When her father was dying, Lisa Smartt noticed he was using poetic and at times nonsensical language, speaking of green dimensions, an upcoming art show, and angels who told him he only had three days left. Stirred by his speech and drawing on her linguistics background, Smartt dedicated four years to analyzing over 1,500 utterances made by people at the threshold of death. “Do consistent patterns emerge in the language of the end of life? And if so, what exactly are those patterns and how might they track the path of consciousness?” she asks in Words at the Threshold: What We Say As We’re Nearing Death (New World Library, 2017), the intriguing results of her inquiry. The publisher kindly sent me a copy for review.
While she does allude to final remarks from the likes of Roger Ebert and Steve Jobs, Smartt isn’t interested in famous last words in Words at the Threshold. Her concern, rather, is much more personal and intimate: The confusing, often unintelligible, and therefore challenging speech recorded by ordinary family members, friends, and healthcare providers as loved ones or patients were approaching death, especially in palliative settings. Smartt—who admits outright her research is neither formal nor rigorous—does not control for medication or illness, though notes, interestingly, she found similar themes regardless of condition.
Amply citing these accounts throughout, Smartt identifies a host of patterns in the end-of-life language in her data. It is highly metaphorical, frequently using one-way travel , guide, and journey metaphors—and curiously, never about talking a walk or jog. It abounds with exclamation and repetition, often of images or symbols of circles, boxes, and the numbers 3, 4, and 8. It features sustained narratives (one describes a poker game, another an urgent work report) that the dying revisit over days and even weeks. It often describes visions of crowds, deceased loves ones, religious figures, animals, bells and chimes, and, eerily, men in black. It makes final requests, frequently of favorite foods, and last reconciliations.
In one particularly effective chapter, Smartt focused on the nonsensical nature of the language of the dying. For Smartt, nonsense isn’t a pejorative term but “a fascinating and dynamic language phenomenon and is as valid and as consistent in its structure, organization, and function as intelligible language.” Exploring different varieties of nonsense she found (linguistic, categorical, prepositional, and hybrid), she provides some compelling examples, such as “There is so much so in sorrow” or “Help me thread this pencil to the other side.” And what I think is most compelling about her analysis here, and probably the greatest strength of this book, is that just because end-of-life language is often nonsensical doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful—a comforting and validating position both for the living and the dying as well as an appreciation of the complexity of human language and consciousness. “This kind of organization [in end-of-life language] indicates that there may be much more than a disintegrating mind at play during our final days.”
In other sections, however, I was quite skeptical. One chapter discusses telepathy, i.e., how the dying refer to things never explicitly revealed and how this mirrors purported similarly experiences between babies and parents. Another chapter looks at after-death communication (e.g., text messages sent from the deceased’s cell phone) and synchronicities (e.g., noises sounding or animals appearing right at the time a person was declared dead). I can’t dispute the accounts, of course, but this atheist and rationalist, who believes life ends at death, felt Smartt’s conclusions were a bit too mystical: “Where we come from and where we go,” she writes of end-of-life telepathy, “may, indeed, be the same place, and we may use the same nonlinguistic language—an unspoken one shared between hearts and minds—in both places.” I bristled at this mysticism, too, in many of her conclusions about the significance of the patterns she identified. Often posing them as questions, as if herself hesitant or reaching, Smartt suggests the language of the dying ultimately tracks the pathway of our consciousness from this five-sense, three-dimensional world “to that other one.”
Yet Smartt would pull me back in when she pointed to some of the science of death: Neuroscientists like Andrew Newberg suppose “it is very possible that as we die, brain function associated with logic and reason—and with the production of purposeful speech—does indeed shut down. This could cause, for the dying person, a number of experiences that are mystical in quality and rich in unintelligible.” This, for me, is key and I would have liked more of this content, but it also the source of an unresolved tension throughout her book—between science and spirituality, between linguistics and poetics. I think this tension, though, may ultimately be appropriate if we think of Words at the Threshold not in terms of the discipline of linguistics as such but in broader, alternative ways of language-based knowledge. For we want understanding of and to find meaning in the difficult and in many ways mysterious process of dying, and language, so definitive of our living, is an important window into our dying. And that understanding, that meaning, can and should be both empirical and metaphysical.
In Words at the Threshold, Smartt is herself at a threshold, taking first steps into a very interesting, important, and under-examined area, rightly indicating the need for future research in end-of-life language in other languages, cultures, and identities. While I may disagree with some of her interpretations and find them lacking in linguistic and scientific rigor, I do think she is asking the right question: Why is that we see these particular patterns in the language at the end of life, and what can our deaths reveal about our lives? To that end, Words at the Threshold is sensitively and thoughtfully written book that is especially valuable to friends and family seeking resources—and meaning—when coping with the dying process.