The loss of a loved one is usually a painful, and emotionally trying time for the family, no matter how aged the person may have been. Memories of the beautiful times and difficult days they’ve spent together would flood back and break hearts. As death draws near, it becomes more terrifying for the person in question. While thinking about their next destination based on the teachings of religion, culture or personal belief, they’d try to hold on just a little longer, usually in an attempt to soothe the pain they’d be leaving behind.
Everyone would like to die in their golden old age, probably in a calm peaceful place surrounded by serene waters and soothing greenery, flanked by family and friends on all sides, holding hands and singing songs. Unfortunately, we don’t get to decide when our time will come. It could be so sudden that we wouldn’t even get to say a word to anyone we love, or even get a chance to talk to them, it would be hurried and incomplete.
Language and human interaction at the end of life are topics that haven’t been fully explored due to the mystical nature or perception of death. Death is generally considered sinister, and a lot of people would not be at peace with the idea of having their parents or siblings studied, analyzed and questioned about their dying experience. However, some solid words have been written over the years to portray the trend of communication when death is near.
Mort Felix – Happy Death
Words at the Threshold by Lisa Smartt is a transcription of 2,000 utterances from 181 dying people including her father, Mort Felix. Lisa is a professional linguist, educator, and poet, and combining emotion with curiosity at her father’s deathbed hadn’t been an easy job.
However, following her father’s passing, Smartt introduced the Final Words Project, a website where she published her research in end of life communication. She worked in conjunction with renowned psychiatrist Raymond Moody Jr., following the refusal of several academic institutions to sponsor her near-death language studies.
For four years, she investigated the end of life interaction patterns of other people, working with health care providers, family, friends, and finally, she pulled her work into a book that has set the pace for other authors . This book may not explain delirium caused by medications, illness, and other physical and psychological factors, but it creates a foundational knowledge upon which other observations can be stacked.
Mort Felix had wanted to die with Beethoven classical Ode to Joy playing in the background. However, when the time came, he was too sick to think about music. Her father died unexpectedly from cancer in Berkeley at the age of 77. He’d been old and sick, but his death had been too sudden, even for him.
Smartt began her collection of utterances from the day her father left home in his underwear and was found on a busy road by police officers. He’d been saying, “Tonight is the big exhibition, and I am bringing boxes to my wife’s art gallery for the show. Do you know where the big exhibition is going to be?”
He had no boxes and there was no show. He was only telling of a bigger occurrence that would soon take place to bring his life to an end, as Smartt later discovered.
The old man had spent over fifty years of his life carrying boxes for his wife, Susan, to her art gallery. It had become a part of him, so much so that it was able to serve as the perfect analogy for his death in his moments of delirium.
As at the time of these events, Smartt hadn’t known that the figurative speech was his way of forewarning them about his death. They could have prepared themselves. However, she found it intriguing which made her keep a journal of his utterances, including sentences she described as “word salad”.
Words from the dying
“I’ve got to get off, get off! Off of this life,” Felix had said. “I got to go down there. I have to go down,” There was nothing physically below him to go to, but Felix was hallucinating about an afterlife, perhaps the common tunnel description. He was constantly repeating words and sentences, which can be attributed to dementia caused by old age. However, he was mostly repeating words of appreciation to the people around him. He also repeated words that signified he was trying to put up a fight against imminent death.
Her father had been an atheist who “placed his faith in Lucky Sam in the fifth race and in his beloved wife of fifty-four years” but in the last weeks of his life, he began to hallucinate about angels. “Enough…enough…the angels say enough… only three days left…?” These words were among the most mind-boggling for Smartt.
Smartt’s conclusion of these utterances and communication patterns, compiling her father’s and those of other people, were unifying. The strange language was a way to express events being resolved in their minds as they geared towards the final day, the imminent end. People who are close to the end of life would experience “metaphorical and non-sensical changes in language.”
Travel as a metaphor
Smartt believes her father hallucinated about being in outer space or an “other world”.
“I want to pull these down to earth somehow … I really don’t know … no more earth binding,” he had said.
Many people often express a sense of transition or movement, a trip from one location to another. These places are usually where they’ve been in the past or somewhere they had hoped to be. Callan and Kelley tell the story of a 17-year-old dying of cancer in Final Gifts
He was heavily distressed in his final moments because he couldn’t find “I”. Apparently, the map that would take him “home“.
“If I could find the map, I could go home! Where’s the map? I want to go home!” Home could have been a resting place, a place that called to him with promises of peace and cessation of malignant pain.
The most obvious cause of this change in language patterns is dementia and illness . Old age comes with physiological changes that can affect a person’s normal way of reasoning and speech patterns. Patients suffering from Alzheimer’s usually have to cope with hallucinations and delusions for which medication could be prescribed.
Sickness, mental conditions, and medications could also cause a person to make strange utterances on their deathbed. It wouldn’t be out of place if a teenager who has been receiving doses of painkillers and opiates is delusional and hallucinating when it’s time to let go.
Smartt believes that end of life communication is an area of study deserves to be explored and researched. People need to be ready to communicate effectively with their loved ones when the time comes.
- Smartt, Lisa. Words at the Threshold. Amazon AWS. https://s3.amazonaws.com/kajabi-storefronts-production/sites/33647/themes/709706/downloads/qChx81VQT0iYPECPFC1v_WATT_Intro_MS_WORD.pdf. Retrieved 07-08-19
- Staff writer. Delirium. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/delirium/symptoms-causes/syc-20371386. Retrieved 07-08-19
- Erard, Michael. What People Actually Say Before They Die. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2019/01/how-do-people-communicate-before-death/580303/. Retrieved 07-08-19
- Smartt, Lisa. Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We’re Nearing Death. Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Words-Threshold-What-Nearing-Death/dp/1608684601. Retrieved 07-08-19
- Final Words Project. Official website. http://www.finalwordsproject.org/. Retrieved 07-08-19
- Callan and Kelley. Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying. Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Final-Gifts-Understanding-Awareness-Communications/dp/1451667256. Retrieved 07-08-19