Have you ever been with someone as they passed away? Or have you cared for a dying friend or relative? If you have ever had that experience, you know how important and interesting someone’s final words might be. Words at the Threshold: What We Say As We’re Nearing Death was a profoundly moving experience for me.

Lisa Smartt was a student of forensic psychiatrist Raymond Moody, Ph.D., whose book Life After Life on near-death experiences (NDEs) was a bestseller in 1975. Inspired to study with him, Smartt began her own research, called The Final Words Project, collecting information from those who care for those who are gravely ill. Accounts come from hospice care workers, relatives and friends, and health care workers. Smartt collected submissions from them to form the basis for this book.

What struck me is that there are so many similarities in how people die. Smartt discusses many of them in this work. These may include hearing music that other people cannot hear; seeing people or groups of people that have passed away; and repeating words or phrases over and over again.

In many of the reports, witnesses describe the “sunset day”, a time when a gravely ill person seems to rebound. Sometimes, they are strong enough for a meal, even if they have not eaten recently, or lucid enough to describe the location of important paperwork or mementos. It can also be a time when a dying person asks for forgiveness.

The sunset day story that had the most impact on me personally was one woman who was taking care of her dying father-in-law. He had always teased her about her weight “in good fun,” even though it bothered her.  On his sunset day, he sat up and asked his daughter-in-law to come over so he could whisper something in her ear. He said, “I never noticed how pretty you are. I’m so sorry I never noticed.”  

One of the most common NDE accounts is that of people coming to take the gravely ill person away with them. By and large these are relatives, friends, and even pets that have predeceased the patient. The patient acknowledges the visitation that is invisible to others in the room. In the vast majority of reports, patients find peace through these experiences.

As a former linguist, I was very interested in the subject from an academic perspective. But as a minister, death is a topic that often comes up in our communities, and I was glad to have a truly unique perspective on the death experience.  I feel like I’m better prepared for the situation now.

One of the most amazing parts of this book for me was the knowledge that there are many similarities in how many people express themselves in their final moments.  For me, Words at the Threshold: What We Say As We’re Nearing Death provided me peace and consolation.

~review by John Marani

Author: Lisa Smartt
New World Library, 2017
pp. 179, $15.95