us all- would have easily executed an obituary with less emphasis on the trite.  

    The tired expressions of these public eulogies make me frustrated and eager to launch a new conversation about life as winning, and to escape from this historic view of loved ones who have passed as wounded warriors.

    I heard this militaristic script just weeks ago in Chicago; another well-known life was lost after a long illness, and seemingly an entire city mourned. This time the sad news was that of Don Wade, a Chicago broadcaster who spent three decades waking us all with thoughtful and thought-provoking morning radio. I could change the channel, but I couldn't change the message: "Don had lost his battle with brain cancer."

    The ever-authoritative anchor voiceover made me cringe, and in the widening hours of local television news-- I heard it every hour, on the hour-- in some cases as early as 4:00 am, all the way through 9:00 am. So many times, and in so many words, we all knew. "Don just couldn't beat it."

    In an unpredictable media landscape, an audience can depend on this cliché. Journalists transform terminal patients into losers, disease into winners.

    If Don's diagnosis of advanced brain cancer was a "fight," it wasn't fair. If it were a "war," it was one that was never winnable. The militaristic language of serious illness in the media misleads us all, and has pervaded common conversations--  to the detriment of the legacy left by the dead.

    And for the survivors? We're on the defensive.

    I lost my own husband, a broadcaster too, in January of 2010; but Carlos didn't lose a thing. It is my belief that he gained peace, his own salvation, and the love of his family and countless friends still remains.

    Carlos had stage four colon cancer; his fate was determined by the nature of his disease, not by what he or his doctors had done or what they had failed to do. I think he faced his cancer with qualities, that I understand he shared with Don--- grace, humour and self-reflection. Carlos was no warrior; and for that I am grateful. He was sometimes an excellent patient, and sometimes- a larger than life pain. Looking back, I am thankful for those two traits.

    The most serious of illnesses are beyond any of our control, so it is time to give up this war we all seem to be waging. Some cancers are curable, others are not. The battle lines are clearly defined, often before initial treatment.

    In discussing her newly released book about the widespread use of medical technology to prolong unnecessary suffering at the end of life, Knocking on Heaven's Door, journalist Katy Butler said something that struck me. In her comment she confirmed her status as an ally in our mission to combat our own corps-- the press. This battle is a civil one, in more ways than one.

    "I feel like I'm groping in the dark trying to find a new language- it's really not easy," Butler said. "We have a war of metaphors in our culture now."

    So far, the opposition has the advantage.

    Though I have been a working journalist in Chicago for almost a decade, I didn't know Don Wade. I do know, however, all too well, the widows' wince at the suggestion that their men "lost." But this suggestion isn't for his wife, Roma, either. The implications are larger than just them, or just me.

    Death is inevitable, and many of us are going to face it in record numbers soon. The demographic phenomenon has been called the "silver tsunami," as a Baby Boomer is said to be turning 65 every eight seconds in the US Additionally, the US Census reports that the fastest growing segment of the population over 60 is also over 80.

    It clearly is time to think about how we do our own dying. Is it a battle? For some of us, maybe. It could be something to fend off at all costs. For most of us though, I don't believe we want to go out fighting.So let's stop saying we do.

    To be sure, such language may invigorate and energise the most masculine of men and feisty female patients. If you think "battle" as you face advanced cancer or some other debilitating and ultimately, terminal, diagnosis, it is most certainly your prerogative.

    It is my hope, for my sake and for that of my family, that we face this certainty with clarity should a terminal diagnosis strike. Accepting our own mortality is a first step, and identifying our own values, beliefs and wishes a step further.

    Communicating those preferences with our families, decision makers and medical team is the ideal. Advance planning in this age of ever increasing medical technology and end of life options has never been of more paramount importance, and outlining these preferences is what I consider a true victory.

    I don't want to go out fighting; because I know if the framework is cast as the common one, that I will eventually lose. As a journalist who covers death all too often, I vow to not victimise your loved ones as those who have "lost." I hope at the end of life, they win by gaining all they ever wanted.

    Randi Belisomo is a reporter with WGN-TV in Chicago and a co-founder of She  is a board member of the Chicago End of Life Care Coalition, a member of the Illinois Task Force for the Physicians Order for Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST) and a hospice volunteer



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