An excerpt from Words at the Threshold by Lisa Smartt
When her father became terminally ill with cancer, Lisa Smartt began transcribing his conversations and noticed that his personality underwent inexplicable changes. Once a skeptical man with a secular worldview, he developed a deeply spiritual outlook in his final days — a change that was reflected in his language. Baffled, intrigued, and compelled by her linguistics training, Smartt grabbed pencil and paper and tracked his final words.
The inquiry that began with her father’s language went on to become the Final Words Project, in which she collected and analyzed hundreds of final words for their linguistic patterns and themes.
In her new book Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We’re Nearing, Smartt decodes the symbolism of those last words, showing how the language of the dying points the way to a transcendent world beyond our own. We hope you’ll enjoy this short excerpt from the book.
Developing a rapport with someone, or stepping into that person’s world, is the most powerful way to build a connection. In the early 1970s, John Grinder, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Richard Bandler, a student of psychology, identified patterns used by successful therapists. One fruitful strategy among the therapists was to match the lead representational system of the client. Each of us processes our experiences and represents them to ourselves and others differently — and these are revealed in visual, auditory, or kinesthetic terms.
Bandler and Grinder discovered that when a client speaks in visual terms, saying, for example, “I just can’t see what I am doing wrong,” the most effective therapists consciously or unconsciously match the modality of the person speaking and say something like “Let’s take a look and focus more closely on this.” Or, when clients would say something like “I just can’t grasp why it is not working out,” the therapists would use kinesthetic phrasing in reply, such as “I get what you mean...I feel you.”
When people feel that you are meeting them where they are, they feel “seen,” “heard,” or “known” and are comforted by that. Any act of communication offers an opportunity for building a bridge. One of the ways to do this is to listen to the language of the other person and match it. In this way you enter into the speaker’s reality and validate it. When you do this, it opens doors in multiple ways and allows for a deepening of rapport.
The week when my father began dying, he sat up in bed, looked at me with his piercing eyes, and said, “What the hell is going on? Am I dying?” I was so terrified of this question that I never answered him. How does a daughter tell her father he is dying — especially as she faces her own fear and grief ? So, unprepared for his inquiry, I was not able to fully enter into the reality of the moment. I did not know then how to comfortably and fully step into his world.
I sought the advice of my friend Barbara, who is a therapist. I asked how I should answer my father if he ever asked me again. She said, “Most people do know when they’re dying. Instead of being frightened to be honest, be honest. The dying are usually so lonely, since everyone is avoiding the truth. Don’t worry — you can’t kill a dying person by admitting he might be dying. It’s no shock to him. Be honest about the reality of dying, and then the two of you can get real about your feelings.”
In some families, confronting this reality comes more easily. I interviewed Jerry, a middle-aged businessman, who shared a story with me about his aunt, Francine. She had no trouble speaking directly about death. Francine had left hospice care, opting to die at home, and was resting in the bedroom. Jerry explained that the whole family, who had come from different parts of the country to be with the aunt, had gathered in the dining room to eat and had begun to talk loudly together, as was customary during their meals. The aunt in the other room cried out, “Can you all quiet down, please. I am fucking trying to die in here!”
One father told his daughter as he was nearing death: “I am daring to die.” His was a truth that she could hear, but not all people can fully articulate or confront death with such clear courage. In my interviews with families, I found that they had different ways of speaking about death. Some were direct, in many cases because an early diagnosis had opened the doors to communication for them. In other families, there was little or no candid conversation between the dying and their beloveds.
“What to say to a loved one who asks, ‘Am I going to die?’ ” hospice nurse Kathy Notarino remarked in response to my email inquiry. She went on to say, “That is a hard one, because it really depends on the people and how they will take that info. I took care of my mom, who asked [that question]. When she was having a good day, I would say, ‘Not today.’ I also said, ‘I don’t know,’ but I think she knew. It is hard with a parent. I just took care of my good friend, who died of ovarian cancer, and we talked openly about it because she knew I would tell her the truth.”
In my case, I never honestly and directly answered my father’s question, and yes, as Barbara suggested, I felt that he knew. While he and I never fully connected in response to his question, we fell into rapport in the weeks afterward. There are many ways and opportunities to connect with our beloveds in the final days and weeks of life, and they may not all be literal conversations. There are touch points in every phase before the person we love leaves us, and this book is, in part, about learning those touch points and trusting in the sacred openings that exist at each one.
By the time I thought I had an answer that would allow my father and me to speak literally and honestly about his dying, it was too late to have the conversation. He was already traveling on, moving into a world where his words were harder to understand and where he began to speak in symbolic, cryptic language. The question of whether he was dying no longer hung in the air. He had entered a new state of being, one that allowed him to make peace with the reality he had begun to fully confront.
Lisa Smartt, MA, is a linguist, educator, poet and author of Words at the Threshold. She founded the Final Words Project, an ongoing study devoted to collecting and interpreting the mysterious language at the end of lives. She lives in Athens, Georgia. Visit her online at FinalWordsProject.org.
Excerpted from the book Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We’re Nearing Death. Copyright © 2017 by Lisa Smartt. Printed with permission from New World Library.