Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We're Nearing Death

Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We're Nearing Death


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What Our Last Words Reveal About Life, Death, and the Afterlife

A person’s end-of-life words often take on an eerie significance, giving tantalizing clues about the ultimate fate of the human soul. Until now, however, no author has systematically studied end-of-life communication by using examples from ordinary people. When her father became terminally ill with cancer, author Lisa Smartt began transcribing his conversations and noticed that his personality underwent inexplicable changes. Smartt’s father, once a skeptical man with a secular worldview, developed a deeply spiritual outlook in his final days — a change reflected in his language. Baffled and intrigued, Smartt began to investigate what other people have said while nearing death, collecting more than one hundred case studies through interviews and transcripts. In this groundbreaking and insightful book, Smartt shows how the language of the dying can point the way to a transcendent world beyond our own.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608684601
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 03/17/2017
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 766,466
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Lisa Smartt, MA, is a linguist, educator, and poet. She founded the Final Words Project, an ongoing study devoted to collecting and interpreting the mysterious language at the end of lives. She lives in Athens, Georgia.

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Words at the Threshold

What We Say As We're Nearing Death

By Lisa Smartt

New World Library

Copyright © 2017 Lisa Smartt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60868-461-8


Transcribing the Mystery

Following the Sacred Path of Final Words

There is so much so in sorrow.

— My father's final words

Imagine you have reached the end of your life. Your beloveds stand at your bedside. You look into their eyes and prepare to speak. It is a moment to heal wounds, express love unsaid, and share your view from the threshold. It is a sacred time, when all of life is concentrated into those final breath-filled syllables.

What do you see?

What do you feel?

What are your final words?

Very little has been written about final words other than what is found in anthologies and websites that quote the clever exit lines of the famous. They include accounts of conversations like that of comedian Bob Hope with his wife, who, alarmed by her husband's rapid decline, told him: "Bob, we never made arrangements for your burial. Where do you want to be buried, honey? We have to figure this out. Where do you want to be buried?"

His response, typical of his dry wit: "Surprise me!"

As is often the case with last words, Hope's were true to character.

The awe-filled exclamation of Apple's Steve Jobs — "Oh, wow! Oh, wow! Oh, wow!" — is an example of the intensified language we hear at the threshold and is true to the personality of the inspired innovator. Another well-known pioneer, Thomas Edison, emerged from a coma as he was dying, opened his eyes, looked upward, and said, "It is very beautiful over there." As you will see, his words were representative of those of others who have stared out from the threshold. Many other final words have been chronicled, from Karl Marx's "Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven't said enough!" to Emily Dickinson's "I must go in, for the fog is rising."

Chaz Ebert, wife of celebrity critic Roger Ebert, shared a detailed account of her husband's last words, in Esquire in 2013:

That week before Roger passed away, I would see him and he would talk about having visited this other place. I thought he was hallucinating. I thought they were giving him too much medication. But the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note: "This is all an elaborate hoax." I asked him, "What's a hoax?" And he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion. I thought he was just confused. But he was not confused. He wasn't visiting heaven, not the way we think of heaven. He described it as a vastness that you can't even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once.

These remarkable words were read with fascination by people throughout the country — and have the authentic complexity of the words I have heard at the bedsides of those I have researched. However, the authenticity of less contemporaneous reports of the last words of famous figures is at times questionable. Ray Robinson, who compiled Famous Last Words, Fond Farewells,Deathbed Diatribes, and Exclamations upon Expiration, notes in the introduction to his book: "I've come to appreciate the difficulty of authenticating so-called exit lines, since witnesses are often too distraught or confused to remember things accurately, or simply choose to edit or improve the remarks for the sake of posterity."

However, for the rest of us who are not celebrities, our last words go unedited and unrecorded in time. And yet all of us are given a platform before dying. Every day, compelling last words are spoken — and they are rarely as simple or clever as what we might find between the covers of books and magazines. Many final words are less literal, less intelligible, and more enigmatic — and their complexity makes them even more remarkable.

