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

by Lisa Smartt

New World Library, 2017. ISBN 978-1-608-68460-1.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 06/30/2017

Nonfiction: Life Lessons

"As we bear witness to the language of the dying, we are invited to journey with our beloveds into new territory," Lisa Smartt writes in her fascinating, heart-opening book.

As her father was dying and in informal studies following his death, Smart observed that there was a change in language that wasn't "nonsense" but rather a "process of developing a new sense." Through her own research and other studies she has read, it's possible, she writes, "that as we die we move away from our usual sensory awareness to something different—something that actually includes all the senses at once."

In Raymond Moody Jr.'s foreword to the book, he says: "In shamanism, ancient magic, and the Western literary tradition, nonsense once signified the transition from this world to other dimensions of existence." Moody wrote the book Life After Life in which he coined the term "near-death experience."

There are "remarkable qualities of the language of the dying" which we can now be aware of thanks to Smartt's observations described in her book. When her father was dying from complications related to radiation therapy for prostate cancer, Smartt began transcribing what seemed to be a new language. She tracked his final words and as a linguist, was able to see patterns in his final words. She went on to collect transcriptions, interviews and recollections from health-care providers, friends and family members of the dying which became the Final Words Project. She does admit that as "it is much more difficult to speak about frightening or difficult experiences, the results may be skewed in favor of more positive accounts."

Due to these positive accounts, the book is very hopeful. Smartt's experience with her father's final days was also a positive one. He had been a "cigar-chomping New Yorker" and a skeptic who, nearing the end of his life, was able to predict the precise timing of the end of it.

In her chapter, "Transcribing the Mystery," Smartt invites readers to "courageously and compassionately witness final words." She has some pointers for listening to and honoring final words "that will make the dying process easier for your beloved." The transcribing of the final words can be healing for the listener as well as they move through the loss of someone they love.

The use of metaphor frequently emerges in the language of near-death experience and Smartt has found that, "End-of-life language, too, is highly metaphoric." Her father, for instance, spoke about "the big art exhibition." There's also a prevalence of travel metaphors which Smartt describes in her chapter "I Leave You with These Words."

There may be "fascinating and complex repetition" in the voices of the dying. Smartt writes: "There is order in the language of the threshold, and the use of repetition is part of that order." There could be "paradoxical speech or hybrid language in which it appears the person we love is standing between two worlds." Smartt, as a linguist and poet, was able to see the "order" that most have probably missed.

At the threshold those who are dying may have visions and visitations. Smartt's father who was an atheist, announced what an angel had said to him. Others hear beautiful music or see symbols such as butterflies. She also includes a chapter on the symbols and synchronicities experienced by people whose loved ones have recently died in a chapter entitled "I'll Call You When I Get There."

As I read the book and now that I'm finished reading it, I feel very hopeful about the "deep peace" that often accompanies the visions and visitations of the dying. And I see that it would be worthwhile for everyone to pay attention to final words and realize those words, rather than taken literally, are a kind of multisensory awareness.

Lisa Smartt is a linguist, educator, and poet who 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. There are various resources on her website.

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