For Lisa Smartt, it began with the death of her father, Mort Felix.
A clinical psychologist and a rationalist, Felix was, in the words of Smartt, “a cigar-chomping New Yorker whose definition of the Divine was corned beef on rye with slaw on the side and a cold glass of cream soda. He placed his faith in Lucky Sam in the fifth race and in his beloved wife of fifty-four years, Susan.”
So it came as a complete surprise when Felix, 77 and on his deathbed, began talking in a new language, one that included conversations with angels.
Smartt, a Masters level linguist, started writing down his words.
After her father’s passing, Smartt had a notebook of what she believed to be “word salad” or utterances caused by the medication he had been taking.
Her academic skills kicked into action. Smartt researched what she now calls “the language of the dying,” only to discover that the databases had little to offer.
“I believe there are a number of reasons why research has been so minimal,” she recently observed. “There is a profound fear of death and dying in our culture…many universities and even medical institutions are reticent to investigate complicated issues associated with collecting data at such a sacred time of life. Many universities are hesitant to be involved in research that might cause any imbalance in the fragile interactions at the end of life.”
Smartt decided to take that research upon herself. She founded the Final Words Project and in 2017, she published the results in a landmark book, Words at the Threshold.
Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, described “Words” as a “treasure trove of experience and insight.”
One of the lessons which “Words” teaches to those who are talking to dying loved ones is to have an open mind and open heart. Smartt invites people to suspend disbelief because there is a narrative going on in those dying words — listen carefully to that narrative, even if it is far-fetched.
“Many times we will see and hear things that might not make sense to us,” Smartt noted. “If we try to analyze them, we only get more confused and in most cases, alienate ourselves from our loved ones. If, however, we open our hearts and listen with love, as we might with our children, embracing all kinds of languages and images we hear, we can validate them without fear. We can forge deeper and more meaningful connections with our beloveds at the end of their lives.”
Her work caused Smartt to realize that, as a linguist, she had a very narrow definition of language and communication. That definition expanded significantly during the research. “I have come to value nonsensical and metaphoric language as integral and important parts of human communication. As I have collected data from other languages, there is an indication that the kinds of nonsense and metaphors that appear in English may appear in other languages. If this is so, then there may be a kind of language that is unique to the language of the threshold.”
Smartt ultimately realized that her father’s “word salad” had meaning to it. “The more I studied it, the more I see an inherent order even in the language, symbols, themes that seem on the surface to be disordered,” she reported.
Another discovery in Smartt’s research is that 75% of the dying describe visions and conversations with their own departed loved ones. “Hospice workers explained to me that when their patients begin to actively engage with the pre-deceased, the workers know the timing for death is drawing near,” she stated. “Having lucid conversations with the pre-deceased while also being able to speak lucidly with loved ones in the hospital room is an indication that these visions are not a result of medications. That is, many people have the experience of being able to move freely between this world and the one we cannot see…something very real is happening at the end of life…that is part of the reason I no longer fear death as I used to.”
In “Words,” Smartt offers some very specific suggestions for dealing with the dying: enter their world as if you were going to a new country; repeat back what your loved one has said in order to offer validation; ask questions with authenticity and curiosity; assume that your loved one can hear you, even if they are unresponsive; hearing, just listening, is healing; and learn to savor silence — non-verbal communication is valuable communication.
More on the work of Lisa Smartt can be found at: http://www.finalwordsproject.org/