'Intimate Death' -- facing the ultimate

February 23, 1997|By Jan Winburn | Jan Winburn,SUN STAFF

'Intimate Death,' by Marie de Hennezel. Knopf. 224 pages. $22.

It took 19 years of grieving to discover for myself what the author Marie de Hennezel coneys in just 224 pages: that in the death of a loved one, there is a gift for the living.

Anyone who has watched someone die - or answered the phone in the black of night, knowing no good news arrives at that hour - will find a balm in the book 'Intimate Death.' As its author says, there is no place in our society for people who weep over the loss of someone they love. But this book uncovers a place for grief. Indeed, it even celebrates the lessons such an experience can provide.

Hennezel is a psychologist who works as part of a team of doctors and nurses in a hospital for the terminally ill in Paris. It is a place that turns the traditional medical model on its head.

In her account of this work, she teaches how to comfort the dying while neither denying the truth nor extinguishing hope. She demonstrates how painful and humiliating experiences can be infused with respect and tenderness. She persuasively argues that the experience of 'accompanying' someone through the last moments of life can teach us how to face death, yes, but more importantly, how to live life.

As Hennezel introduces each patient, the reader experiences them as she does: not as sick bodies, but as entire lives imprisoned in ailing vessels. It is from this perspective that she explores the spiritual and the practical.

Listening is at a premium in this hospital. 'It takes a great deal of personal courage to accept that you can and should spend time doing absolutely nothing in the presence of someone who is dying,' she writes, an act the psychoanalyst W.F. Bion has called 'a mothering reverie.

' It's not that Hennezel and her colleagues deny the suffering of their patients or the horror that often accompanies death. But they do take the risk of casting aside 'therapeutic distance' and crossing the traditional boundaries between doctor and patient. Talking. Touching. Even acknowledging the desire to die. This, she explains, in not an agreement to carry out those wishes - but it does have the effect of fulfilling another of the patient's wishes: to be heard.

Hennezel weaves her observations and advice through the stories of those she cares for, their anger and peace, their joy and rage. She tells us to honor our dreams - and to study their symbols for the way they can help us grow. It is no surprise to learn that this book is a product of one of the author's dreams. It was a best-seller abroad; it's translation is a must-read.

'If death causes such anguish,' she writes early on, 'is it not because it sends us back to the real questions, the ones we evaded, thinking that we would consider them later, when we were older and wiser and had the time to ask ourselves the essential questions?

' The time, Hennezel no doubt would say, is now. In a society that averts its eyes from death and runs from these questions, one could profit from reading this remarkable book every year.

Jan Winburn is enterprise editor at The Sun; she worked at the Hartford Courant and the Philadelphia Inquirer before coming to Baltimore. She lost her older brother in 1977.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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