Life After Death

When we contemplate the afterlife, we might imagine a paradise of angels and loved ones who have gone before us--a blissful place. Imagining the beauty of heaven can be of great comfort at a time of grief, offering hope that life after death is not just a wish but a promise fulfilled.
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5 Ways to Respond to the Last Words of the Dying

In Part 3, linguist Lisa Smartt shares some wisdom for family, friends and caregivers.

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Speech patterns in the words of the dying reveal more about life after death.

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In Part 2, linguist Lisa Smartt uncovers patterns of speech that reveal more about life after death.

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5 Ways to Respond to the Last Words of the Dying

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What does a linguist have to say about the last words of the dying? Below is part 3 of my interview with Lisa Smartt, founder of the Final Words Project and author of the upcoming Words at the Threshold.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of our interview, she discussed what final speech reveals about the hereafter. Here Lisa talks about how the dying appear to “move between worlds” and how people can respond to the last words of their loved ones.

The last words of the dying are sometimes referred to as nonsense or the result of delirium. Is there actually something else going on?
There are many kinds of things people say at the end of life, including references to visions of deceased friends, animals and beautiful landscapes. Typically, these visions are positive and occur in patients who are lucid. Hallucinations, on the other hand, can be annoying, sometimes frightening and occur when the patient is not lucid.

Linguist Lisa SmarttPalliative nurse and researcher Madelaine Lawrence explains that when a patient has a deathbed vision, there is the ability to “move between worlds lucidly and easily.” I’ve seen this frequently in the speech of the dying. One man shared with me the story of his dying aunt, who said, “Get me pencil and paper, I need to write down the names of everyone coming to the big party tonight.”

Now, there actually was pencil and paper nearby. But no party. And all the names she wrote down were of people who were deceased. It was as if she was in two worlds at one time. There are many instances of this kind of language where the line is blurred between this world as we know it and another unseen world.

What still fascinates you about your research?
There is so much that blows me away. The more I look at the data, the more I am convinced that something exists beyond this world and that language is, indeed, one of the best ways to track it.

One thing that fascinates me is a little-researched phenomenon called terminal lucidity, or the “Sunset Day.” The term comes from the fact that as the sun sets over the horizon, there’s a point when the whole sky seems to be filled with light.

Similarly, a few hours or days before death, the dying may experience a sudden burst of energy, clarity and brightness in appearance. During this window of time, there’s increased lucidity in thinking and speaking. The dying may share words of reconciliation, ask for their favorite foods and often will give advice.

Read More: The Words of the Dying, Part 1

Many people I interviewed described how their loved ones, who were otherwise relatively non-communicative, emerged from their deeply internal, quiet state with words of kindness, reassurance or guidance. Several people also described a kind of glow or lightness around their beloved.

Any tips for loved ones on how to respond to the speech of the dying?
Loved ones and caregivers can do the following:

1)  Assume that what you are witnessing is sacred.
Validate your loved one’s words and experiences. Avoid telling the dying that what they’re seeing or saying is wrong or “not real.” Repeat back what they say and let them know you have heard them. For example, if they say, “My modality is broken,” you can say, “Oh, your modality is broken. I would love to know more about that.”

2)  Enter their world.
Imagine you are visiting a new country. Keep an open heart and mind. Record what you hear, see and feel in a final words journal, aka your private travelogue of that other place. You may be surprised later by the pearls of wisdom you find there.

3)  Act like you’re learning a new language.
Since you are in a new country, learn its language. Study it. Practice it. Speak it. Listen for the symbols and metaphors that are meaningful to your beloved and then use them when you communicate. If they say, “I need my passport,” you can say, “Would you like me to help you find your passport?” And, when you hear things that sound nonsensical, tell yourself, “Oh, that’s how they speak in this country.”

4)  Ask questions with authenticity and curiosity.
It’s okay to let the dying person know that you are confused and would love to know more about what he or she wants to communicate. You can always say, “Can you tell me more about that?”

