A person’s last words can be anything from poignant to puzzling.
Many find these utterances important, and we devote a lot of time to deciphering the message and meaning.
Last words might offer a warning: “Money can’t buy life,” said Bob Marley. Or they may express a long-held desire, like Joe DiMaggio’s: “I finally get to see Marilyn.” Others might offer an ironic dig: “Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough,” said Karl Marx.
Lisa Smartt, a linguist, was inspired to study last words during the final three weeks of her father’s life. In 2014, she founded the Final Words Project with afterlife expert Raymond Moody.
Through the project, they record linguistic patterns and themes conveyed in a person’s last spoken words. The goal is to better understand the communications of the dying.
“My hope was that through collecting final words and analyzing the language, I might be able to shed light on what happens to consciousness when we die. I also hoped the research would help others connect more meaningfully with their beloveds at the end of life.”
Recently, Smartt released “Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We’re Nearing Death.” The book offers stories and data from her extensive, multigenerational research in the United States and Canada.
This includes accounts and transcripts from health care providers, friends and family members of the dying. In all, she collected more than 1,500 English-language utterances, ranging from single words to complete sentences from those who were a few hours to a few weeks from dying. The majority come from terminally ill hospice patients, children to adults.
In exploring last words, Smartt decodes the symbolism, showing how the language of the dying points the way to a “transcendent world beyond.” She shares the language she has heard and the coherency that emerges from seemingly confusing utterances. She also provides tools for meaningful communication with people at the end of life.
Many might be interested in two often experienced and chronically underexplored topics: “sustained narrative” and “terminal lucidity.”
Terminal lucidity can occur in a person’s final days. It is characterized by a sudden burst of energy and clarity of thought. Often, the person expresses words of wonder, love, guidance or reconciliation.
One mother emerged from a coma a day before dying to say, “Tell everyone I love them and that I am OK!” Smartt says.
In another account, a mother with advanced Alzheimer’s disease hadn’t spoken lucidly for several years. She emerged from a coma to tell her son where financial files were located, and then died a few days later.
Meanwhile, sustained narrative refers to the metaphors or vision that evolve and linger over several days or weeks of the dying process, Smartt explains.
“For example, ‘I need my map,’ will change to ‘Who has my suitcase? I need my suitcase,’ to ‘My suitcase is packed. I am ready to go now,’” she explains. “I find it amazing that as we are dying — and one would imagine our cognitive capacity is degraded — people develop and track a metaphor or narrative over a period of days and weeks. Could you remember something you said five days ago and then develop it over time without writing it down?”
For more information about Smartt and “Words at the Threshold,” go to FinalWordsProject.org.