“Sticks and Stones…” — Words CAN Hurt

“They’re having a cardiac arrest over at XYZ Honda this week, the prices have been cut so low..…”

“If you kids keep this up, you’re going to give me a heart attack.”

“That actress is drop-dead gorgeous.”

After my husband died suddenly of a heart attack (actually, a heart attack followed by cardiac arrest), I was never again able to watch one of my favorite shows at the time, “ER.” That’s because nearly every episode included a dramatic scene in which doctors attempted to restart a patient’s heart with a defibrillator: a machine that delivers an electric shock to a heart that’s stopped in an effort to make it go again.

What I’d once considered riveting drama now triggered traumatic flashbacks to the scene of my husband’s death; of standing by helplessly while paramedics tried just as urgently to restart his failed heart.

Once you’ve played this scene in real life, it somehow loses its entertainment value.

Although I couldn’t watch hospital dramas anymore, at least in dramatic programs or films, such scenes are handled realistically and with sensitivity.

What truly disturbed me for a long time was how cavalierly – at least that’s how it felt from my altered perspective – people used expressions like the ones I quoted above right in front of me. I’m talking about people who knew that my husband had died and how he’d died.

It also seemed that, every time I flipped on the TV, watched a movie or listened to the radio, I was assaulted by these same painful uses of the language. Even worse, I was astonished that cartoons and comedies so often depicted, in a humorous way, characters having their hearts “shocked.” Sometimes they’d come back, sometimes they didn’t. How funny!

Ten years have passed since my husband’s death and, while I’m no longer hypersensitive to these things, I do wonder about them. How did words that describe a manner of death and efforts to prevent it acquire additional meanings and uses that are merely viewed as colorful or funny?

And honestly, I still fail to see what’s so comical about desperate efforts to save a dying person (or animal or cartoon character).

I’ve also wondered why this only seems to be done with heart-related causes of death.

I mean, have you ever heard anyone say, “I’m going to die of cancer if you do that to me again”? Of course not. Besides sounding ridiculous, I think that such language would be considered incredibly tasteless and – unfunny; after all, we’ve all had a friend or family member who’s died of cancer.

So why is it OK with heart disease?