5)  Savor silence.
Sometimes it is better to just sit with your loved one when words don’t build bridges. There are indications that the dying may be much more tuned into nonverbal communication, much like the kind of communication we experience when we pray. Speak as you would in prayer to the person you love.

Read More: The Words of the Dying, Part 2

Have a question for Lisa about last words? Ask away in the comments below!

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5 Ways to Respond to the Last Words of the Dying

5 Characteristics of the Last Words of the Dying

My interview with linguist Lisa Smartt, founder of the Final Words Project and author of the upcoming Words at the Threshold, continues below. In Part 1, Lisa spoke about her father’s speech in the last weeks of his life. Here she talks about the patterns she’s uncovered in the words of the dying, and what it may reveal about life after death.

You’ve analyzed almost 2,000 end-of-life phrases. What trends and patterns have you found?
There’s a trend away from literal three-dimensional and five-sense language to more metaphoric language. For example, someone might say, “I need my passport” when there’s no real trip planned. Or they might utter nonsensical phrases like, “Introductory offer: Closed for goods and services,” “Drape my legs across the fireplace” and “There is so much so in sorrow.”

Linguist Lisa SmarttThere are often metaphors related to travel or an important occasion coming soon, like getting ready for a big dance. As people die, there are often references to things breaking down, like “I need maintenance for this” or “Everything in pieces, so many pieces.”

Read More: Do Angels Really Have Wings?

In general, things that are deeply meaningful to people in their lives form the architecture for the metaphors people construct when dying. So people who love sailing will speak about ships or boats waiting for them. Repetition is also much more common in the language of the dying than in ordinary speech. For example, “How much wider does this wider go?”

Is there anything in the speech patterns that’s surprising?
Several of the constructs in the language of the dying are relatively complex. It is intriguing to me that as our brains diminish in capacity such language emerges. Sustained narratives are common. Someone might say, “I need my map,” then that will change to, “Who has my suitcase? I need my suitcase,” followed by, “My suitcase is packed. I am ready to go now.”

These metaphors evolve over days, weeks. Most of us would not recall something we said 10 days ago and be able to sustain the narrative. How is it that as we are dying we can have a metaphor, develop it, remember it and articulate it over a period of time? So many of the things that I have observed in people’s language, like this, indicates to me that there is, indeed, some kind of realm beyond this one.

What does the “nonsense talk” of the dying reveal about life after death?
There are several kinds of nonsense we observe at the end of life and each reveals interesting things:

1)  A prepositional shift.
Prepositions are those small words we use to indicate where we are in space (up, down, besides, etc.). We hear people talk in really puzzling ways about their orientation in space as they are dying. People lying motionless will say how they’re moving up or need to be pulled down. Technically it’s complete nonsense. But if you look at these statements in the context of research into near-death experiences (NDEs), they make sense.

People who’ve had a NDE talk about moving up and over their bodies. Clearly there is something, a spirit in us that is not our bodies. And that spirit moves in ways that our bodies can’t as we approach the threshold.
 

2)  Hybrid, nonsensical sentences.
Someone might say, “I need my checkbook as I have to pay to get in...” Pay to get in? Where? Again, it’s technically nonsense, but often compelling. The dying person appears to have one foot in this reality and another in some other reality.

3)  The observation of beautiful dimensions.
For example, one person said, “A place that is so beautiful, is shining like diamonds, Mom, oh my God, Mom, so beautiful!” This is nonsense because it’s a place not witnessed by the living. But when one hears people refer to these places, we have to ask–if this is just the imagination, then why is it that our imaginations see these things specifically at the end of life? Why do these images seem to comfort people so profoundly if they’re just make-believe?

4)  Talk of deceased loved ones.
Often times, the dying see deceased family and friends who feel very “alive” to them. I get the sense that there are two different dimensions rather than the distinction of dead versus living. However, the details of that other dimension are often not articulated.

