Not The Last Word On Last Words

There is a mystique out there that a dying person’s last words will contain rare wisdom or will give us a clue about what awaits us in the Beyond.  Emily Dickinson’s last words were supposedly, “I must go in, for the fog is rising.” Even if she did say this, for the overwhelming majority of us, the idea of our last words being jam-packed with significance is just a romanticizing of the end of life. The death scenes in many movies of a loved one saying a few brave words, letting out a sigh, and then turning their head away as they painlessly depart are no closer to the truth.  Also, I am skeptical of people having the presence of mind at the very end to be witty as in the famous quote by Oscar Wilde, purportedly his last: “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.”

Sorry to shatter this myth, but my experience on the job as a hospice chaplain is that last, or close to last words, are often mundane or consist of expressions of discomfort. “I am thirsty.” Or “I’m dizzy.” Or, “What time is it?” Or, “Oh my stomach hurts and I have to go to the bathroom” is more likely. Or something confused, as when I gave a woman some tepid tap water and she said, “That is the most delicious thing I have ever tasted.” There may not be any words at all, of course, if the patient is unresponsive or can no longer verbalize or is unintelligible or incoherent.

If it is any consolation, “next-to-last” words of a person still relatively clear-headed and sans dementia, can have more significance. “I love you” is very common, as are expressions of concern that the patient’s loved one will be able to get along after the patient is gone. Sometimes I do hear questioning of what their lives were all about, or declarations of faith or what has mattered most. One of my patients talked at length about some poems he wrote in a book he gave me as a present. He loved having me listen to him reading a few aloud and getting my reaction. He even asked if I would promote his book in my blog, something I could very much relate to as an author myself. Not many days later his life ended. In his memory I will mention the title of his book: Lifelines by Ben Verona (He chose this name, a pseudonym, because he thought it sounded Jewish and romantic and would attract female Jewish readers!)

Perhaps we want to think literally about final words because of the unknowability of death itself; as if part of what death is all about “seeps” into the final moments of life, throwing us a clue here and there. But unlike a novel or a film, alas for us real people, loose ends are left loose, and the ending after the ending is left undisclosed.

2 thoughts on “Not The Last Word On Last Words

  1. Hi Karen,

    Your words bring a memory that makes me smile….broadly!!

    A few years back…I received a call from a local rabbi…..asking me to do a favor. He had been called by a local Christian chaplain from a local hospital, to go to the hospital and be with a dying woman. The chaplain relayed that an elderly couple was in the ER.The elderly woman was at death’s door. I don’t know from what. It was to have been their 60th wedding anniversary and they had planned on renewing their vows that day. Instead – the elderly woman was white as a sheet, and, according to the Dr…death was imminent.

    The local rabbi could not go to the ER, so he called me and asked me to go. He told me the details – as above – and I agreed to go. As I got ready to leave my house…I quickly threw together a “ketuba” ( Jewish marriage contract) for the renewal of vows I planned to offer, and as I approached my car…I grabbed some beautiful flowers from my garden to give her.

    When I reached the doors of the ER, the security guards were ready and waiting – opening the doors for me and directing me to the correct cubicle.

    When I entered the cubicle, three Christian cohorts left. They looked down towards their shoes and mumbled something like, “We are so sorry”.

    Upon entering the tiny, drab, brightly lit space, I saw an elderly man hunched over a bed, tenderly holding the hand of an elderly woman…..who appeared to be not long for this world. It was a very moving scene. I introduced myself to the man, and said “hello” to the woman. I now see for myself the situation was exactly as had been described. A distraught elderly man visibly anguished standing by the dying woman he loves.

    I spoke to the man – asking pertinent questions – like where were they married? And, would he like me to officiate right then and there at a renewal of vows ceremony?? He teared up and managed to whisper…..YES, please!!!

    With that, I brought out the Ketuba, and the flowers. I “officiated” and when completed I asked where they had gone on their honeymoon. He tells me but offers this as an aside – She had enjoyed their honeymoon in the mountains – BUT – she really LOVED their trip to Israel a year ago. So, I turned to her, and ‘speaking’ to her I mentioned I had been to Israel several times and that Yerushalayim is my absolute favorite place in the world. As I go on about my love for Yerushalyim, I casually asked if she loved Yerushalayim. Of course my question was rhetorical…I did not anticipate or expect a reply. So when I said to her, did you love being in Yerushalayim – AND SHE RESPONDED – “YES” – you could have picked me up off the floor and her elderly husband almost had a heart attack. SHE SPOKE!!!!!

    I had always heard that hearing is the last to go…… this case it was absolutely true. The “white as a sheet, at deaths door, imminently going to die” woman SPOKE – coherently and emotionally “Yes, I loved it”. And she tenderly held onto her hubby’s hand.

    I can only imagine that her wonderful memories, and the love for the man standing nearby, were reignited at some very deep level that allowed her to respond.

    I quickly left the “newly’ married couple to have their last minutes together. When I closed the curtains behind me, the three chaplains were standing close by and all begged me to tell them the secret of Jewish prayer that could evoke such a quick – although brief – response!

    I called the ER the next day to find out when she died…

    You could have picked me up off the floor when they told me – SHE HAD BEEN RELEASED that day…….

    So, at her own renewal of vows ceremony – her last sigh, that sounded a lot like YES…turned out to be the start of life renewed.



    • In this case, precisely because the “last words” were far from the last, this story has a happy ending indeed! Thanks for uplifting our spirits with this moving story and well-told at that.


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