Friday, July 10, 2020

From the Palliative/Spiritual Care Bookshelf

I continue today my series that draws from the wisdom within the many books on my shelf at work. As most reading this would know, my work, since September 2018, is that of a palliative care interfaith chaplain at a hospital just north of the Twin Cities.

In this third installment I share an excerpt from François Mitterrand's foreword of Marie de Hennevel’s book, Intimate Death: How the Dying Teach Us How to Live.

(NOTE: To start at the beginning of this series, click here.)


How do we learn to die?

We live in a world that panics at this question and turns away. Other civilizations before ours looked squarely at death. They mapped the passage for both the community and the individual. They infused the fulfillment of destiny with a richness of meaning. Never perhaps have our relations with death been as barren as they are in this modern spiritual desert, in which our rush to a mere existence carries us past all sense of mystery. We do not even know that we are parching the essence of life of one of its wellsprings.

[Marie de Hennezel’s book Intimate Death] is a lesson in living. The light it casts is more intense than that of many philosophical treatises; it does not offer thought but, rather, bears witness to the most profound of all human experiences. Its power derives from facts and from the simple way these are represented. Represented is exact – “to render present again” that which escapes our awareness: the far side of things and of time, the heart of anguish and of hope, the suffering of another, the eternal dialogue between life and death.

It is this dialogue that re-presents itself in Hennezel’s book, the dialogue that she sustains unbrokenly with her dying patients. . . . Hennezel tells us about the dignity of [her patients’]; she also tells us modestly but therefore all the more movingly about the unwavering supportiveness of the teams who accompany them on their last journey. She lets us experience the everyday adventure of the discovery of another human being, the engaging of love and compassion, the courage in the gentle movements that tend these damaged bodies. She shows how it is the love of life, not any death wish, that feeds the choices they make and the things they do.

[Hennevel and I] have talked about these matters often. I asked her question after question about the sources of the power that erases anguish and brings peace, and about the extraordinary transformations she sometimes witnesses in people who are about to die.

At the moment of utter solitude, when the body breaks down on the edge of infinity, a separate time begins to run that cannot be measured in any normal way. In the course of several days sometimes, with the help of another presence that allows despair and pain to declare themselves, the dying seize hold of their lives, take possession of them, unlock their truth. They discover the freedom of being true to themselves. It is as if, at the very culmination, everything managed to come free of the jumble of inner pains and illusions that prevent us from belonging to ourselves. The mystery of existence and death is not solved, but it is fully experienced.

That is perhaps the most beautiful lesson of [Hennevel’s] book: Death can cause a human being to become what he or she was called to become; it can be, in the fullest sense of the word, an accomplishment.

François Mitterrand
Excerpted from the foreword of Marie de Hennevel’s book,
Intimate Death: How the Dying Teach Us How to Live
pp. vii-ix


See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
From the Palliative/Spiritual Care Bookshelf (Part I)
From the Palliative/Spiritual Care Bookshelf (Part II)
Chaplaincy: A Ministry of Welcome
Interfaith Chaplaincy: Meeting People Where They're At
Spirituality and the Healthcare Setting
World Hospice and Palliative Care Day
Resilience and Hope
The Calm Before the Storm
George Yancy on the “Unspoken Reality of Death”
Arthur Kleinman on the “Soul of Care”
“Call Upon Those You Love”

Related Off-site Links:
In Pandemic, Health Care Chaplains Address an “Existential and Spiritual Crisis” – Alejandra Molina (Religion News Service, March 20, 2020).
Hospital Chaplains Bring Hope and Solace to COVID-19 Patients and Staff – Lulu Garcia-Navarro (NPR News, March 29, 2020).
It's Time to Get Serious About End-of-Life Care for High-Risk Coronavirus Patients – Jessica Gold and Shoshana Ungerleider (TIME, March 30, 2020).
Learning to Cope With the Pandemic From Palliative Care Patients – Rob A. Ruff (, May 8, 2020).
Our Crash Course in Being Mortal – Ira Byock (Goop, May 2020).

Images: Michael J. Bayly.

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