5)  Contradictory language.
We see more paradoxical language in the dying, just as we see with people who’ve had a NDE. Contradictory statements from someone who’s experienced a NDE might be, “I have never felt as alive as when I was dead.” People talk about how difficult it is to speak about a NDE–it is ineffable. In the language of the dying, it’s the same thing. That indicates another experience that can’t be explained by ordinary language.

Stay tuned for part 3 of our interview coming soon. In the meantime, you can ask Lisa a question about last words in the comments below.

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The Words of the Dying–Part 1

About a year ago, I wrote an article for Mysterious Ways magazine about the last words of the dying. I’ve been fascinated by the topic ever since, especially since many last words are so cryptic. So I was thrilled to recently talk to Lisa Smartt, a linguist and founder of the Final Words Project. She’s analyzed almost 2,000 “end-of-life utterances” to make sense of the words of the dying. Her book, Words at the Threshold, based on data collected with Dr. Raymond Moody, is coming out March 2017.

Here’s what Lisa had to say about final words and her own personal connection to the field of research. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of our interview, coming soon!

How did you get into studying the last words of the dying?
I have always had a love for language. I studied linguistics at UC Berkeley, and my career as a literacy and learning specialist involved analyzing how people acquire and process language. Plus, my dad was a psychologist and poet. We shared a love for words and ideas.

Lisa SmarttIn 2012, my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He started radiation and, due to complications from the treatment, only lived for three weeks after that. I found solace during that time in writing down everything he said. I was able to track his consciousness in those final days.

There were so many things that baffled and touched me. After he died, I was left with so many questions. That’s what led me to research last words and start the Final Words Project with Dr. Moody.

Read More: Dreams Bring Peace After a Loved One's Death

What about your dad’s last words was so fascinating? 
I was especially drawn to his use of metaphors and symbols. He talked about needing help to “come down,” as if he were floating. He said things like, “I am in the green dimension” or “I need maintenance…there is nothing for this.”

A day before he died, he was on the phone with his secretary, Alice, and he said, “This is very interesting, Alice, I’ve never done this before.” What was the “this” he spoke about? Why didn’t he just say “dying”? Was he undergoing something else for which he had no words?

He also spoke of all the people crowding the room, even though there was no one there. There was a kind of sacred quality around my father, much like the energy in a room of a woman who’s just given birth. It’s not that his dying was beautiful and easy. But I became convinced that something was happening that was sacred and holy.

Did anything strike you as particularly out of character for your dad?
One day, as I sat beside him, his eyes popped open and his eyes tracked the edges of the ceiling. “Lisa, Lisa!” he said. “You were right about the angels!” He had never talked about or believed in angels before.

Ten days later, he announced, “Enough…the angels say enough…only three days left.” These were all words from a man who was once so lucid and very bright. It seemed to signal that his mind was in transition. His mind was seeing and feeling things outside the usual narrative of our ordinary life.

Read More: Two Angels Led the Way

Why did you take your dad’s “nonsense talk” seriously?
I’d been trained to take all language seriously. Not to judge language, but to transcribe and then understand it. As a linguist, if you hear a language or a dialect that is very different than your own, you don’t think, “That language is all wrong. That dialect is bad.” You think, “How fascinating, I want to understand the patterns and structure of that language.”

There is organization in all language, no matter how nonsensical it is. On the surface, the language of the dying may seem like “word salad,” but there are actually patterns that appear to be unique to dying and seem to track the pathway of consciousness in a person’s final days.

What were your dad’s very last words?
They were uttered privately to my mother–“Thank you. I love you.”

Have a question for Lisa? Ask away in the comments below!

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The Words of the Dying–Part 1

Be inspired by these tales of heavenly guides bringing comfort and reassurance to people in the final hours of their lives and to the loved ones who are saying goodbye to them.

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Sabra CiancanelliSep 15, 2015