The New Sun

Asking the Big Questions

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 Death, 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.

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I asked clergy and hospice workers to tell me the most commonly asked questions at the end of life. All of them said the one they hear most often is "What if there really is no heaven or God?" Here are some of the others they said they commonly hear:

What's going to happen to me in the days ahead?
What's going to happen after I die?
Is there really a God?
Will I be going to heaven?

Reverend Willis counsels that no matter who we are or how we lived, we should be given the opportunity to ask the big questions and find our own answers. Most of the experts I interviewed agreed. Counselor and death educator Martha Jo Atkins suggested responding to people's questions about God with another question, such as "What is God to you?" and then guiding them to their own answers.

"I ask: what and how do you picture heaven to be?" retired hospice nurse and social worker Kathy Notarino told me. "I would never try to change that belief for them. If they ask me what I believe, I say I know there is life beyond this physical world, but that I have a hard time really knowing what it looks like."

We, of course, hope for ourselves and those we love that at the moment of crossing we will be filled with awe like Jobs or Edison, or that our experience will be like that of one dying inmate who was comforted in his final days by Reverend Willis. She described how this emotionally calloused and crusty old inmate had a profound moment of revelation in her presence.

One of the first people I sat with was an ornery old Texan. He was sitting in the corner of his cell - I could see him looking up at the corner, as I later found out many people do as they die. It was as if the heavens had opened up and he could see something broad and vast. His eyes grew large and his old countenance changed. He looked up at the ceiling of his cell and stammered out, "God is...greater...greater than anything I could ever hope for or imagine," as big tears flowed down his face. I swear he was looking at heaven when he said it!

"Am I going to heaven? Is there really a God?" For some at the threshold, these big questions are never answered. Writer Gertrude Stein asked on her deathbed: "What is the answer?" When no answer came to her, she laughed and said, "In that case what is the question?" Soon after, she died. Her words, like those of Roger Ebert (and others in their final days), seem to indicate a kind of absurd understanding of what happens as they cross the threshold. In death, as in life, we formulate our own questions and find our own answers.

Health-care providers told me that many people - even those who have anxiety and discomfort in the dying process - often have a breakthrough. This breakthrough is often associated with bedside visions, healing dreams, conversations with both living and deceased beloveds, or other exceptional experiences. We can track these remarkable experiences through the shifts in language, discussed in later chapters. The breakthroughs often result in greater ease, surrender, relaxation - even awe - as people die.

Anna Rosen, a hospice nurse, told me:

There is a difference between the dying and the ill - and you can see it in their eyes. When people are ill and have a high temperature, they may see things, and there is often an underlying fear because they don't understand. Whereas with the end-of-life experiences, it is like a process, a process that takes people to a different level. End-of-life experiences are often positive for people. The things they see, the changes they go through: it is like a journey.

However, clearly not everyone journeys gently into that good night, and some die having never made peace or having fully resolved the life issues that allow for tranquil transitions.

Kathy Notarino shared the following with me: "In my experience, many people die as they lived. If they were always in control and had difficulty showing emotions to family and friends, then they seem to struggle more. Many have unresolved issues with their partners or children, even their life. They fight like hell to give up losing their lives and very seldom have the deathbed visions that often bring relief and comfort."

These deathbed visions Kathy referred to often occur as people are very close to dying and usually involve deceased friends and family who come to "take the person away." Chapter 7 focuses on this well-documented phenomenon - and its powerfully comforting effect. However, not everyone experiences the reassurance that comes with deathbed "visitations."

Tai chi and meditation teacher Jeffrey Kessler described his father's last days as his body weakened with an accelerating heart condition. Jeffrey explained, "He was the kind of person who fought any kind of vulnerability." Jeffrey's father was a World War II veteran and had always wanted to teach his "too-soft son" to be tough. More than once, his father had quoted these lines from "Invictus," by William Ernest Henley: "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul."

After a catastrophic heart attack, followed by a week of treatments with no improvement, his father, in the hours before dawn, asked the nurses to pull the plug. They did and then called Jeffrey and his two brothers to let them know their father would soon be dying. As they gathered at their father's side, he somehow managed to hoist himself up to a sitting position in bed and quoted the words Jeffrey had come to know so well: "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul" - and then his dad yelled "Bullshit!" and died.

Jeffrey explained to me, "He liked to think of himself as a powerful padrone, but before death he was physically humbled. And as the fortress of his heart crumbled, he felt his complete powerlessness in the face of the big mystery."

Each of us undertakes the process of facing the mystery differently. When my father was dying and we would inquire how he was doing, he would answer, "I am working on myself, working on myself." This was a phrase he used throughout life when he tried to find ways to deal with challenging people or circumstances. My family members all felt there was great truth in what he told us. Even in the end, he was working toward a deeper understanding of his process and of his life.

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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

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.