Conversations At The Threshold Of Death with Lisa Smartt

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Being with a person who is close to death may be difficult and confusing. Oftentimes it is mystifying to discern what they are talking about because their speech pattern can sound nonsensical. Lisa Smartt has done extensive research regarding the words spoken by many at this threshold and she advises us to be open to the experience our loved ones are having. The “nonsense” that we hear may actually indicate some kind of shift or change as they cross the threshold. Her advice to us is to validate the person’s experience no matter how odd or unusual it may seem. She tells us, “It is okay to engage in a conversation as if we see what they are seeing.” And she further advises “Keep a journal, listen carefully, and have eyes for the sacred even if it seems scary, or baffling, or puzzling. Imagine holding it with sacredness.” Smartt also gives a moving example of an incident that points to the survival of consciousness after death of the body. This is a most poignant and deep dialogue filled with advice and stories regarding being with those at the threshold of death. Not to be missed. (hosted by Justine Willis Toms) 


Lisa Smartt is a linguist, educator, and poet. She’s founder of 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. 

Lisa Smartt is the author of:

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Topics Explored in This Dialogue

  • How recording the conversations of her dying father helped her with her grief
  • What Michael Toms said to Justine on the eve of his death
  • Why it may take time to fully understand what a loved one expressed
  • What is the difference between speech patterns caused by medication and the patterns of nonsensical speech
  • How the rules of words at the threshold may be different from the “everyday” rules of speech
  • What is her best advice for being with a person who is near death
  • Why we must develop ears for the signature metaphors of those on the threshold of death
  • What is Justine Toms’ story about a communication of her mother-in-law following her death
  • Why it is better to talk about cancer as a journey of discovery rather than a battle
  • What advice does Smartt have when friends and families refuse to allow for the possibility that their loved ones will die
  • What is the significance of the repetition of words
  • What are some instances of a person becoming very lucid just before death, even when they have advanced Alzheimer’s
  • What are people aware of even when in a coma
  • Can communication take place without words even when people are in a coma 

Host: Justine Willis Toms          Interview Date: 4/27/2017           Program Number: 3615

Music Playlist

From Album: Prayer for Compassion
Artist: David Darling
2009 Wind Over Earth #WE2340 

Opening Essay: Track 02 Prayer for Compassion
Music Break 1: Track 03 Stones Start Spinning
Music Break 2, Track 05 Music of a Desire
Music Break 3, Track 06 Remembering Our Mothers