Special to Montclair Local

Recently, my granddaughter learned that there are different words to describe death. “He passed, Grandma,” said the kindergartner, staring at photos of her 80-year-old great-uncle. “You say ‘passed.’”

I stand corrected, but using the word “passed” connotes a peacefulness as one transitions into another state of being. Comforting to some, I suspect it’s just a word cooked up by a public relations expert to soften the blow. And the fear.

People pass me all the time in a hallway or in their car. The Oxford English Dictionary defines pass as moving or going onward, past, through or across. Soccer players pass the ball. Somebody could make a pass at you. You can pass a final exam.

I think our culture is trying to make death less frightening by using words that mask reality. We don’t want to witness, as we do more often now, the beating death of an amateur photographer/skateboarder at the hands of our local men in blue. He didn’t pass into death; he was pummeled. 

Three Michigan State University college students, a boy and two girls, died recently at the hands of a gunman while they were learning about trade routes of the Spanish empire.

Our institutions are all wrestling with ways to deal with death threats. A niece who’s teaching first grade in Florida refuses to carry a gun while authorities wrap her school in high fencing, like a prison. She must keep her early readers “quiet” as they practice for active shooters. 

Ballroom dancers in California, I hear, are hanging up their shoes, forgoing dips and twirls for now. The very freedom to worship, a civil right and liberty, is eluding us; can we still enter a local temple or church without fear of firebombing?

Even nonbelievers must consider strategies to survive daily chores; just how quickly can we scramble through our local grocery store to avoid the guy in aisle 9 with his AR-15?

Will you be mulling over what cut of beef you’re choosing for dinner? If you’re standing in the checkout line, will you abandon your items to dodge bullets? Will you choose to throw your body over a more vulnerable child or adult to shield them? If you’re close to the butcher area, you could scramble into a freezer to hide. At least in the butcher section, you’d have access to cleavers to, potentially, defend yourself. I doubt the cleavers have any advantage over semi-automatic weapons, though.

Maybe you’re already armed, having tucked a pistol into your reusable grocery bag, and will save the day. Or perhaps you’ve begun wearing body armor under your winter coat? As for me, I only have my cane to whack someone; they haven’t come up with a James Bond designer cane to shoot paralyzing darts at an aggressor.

For now, I’d suggest averting your eyes from one-to-one human contact.

But that flies in the face of my religious tradition. This week we sang songs about being the light of the earth. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna make it shine…” is a popular refrain. We are told to use our talents to help make the earth a better place to live. Reach out; feed the hungry, clothe the homeless, counsel the downtrodden.

Greet the stranger.

If I’m depressed, I’m often cheered by the smile or twinkling eyes of another human being. Community. Face time. It’s what we missed during the pandemic.

Perhaps easy access to automatic weapons – instead of a deadly virus – is forcing us back into lockdown.

I don’t know.

I think I need more warning signs posted for danger zones. We know it’s more hazardous in the Ukraine, where there’s a real war going on to defeat Vladimir Putin.

But since a 6-year-old recently shot his teacher in school, I’m starting to wonder if we can ever dream of safe streets, stores, schools, restaurants and theaters.

What will I say to the next invite to go out on the town?

I might just have to pass.

Diane T. Masucci is a writer in Montclair.