Many of us would like to think that when the time comes, our final words will be profound, poetic, or a legacy of our life in some other way. The reality, however, is that plenty of people are hardly able to communicate at all at the end.

Linguist and teacher Lisa Smartt made a practice of writing down her dying father’s nonsensical ramblings in the weeks leading up to his passing. He’d say things like “There’s so much so in sorrow,” and “Let me down from here, I’ve lost my modality.” The last thing his wife eventually heard him say was “Enough. Thank you, I love you, and enough,” the night before he died.

The last thing his wife eventually heard him say was “Enough. Thank you, I love you, and enough,” the night before he died.

What began as a coping mechanism for Smartt led to her book, Words on the Threshold, which explores the linguistic patterns of 181 dying people. The book—and this Atlantic article discussing it—offer a look into the fascinating and often foggy layer of human consciousness, and one that, for a variety of reasons. is relatively unstudied.

Among the difficulties: Those suffering Alzheimer’s or dementia can lose much of their vocabulary, medications can get in the way of speaking, and patients that undergo surgery just before passing may still be suffering from delirium.

And yet, while there are still some obstacles barring us from getting a clear insight into what goes through people’s minds right before they die, Smartt’s book offers fascinating insight not just into people’s final words, but into the linguistic patterns that govern our last moments. And until science and technology make things clearer, it will have to do.  

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