Sanctified Language at the End of Life

Our final words deeply reflect who we are and what most matters to us. It is as if the lens of our Creator is magnified and all that we are is in close view. As I discuss in later chapters, even those who have been in a coma and those who have not communicated in years may speak just before they die, to advise, forgive, love, or even to leave friends and family with mysterious phrases, such as "It's not that," "The pronoun is all wrong," "I left the money in the third drawer down," or a simple "Thank you. I love you."

Buddhists believe that reflecting upon what might be our last words can deepen our acceptance of life's impermanence and remind us to savor the present moment. In Buddhist and Hindu belief systems it has been a tradition for the dying to offer parting words of wisdom. Some Buddhist monks have even composed poems in their final moments. Those who are dying are often perceived as having access to truths and revelations not available to those who are living. In anthologies of days gone by, deathbed conversions were documented, and final words acted as testaments to an almighty God and the existence of angels. End-of-life confessionsoffered people a chance to repent sins and beg forgiveness. Final words are still considered a golden seal upon our lives, like a stamp that sums up all our deeds and days and lets those around us know what we believe in and what really matters.

Those who are on their deathbeds seem to have a kind of privileged connection to God, or Source, or all of creation. Some might ask, "Why do we assume final words to be somehow closer to God's truth?" And that is a good question. A large amount of literature answers this in spiritual terms: when we approach death, we are returning to Source, and our thoughts and words are therefore elevated because of this shift in dimension. The findings of the Final Words Project suggest that this may, indeed, be true.

Among those I interviewed for the book is the Reverend Cari Rush Willis, a chaplain who works on death row and in a hospice. She shared her perspective about the enigmatic words we hear from the dying: "People at the end of their lives have one foot in heaven and one foot on earth." She shared an example of a care-home director who asked for her help because one of the Alzheimer's patients kept requesting assistance in finding his passport. Willis explained to the director that the patient did not have a physical problem that needed to be solved but a spiritual one that needed to be heard. She repeated to me her conversation with the dying man:

"You lost your passport. That sounds very upsetting."

"Yes, yes, it is. I cannot go where I need to."

"Oh, wow. You cannot go. You are stuck."

"Yes, I am stuck here between two countries. I am here but I want to be there."

"Oh, you want to be there."

"Yes, I so long to be there."

"Yes, yes, you so long to be there."

He calmed down considerably and said, "Yes, I long to be there."

In the accounts of the dying, many "long to be there," and the journey of "arriving peacefully" is revealed in remarkable language, which we will see in the chapters ahead.

Asking the Big Questions

I asked clergy and hospice workers to tell me the most commonly asked questions at the end of life. All of them said the one they hear most often is "What if there really is no heaven or God?" Here are some of the others they said they commonly hear:

What's going to happen to me in the days ahead?

What's going to happen after I die?

Is there really a God?

Will I be going to heaven?

Reverend Willis counsels that no matter who we are or how we lived, we should be given the opportunity to ask the big questions and find our own answers. Most of the experts I interviewed agreed. Counselor and death educator Martha Jo Atkins suggested responding to people's questions about God with another question, such as "What is God to you?" and then guiding them to their own answers.

"I ask: what and how do you picture heaven to be?" retired hospice nurse and social worker Kathy Notarino told me. "I would never try to change that belief for them. If they ask me what I believe, I say I know there is life beyond this physical world, but that I have a hard time really knowing what it looks like."

We, of course, hope for ourselves and those we love that at the moment of crossing we will be filled with awe like Jobs or Edison, or that our experience will be like that of one dying inmate who was comforted in his final days by Reverend Willis. She described how this emotionally calloused and crusty old inmate had a profound moment of revelation in her presence.

