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New World Library Unshelved

New World Library Unshelved

Positive news and inspiring views from the New World Library community

Thursday, March 16, 2017
WHEN SOMEONE YOU LOVE IS DYING by guest blogger Lisa Smartt, author of WORDS AT THE THRESHOLD
When her father became terminally ill with cancer, Lisa Smartt began transcribing his conversations and noticed that his personality underwent inexplicable changes. Once a skeptical man with a secular worldview, he developed a deeply spiritual outlook in his final days — a change that was reflected in his language. Baffled, intrigued, and compelled by her linguistics training, Smartt grabbed pencil and paper and tracked his final words.

The inquiry that began with her father’s near-death language went on to become the Final Words Project, in which she collected hundreds of people’s final words and analyzed their linguistic patterns and themes. 

In her new book, Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We’re Nearing Death, Smartt decodes the symbolism of those last words, showing how the language of the dying points the way to a transcendent world beyond our own. We hope you’ll enjoy this short article that is based on the book.

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One day you may sit beside someone who is dying.

And you may be surprised by what you hear. 

There may be words of reconciliation, like these described by Joanna, a participant in the Final Words Project: “My mother never told me that she loved me. She had Alzheimer’s, so I felt I’d lost her years ago. But then a day before she died, she became lucid and said to me, ‘Joanna, I know I never told you, but I love you. I have always loved you.’ Those words were remarkable and healed a whole lifetime of hurt.” 

Final requests are also common in the language of the dying, but they may not always be as clear as the words above. Another woman, Sharon, told me, “My mother started talking about the five boxes, and how they were scattered across the United States and she wanted them all together. I then realized the boxes were symbolic of the five of us. She wanted to see all her children before she died.” Final wishes are sometimes clearly stated, but more often they are veiled in symbols.

The Metaphoric Language of Dying

As we approach death, we often use the symbols from our life story to relate to what is happening, such as a contractor who looked over at his daughter in delight and told of the world he was seeing: “They have all these kitchenettes over there that need to be remodeled!” Metaphors often announce an important occasion. Andrea shared this of her grandmother’s last words: “She asked me to bring her best dress and shoes to the hospital because she was attending a grand ball that night . . . she died the next day.” Also common are metaphors referring to an approaching journey, suggesting that a new destination awaits; many dying people say things such as “The suitcase is packed. I have to go. Help me get there!” or “The yellow bus is coming!” or “I can’t find my passport.” 

Last Words Can Be Puzzling

You may also hear puzzling and paradoxical statements like “Yes, I would like some scrambled eggs, but where would you reappear?” or “Introductory offer: store is closing.” The language of the dying often seems “nonsensical,” but clear linguistic patterns and themes emerge when we look closely. Last words are often repetitive (for example, “Oh, more . . . more . . . more worlds and worlds . . . and worlds”) or paradoxical (“Grant me a half measure of fullness”), and they often include unusual prepositions (such as “I am crossing up”). There are also many references to landscapes and visitors that are unseen by the living.
If someone you love is dying, here are some ways you can deepen your connection and communication:

  • • Enter the world of your beloved. Imagine you are visiting a new country. Keep an open heart and mind. Record in a final-words journal what you hear, see, and feel; it will be your private “travelogue” about that other “place.”

  • • Have eyes for the sacred. If possible, think of the territory you have entered as sacred ground, despite the terrible loss looming before you. Be open to the possibility that something transpersonal is occurring and that the words you hear are tracking its course.

  • • Become a student of the language. Since you are in a new country, learn its language. Listen for the symbols and metaphors that are meaningful to your beloved, and then use them when you communicate: “Your suitcase is packed. I am glad to help you get there. What can I do?”

  • • Validate your loved one’s words and experiences. Repeat back what your beloved has said, to let the person know you heard it. Avoid telling your beloved that what he or she is seeing or saying is wrong or “not real.”

  • • Ask questions with authenticity and curiosity. It’s okay to let the dying person know you are confused and would love to hear more of what he or she wants to communicate. Ask, “Could you tell me more about . . . ?” 

  • • Assume your loved one can hear you even when they’re unresponsive or quiet. As we die, hearing is the last sense to go. Speak words that will bring joy or comfort to the person, even when you are talking in another room.

  • • Savor silence. Sometimes it is better to just sit with your loved one. When words don’t build bridges, know that the dying may be more attuned to telepathic or other nonverbal communication, much like the kind of communication we experience when we pray. Speak to the person you love as you would in prayer.
All of us are tourists and guides as we travel with those we love to the portal. By honoring the unique language of the threshold, you can open doors not only between yourself and the person you love but perhaps even to a transcendent world beyond our own.

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Lisa Smartt, MA, a linguist, educator, and poet, is the author of Words at the Threshold. 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. Visit her online at

Based on the book Words at the Threshold. Copyright © 2017 by Lisa Smartt.  


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