I have been meaning to review this book for several weeks and never got round to it and then just forgot. But this article in today’s Guardian provided a good prompt, and as I’m off work this week with labyrinthitis, I actually have time to think and write. A mixed blessing, to be sure, but a blessing nonetheless.
When I was ordained deacon, one of the gifts I received from a woman in my home church was a book by Marie de Hennezel called Intimate Death: how the dying teach us to live. Had it come from just about anyone else, I would have thought it a slightly odd gift, but from this person, it made sense. It was a gift given with wisdom, insight and compassion, and an understanding — probably better than my own — of where my ministry would at times take me.
For various reasons, critical illness and death have felt very close this year, both in my personal life and in my ministry. And I’m continually aware of how what happens in one can impact how I respond to what’s happening in the other. It’s left me feeling off-balance and fragile, inexperienced and confused. During Holy Week, as I looked for reading which would be seasonally appropriate but not too mentally taxing, I decided to reread Intimate Death, and it was the perfect choice. (It also fit nicely alongside Fr Ian’s reflections on death on Good Friday, which I wish could be published somewhere for others to read.)
De Hennezel is a psychologist who worked on the staff of the first Palliative Care Unit in a Parisian hospital for people with terminal illnesses, and this book is a collection of her encounters with dying people and their loved ones. It is, in short, a book of tenderness and beauty which shimmers with intimacy and peace, and at times, even joy.
She does not set out to teach, but through stories and reflections on her own experiences of accompanying people who are dying, she gently challenges common perceptions of and reactions to death.
Over and over, her response to pain, loss, disgust, fear, and all the emotions that come with dying comes back to the simple act of being there and being honest: being honest about the impending death, about the helplessness of those keeping vigil, about the uncertainty and agony of waiting, about the frustration of living and dying with frail and failing bodies. Honesty brings with it trust, she shows, and when a relationship of trust is established, touch can become sacrament and silence benediction.
She describes her work (work is really the wrong word because this is clearly a vocation for her) with ease, and that would be my main criticism of the book; she and the doctors and nurses she works with seem to always know what to do and say to make things right. However, she not only acknowledges the great privilege of supporting those who are dying but also the cost which comes with it:
One can be perfectly aware that the accompanying of the dying is a matter of bonding and of love, but every connection that is established takes us onto the threshold of an adventure involving everything we have to give. This time, too, I feel the absolute seriousness of the commitment (106-107).
This is a book primarily of and about stories, and she speaks about how important it can be for the dying person to tell the story of their life:
The telling of it is an act, and for anyone whose autonomy is so often diminished, this act takes on its full importance. There is a need to give shape to one’s life and to show this shape, which gives it its meaning, to someone else (111-112).
But it’s a book which isn’t just the stories of those who are dying; it also contains her own, as their stories are refracted through her experience. She writes movingly about the impact of belatedly grieving her father’s death has on her health and her work, and the intertwining of her professional experience and personal emotion as she accompanies a dear friend to death.
One might assume that a book about death will be a depressing read, but Intimate Death is anything but. De Hennzel does not try to sanitise, romanticise or glorify death, but in her quiet words, she captures the sacred otherness we experience when we are present to one who is dying, and she therefore offers hope and celebration for lives both well-lived and well-ended.
It is impossible to capture in this short review the true heart and spirit of this book, so I will allow the last words to be de Hennezel’s in the hope that she can do a better job than I:
Some people say that a life that no longer permits one to be true to oneself is hardly worth living. They dwell on the loss of dignity. What they forget is the unsuspected resources that still lie unawakened in the depths of one’s being, the treasure one has never mined because one has had others to draw on — an entire interior life, intimate, emotional, spiritual. There is much to learn, in someone’s dying, from these neglected registers of our deepest selves. And perhaps there is much we can teach when we ourselves die.
I am very conscious of how much I am given and how much I keep learning from those who can no longer do anything except be there — from those who can offer only their smile or their wide-open gaze, or their dignity in allowing themselves to be cared for. They have taught me simplicity, and humanity (159-160).