One of the first people I sat with was an ornery old Texan. He was sitting in the corner of his cell — I could see him looking up at the corner, as I later found out many people do as they die. It was as if the heavens had opened up and he could see something broad and vast. His eyes grew large and his old countenance changed. He looked up at the ceiling of his cell and stammered out, "God is ... greater ... greater than anything I could ever hope for or imagine," as big tears flowed down his face. I swear he was looking at heaven when he said it!

"Am I going to heaven? Is there really a God?" For some at the threshold, these big questions are never answered. Writer Gertrude Stein asked on her deathbed: "What is the answer?" When no answer came to her, she laughed and said, "In that case what is the question?" Soon after, she died. Her words, like those of Roger Ebert (and others in their final days), seem to indicate a kind of absurd understanding of what happens as they cross the threshold. In death, as in life, we formulate our own questions and find our own answers.

Health-care providers told me that many people — even those who have anxiety and discomfort in the dying process — often have a breakthrough. This breakthrough is often associated with bedside visions, healing dreams, conversations with both living and deceased beloveds, or other exceptional experiences. We can track these remarkable experiences through the shifts in language, discussed in later chapters. The breakthroughs often result in greater ease, surrender, relaxation — even awe — as people die.

Anna Rosen, a hospice nurse, told me:

There is a difference between the dying and the ill — and you can see it in their eyes. When people are ill and have a high temperature, they may see things, and there is often an underlying fear because they don't understand. Whereas with the end-of-life experiences, it is like a process, a process that takes people to a different level. End-of-life experiences are often positive for people. The things they see, the changes they go through: it is like a journey.

However, clearly not everyone journeys gently into that good night, and some die having never made peace or having fully resolved the life issues that allow for tranquil transitions.

Kathy Notarino shared the following with me: "In my experience, many people die as they lived. If they were always in control and had difficulty showing emotions to family and friends, then they seem to struggle more. Many have unresolved issues with their partners or children, even their life. They fight like hell to give up losing their lives and very seldom have the deathbed visions that often bring relief and comfort."

These deathbed visions Kathy referred to often occur as people are very close to dying and usually involve deceased friends and family who come to "take the person away." Chapter 7 focuses on this well-documented phenomenon — and its powerfully comforting effect. However, not everyone experiences the reassurance that comes with deathbed "visitations."

Tai chi and meditation teacher Jeffrey Kessler described his father's last days as his body weakened with an accelerating heart condition. Jeffrey explained, "He was the kind of person who fought any kind of vulnerability." Jeffrey's father was a World War II veteran and had always wanted to teach his "too-soft son" to be tough.More than once, his father had quoted these lines from "Invictus," by William Ernest Henley: "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul."

After a catastrophic heart attack, followed by a week of treatments with no improvement, his father, in the hours before dawn, asked the nurses to pull the plug. They did and then called Jeffrey and his two brothers to let them know their father would soon be dying. As they gathered at their father's side, he somehow managed to hoist himself up to a sitting position in bed and quoted the words Jeffrey had come to know so well: "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul" — and then his dad yelled "Bullshit!" and died.

Jeffrey explained to me, "He liked to think of himself as a powerful padrone, but before death he was physically humbled. And as the fortress of his heart crumbled, he felt his complete powerlessness in the face of the big mystery."

Each of us undertakes the process of facing the mystery differently. When my father was dying and we would inquire how he was doing, he would answer, "I am working on myself, working on myself." This was a phrase he used throughout life when he tried to find ways to deal with challenging people or circumstances. My family members all felt there was great truth in what he told us. Even in the end, he was working toward a deeper understanding of his process and of his life.

Final Requests

One of the ways people bring closure to their lives is through their final requests. The most common requests in the Final Words Project were humble ones related to visiting with friends and family members and enjoying certain small pleasures, like a last bottle of a favorite beer. Those who are dying often wait for certain friends or relatives so they can say good-bye. Final requests often take the form of ensuring that those they love will have all they need to continue forward. A typical example was a man's advice to his daughter to make sure that his granddaughter "gets lots of guitar lessons." To that, he added, "She is very talented, you know." Another father told his son, "I am worried about your mother. She doesn't seem well."

