One day you will sit at the bedside of someone you love and have a final conversation. That conversation will invite you into a unique territory — the one that exists between living and dying. You may hear words expressing a desire for forgiveness, reconciliation, or the fulfillment of last requests. You may hear phrases that confuse you, like “The circles say it’s time to complete the cycle.”
There may be references to things you do not see or understand, such as “The white butterflies are coming out of your mouth. They are beautiful.” Or “If you have passed the quiz. You have passed the quiz, haven’t you?”
Your beloved may describe being visited by deceased family members, angels, or animals or speak of viewing lush landscapes, where in reality there are only white hospital walls. Trains, boats, or buses and tales of new travels may appear in the speech of the person who is dying.
Your family member or friend may also speak of being afraid and seek your comfort as well as your guidance: “I am stuck here between two countries. I am here but I want to be there.”
Your beloved may whisper in your ear, “Help me,” or, “I am daring to die.”
And as you listen closely, it may be a conversation that changes not only how you think about dying but also how you think about living.
Over a period of four years, I collected accounts and transcripts from health-care providers, friends, and family members of the dying who generously shared what they had witnessed. Through the Final Words Project, its website, Facebook, and email, I gathered data across the United States and Canada while also conducting interviews in person and by phone. I gathered over fifteen hundred English utterances, which ranged from single words to complete sentences, from those who were a few hours to a few weeks from dying.
While I considered the use of digital recorders at the bedsides of the dying to capture final utterances, the sacred and private nature of those last days made this both ethically and logistically untenable. So, I decided to turn to those who had been at the bedside — loved ones and health-care providers — and ask them to share transcriptions, interviews, and recollections.
I also interviewed professionals in the fields of linguistics, psychology, palliative medicine, and neuroscience to gain greater insight into terminal illness and cognitive and psychological processes. Participants included the dying individuals I heard or observed directly, family members and friends who shared transcriptions and accounts, and experts in the field who shared their observations.
I organized the language samples and accounts by linguistic features and themes. Many of the patterns that emerged were present also in the observations of health-care professionals and experts I interviewed. As I learned of these patterns, I shared them with families, friends, and hospice personnel with the aim of offering tools and insight that could guide their communications with the dying. I am not a medical expert — my training is in linguistics — so I approach the study of death and dying through the lens of language.
This inquiry was inspired by what I heard and saw in the three weeks my father spent dying from complications related to radiation therapy for prostate cancer. As I sat with him, it was as if a portal had opened — and I discovered a new language, one rich with metaphor and nonsense that spilled from my father’s lips. As I transcribed his words from between the worlds, I witnessed a remarkable transformation.
My father was a cigar-chomping New Yorker whose definition of the Divine was corned beef on rye with slaw on the side and a cold glass of cream soda. He placed his faith in Lucky Sam in the fifth race and in his beloved wife of fifty-four years, Susan. “This is it,” my dad would say when asked about his spiritual life. “Good food, love, and the ponies.” My father savored life’s pleasures and was both a skeptic and a rationalist. “We are all headed for the same afterlife, six feet under.”
So when he started talking about seeing and hearing angels in his last weeks of life, I was stunned. How was it that my father, a skeptic, would accurately predict the timing of his own death with these words: “Enough...enough...the angels say enough... only three days left...”?
From the moment he left the hospital after deciding to come home to die, I was struck by his language. Compelled by my linguistics training, I grabbed pencil and paper and tracked his final utterances as if I were a visitor in a foreign country. For indeed, I was.
This inquiry began with my father’s language and, within four years, became a collection of hundreds of utterances analyzed for their linguistic patterns and themes. The words I collected were much like my father’s: sometimes confusing, often metaphoric, frequently nonsensical, and always intriguing. I have come to understand that the language patterns and themes that at first stunned me in my father’s speech are actually common in the speech of others as they approach the end of life.
After my father passed away, I had a notebook filled with utterances that captivated and confused me. My father spoke of travels to Las Vegas, of the green dimension, of his room crowded with people unseen to me. He used repetition frequently, as well as non-referential pronouns such as the ones in these sentences: “This is very interesting. You know, I’ve never done this before.”
On my notebook pages were metaphors and nonsense, remarks so different from the lucid language that was typical of my father when he was healthy. As I looked through the pages, I noticed how the phrases reflected a full continuum from literal to figurative to nonsensical language — and I wondered if this continuum was common to us all and in any way tracked the path of consciousness as we die.
In the days and weeks when I was grieving, I read every book I could find about communication at the end of life and after life. Little has been written about the qualities of and change in the structure of end-of-life language, though I did find a wonderful book, Final Gifts, by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley.
If you are facing the death of a beloved right now, I invite you to write down the words you hear — even those that seem to make no sense — without editing, fearing, or judging them. As you transcribe the words, you may discover that the very changes you hear in your beloved’s language, which may seem scary and confusing, may ultimately bring you comfort and meaning.
Jewels often emerge as we listen closely and write down final words, and the transcription process can help us feel more connected to our loved ones and even closer to Source. Many times the dying say things that don’t make sense at the moment. But months or years later, you will find hints of prophecy or answers to questions in those words.
Here are some suggestions for you to use as you courageously and compassionately witness final words.
Your listening to and honoring final words will make the dying process easier for your beloved. At the same time, transcribing the words can be healing for you as you move through the loss of someone you love. Make a journal out of the words you’re writing down. Remember that the words that don’t make sense are as important as the ones that do.
Notice metaphors or symbols that are repeated, and paradoxical phrases. Are there certain colors or shapes that are repeated? Are there references to people or places you do not see? Meanings may not be clear at first, but when you write down the words you have heard, you may find comforting or healing associations.
What might seem senseless to a stranger may hold deep personal meaning to you. In your final-words journal, write down the words you hear, and allow yourself to free-associate. Imagine the words are those of an oracle, or the wisdom of dreams, and let them evoke images and reflections in you. You may be surprised and moved by what emerges.
©2017 by Lisa Smartt. Used with permission of
New World Library, Novato, CA.
Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We're Nearing Death
by Lisa Smartt.
Lisa Smartt, MA, is a linguist, educator, and poet. She is the author of Words at the Threshold: What We Say When We’re Nearing Death (New World Library 2017). The book is based on data collected through The Final Words Project, an ongoing study devoted to gathering and interpreting the mysterious language at end of life. She has worked closely with Raymond Moody, guided by his research into language, particularly unintelligible speech. They have co-facilitated presentations about language and consciousness at universities, hospices and conferences.