If you’ve spent time with a loved one as they approached the end of this life, you know what a painful time it can be. It’s hard to prepare for our final goodbye, and hard to imagine a world without them.
It can also be a confusing time as the person’s communication changes. An individual who was always articulate might seem to be saying nonsense, or stop speaking altogether. And yet if we listen closely, we might discover that more is being said than we realize.
That’s what I learned from Lisa Smartt, founder of the Final Words Project. Smartt shares her insights from collecting the words of the dying in her recent book, Words at the Threshold: What We Say As We’re Nearing Death.
“The language at the threshold is very rich,” Smartt said, “almost like dream language.” She was drawn to this line of investigation after witnessing changes in her father’s speech during his last three weeks of life.
“He began to speak of angels,” she told me, even though he had never espoused religious beliefs. “I had a sense that there was something beneath what sounded like crazy words. I was of course filled with grief that someone I loved very much and who had been very lucid suddenly seemed to be speaking nonsense. But the linguist in me thought, Let me write down everything he says and track what’s going on.”
I recently spoke with Smartt on the Think Act Be podcast where she described what we can look for as we sit with a loved one who is dying.
A Big Announcement
Those who are nearing death often announce that a big event is coming. For Smartt’s dad, it was an art exhibition, even though there was no such event on the horizon. This pronouncement marked the beginning of the active dying process for her father, who had developed a very severe infection.
Smartt’s research showed that such declarations are very common. “Sometimes people will announce, ‘Tonight I am going to go to the big party.’ Or a person might say, ‘Get me my pearls for the dance.’”
These statements can be puzzling to loved ones, who might interpret them as nothing more than delirium or delusions, or side effects of sedating medication. “The loved one might say, ‘What are you talking about?’” said Smartt. “‘You’re in the hospital.’ But really what the person is saying is that some big event is coming that they’re getting ready for.”
It’s also common for a person who is dying to speak in metaphors, which again can be bewildering for a listener. For example, a person might describe how the train tracks are being prepared “so they can take the train to their next destination.” Smartt advised that we trust ourselves to “hear what’s underneath the words when they may not always make sense, and to allow ourselves to feel and respond to that.”
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Travel metaphors in particular are common, whether it’s by car, train, plane, or boat. “People often start talking about a trip,” said Smartt, “or that they need their passport.” While it might sound nonsensical, “upon reflection it might be a metaphor for something real”—preparing for the journey from this realm to the next.
Seeing Deceased Loved Ones
“It’s very common as people are really close to death that they starting talking about takeaway figures,” Smartt said—”brothers, sisters, friends, sometimes angels, who are there at their bedside to take them to the other side and to help them.”
When a person starts “having conversations with the deceased or saying they see the deceased at their bedside,” it’s often a sign that the end of life is drawing near.
You’ve probably heard reports or seen firsthand how a person who’s dying might appear to make a dramatic recovery. They may have been close to death’s door and then one day are able to sit up and speak clearly. These sudden rebounds might be a sign of a miraculous recovery, but often are another indication that the end is getting close.
“A common sign that a person is passing on is a flash of lucidity,” said Smartt, “where you think your loved one suddenly is well again.” Her own father experienced terminal lucidity shortly before he died. “He asked me to cook him his favorite pot roast and pineapple upside down cake,” Smartt said. “This was a man who wasn’t drinking or eating. And he started chattering on about getting my daughter guitar lessons and so forth.” He died a couple of days later.
Our loved one might also give us more direct clues about when the end is getting close. For example, Smartt’s father announced three days before he died, “The angels say, Enough, enough—three days left.”
The predictions may be more or less clear depending on the language used and our ability to hear what’s being said. When we have a written record of our dying loved one’s words, we can return to them later and review what was said—often allowing us to discover predictions and other profound messages (more on this later).