One son described how his mother emerged from a completely unresponsive state a couple of days before dying to inform him about the location of important financial files that would settle her estate — making everything easier for him.

One patient requested the quilt that had warmed her many nights as she sat beside the woodstove of her mountain cabin; she sought its familiar comfort hours before dying.

My grandmother asked to have chocolate shavings placed on her tongue.

On Thanksgiving Day, the father of a large family, Steven Ross, asked that the carving tools for the Thanksgiving turkey be brought to his hospital bed so he could serve his favorite meal to those he loved. His family lovingly brought some turkey and a dull knife to him. Only partly lucid, he imagined it was an earlier time, and he encouraged all to enjoy the season's bounty.

Rachel Weintraub described how her sister, who was dying of lung cancer, wanted a cigarette and pancakes before dying. The nurse, not honoring the woman's last request, upped her morphine dosage — with disastrous effects. "My sister did not get either of her requests," Rachel wrote. "Not a happy ending."

Hopefully, you and your loved one will be in a place where last requests are fully honored — whether chocolate or a cigarette, a visit from a certain son or uncle, or pancakes heaped with syrup and whipped cream. For my dad it was the chance to choose one more winner at the horse races, which he got to watch on television, and the opportunity to admire, on video, his silver-screen goddess Marilyn Monroe one last time while she sang, "A kiss on the hand may be quite continental ..."

Stepping into Another World

Developing a rapport with someone, or stepping into that person's world, is the most powerful way to build a connection. In the early 1970s, John Grinder, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Richard Bandler, a student of psychology, identified patterns used by successful therapists. One fruitful strategy among the therapists was to match the lead representational system of the client. Each of us processes our experiences and represents them to ourselves and others differently — and these are revealed in visual, auditory, or kinesthetic terms.

Bandler and Grinder discovered that when a client speaks in visual terms, saying, for example, "I just can't see what I am doing wrong," the most effective therapists consciously or unconsciously match the modality of the person speaking and say something like "Let's take a look and focus more closely on this." Or, when clients would say something like "I just can't grasp why it is not working out," the therapists would use kinesthetic phrasing in reply, such as "I get what you mean ... Ifeel you."

When people feel that you are meeting them where they are, they feel "seen," "heard," or "known" and are comforted by that. Any act of communication offers an opportunity for building a bridge. One of the ways to do this is to listen to the language of the other person and match it. In this way you enter into the speaker's reality and validate it. When you do this, it opens doors in multiple ways and allows for a deepening of rapport.


Excerpted from Words at the Threshold by Lisa Smartt. Copyright © 2017 Lisa Smartt. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Raymond Moody JR., MD, PHD xi

Introduction Words at the Threshold: What Our Final Conversations Tell Us 1

Chapter 1 Transcribing the Mystery: Following the Sacred Path of Final Words 9

Chapter 2 No Words for It: Language Changes as We Approach the Threshold 25

Chapter 3 Metaphors of the Momentous: Before We Die, We Announce a Big Event 41

Chapter 4 I Leave You with These Words: Travel Metaphors Speak of a Coming Voyage 55

Chapter 5 Repetition, Repetition, Repetition: Intensified Language in Our Last Days 63

Chapter 6 Nonsense or a New Sense?: Making Meaning out of Unintelligible Language at the End of Life 81

Chapter 7 Words between the Worlds: Descriptions of Visions and Visitations before Dying 103

Chapter 8 Lullabies and Good-Byes: Is Our First and Final Language Unspoken? 121

Chapter 9 I'll Call You When I Get There: After-Death Communication 143

Conclusion Hearing Is Healing: A Few Final Words 169

Acknowledgments 177

Notes 181

Index 187

About the Author 195

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