Words are used everyday as a form of communication. I’m using a bunch right now. Many words are simple, garden variety words, others are vividly descriptive, some are poetic, some are vague while others are very specific. We use most of them without real thought, but there are some words that are loaded with a hell of a punch. Some words are so emotionally charged that even by themselves they invoke anxiety, fear or grief such as: Alzheimer’s, stroke, cancer or suicide. The reason is because all of them (at least the four I just listed) denote a loss of life or function.
I know the effect of those words because over the past four or five years I have seen all of them in action up close and personal. Last week my dad (who has Alzheimer’s) was admitted to the hospital for a mild stroke. That was scary enough, but during the course of a routine echocardiogram his heart “paused” for over 6 seconds—or 6 to 8 heartbeats. That’s what the doctor called it. A pause. Make no mistake, in my book my father’s heart was not beating for nearly 7 seconds. An acceptable “pause” of the heart is 1.5 seconds. One nurse said, “Wow, I bet that was a bit unsettling for the technician running the test.”
My father is fine. In fact, he’s out of the hospital. There doesn’t seem to be any real residual effects from the stroke and he now has a pacemaker to regulate the “pauses” of his heart. Pauses. I keep going back to that innocuous word. I think that word is used—because of it’s innocuousness—to minimize the emotional impact. People don’t like hearing that a loved one’s heart stopped beating. A beating heart equals life. One that isn’t pumping is equated with death. But the word “pause” has the connotation that the heart is going to resume beating, that it’s just taking a little break. Oh, the beauty of euphemisms (Ahhh, a possible subject for a future post).
Cancer. Now there’s a frightening word. I heard that word over the phone one evening about 20 years ago. My dad called to tell us that they thought Mom had lung cancer. Those words were a bit of gut punch both for him and me. He had to hang up to compose himself (so did I) before calling back. Thankfully, it turned out that the initial diagnosis was not entirely correct and my mother lived a normal and vibrant life for nearly two more decades despite the fact that a form of breast cancer had stubbornly moved in like a squatter. Eventually my mother passed away from complications connected with her cancer, but it was a gentle and dignified death in her own home (hospice is a good thing). I miss her, but I am also thankful for all the time we had with her.
Because of huge advances and major strides in the detection and treatment of cancer, the power of that word has diminished. Fifty years or more ago a cancer diagnosis was a death sentence. I don’t mean to marginalize the disease or the effect it has on so many, but today millions live with many forms of cancer controlled with medicine, while many more enjoy a full remission. Thankfully, the word no longer has as much of that knee-buckling, breath-robbing effect that it used to. Maybe some day the word “cancer” will go the way of the word “polio” into the pasture of eradicated illnesses.
Suicide is a dark debilitating word. Back in 2008 I was slapped in the face with that word when I learned that my wife’s brother had taken his own life. There is no preparing yourself for that word, no getting used to it, there is no period for letting it sink in. Greg was there and then he wasn’t. And it seemed so avoidable to everyone except for him. It took several years to deal with that loss and the mess left behind and indeed I (and all that knew him) will be forever touched by that uncomfortable word. Uncomfortable as that word is I talk about it because that is how I deal with it. In the course of talking about it I also hope that others become more aware.
Words express our thoughts and have the power to move us, entertain us, terrorize us, delight us. Words have power. Words have emotion. Words are essential.
Question: What do you think is the most emotionally charged word?