People often think about what they would have for a last meal or imagine what kind of funeral arrangements they would like, but we don't really think about last words: what we would hope to say or hear from loved ones. Linguistics researcher Lisa Smartt started the Final Words Project website and wrote a book on this topic after sitting by her father's deathbed and jotting down words and phrases.
Through her research, Smartt says she has observed a pattern of particular imagery and metaphor, and a tendency towards repetition. She gives the example of Steve Jobs’s last words: “Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!”, similar in some respects to Thomas Edison’s as he awoke for the last time from a coma to exclaim: “It is very beautiful over there!” Last words are often in these categories: reassurance, gratitude, resistance and unity; curiously, circles and numerics often play a role.
In order to understand this phenomenon better, the website has a form encouraging readers to add their own experiences. It also gives some compassionate advice on reaffirming a loved one’s words, even if they don’t make sense, rather than trying to convince them they are mistaken or delirious. Or simply to feel comfortable sitting in silence with a dying friend or relative. Perhaps a cheerless subject but one we don’t talk about enough.