Before Someone You Love Dies, Intimate Death Is the Book You Want to Have Read

09/13/2010 12:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Head Butler reader wrote to tell me about her 88-year-old mother, who was, last month, clearly failing. Her family made "the hard decision" to bring her to a hospice. There she sipped her favorite wine, listened to the Three Tenors and flirted with her husband of 65 years. Then she stopped eating, went unconscious -- and, soon, was gone.

The e-mail continued:

I have never experienced a person's body and spirit moving towards death. I am still searching for the words. To be tending to this woman I know and love so well and to not know what she was experiencing internally at this most ultimate of moments -- was she seeing people from beyond? Was she afraid? How much do you feel when the body starts shutting down? She seemed to hold on for quite a while; was it anything we said that allowed her to go? (If, indeed, we had anything to do with it at all.) Please tell me if you know of a particular book that might comfort...

Yes. I know of such a book. It is Intimate Death: How the Dying Teach Us How to Live. (To buy it from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.) I have read it several times since it was first published in 1987, and with each reading I have more admiration for its author. These 182 pages are loving and wise. Even more, they are thrilling -- for Marie de Hennezel, a French psychologist, spent years "accompanying" the dying on their path toward death.

I mean that literally. Her book begins: "I am at Bernard's bedside." Bernard has AIDS. (Reminder: This book was written in the mid 1980s, when AIDS was a death sentence.) He's spending his last days at the small, new "palliative care unit" where de Hennezel works. He happens to be a personal friend, but that doesn't really matter: "We have made each other a promise, and now I am here beside him, keeping a patient, emotional vigil."

That doesn't mean just sitting there. It means helping to bathe the dying man -- water is "a way of taking care that allows him to feel that his soul is alive until the very end." It means holding hands, listening -- what de Hennezel feels is appropriate to the moment and the person. And sometimes, it means acting on instinct: "We wept together, because I didn't know what else to do."

This work begins with a simple premise: "The dying person knows." And that reverses the traditional end-of-life relationship. Now the expert is the patient, not the doctor. The patient leads, the doctor follows. At most de Hennezel prods, in the hope that a patient will open up and complete the unfinished business of his/her life.

The patients are fascinating. A man, dying of AIDS, whose parents refuse to acknowledge his illness. A womanizer who discovers his goodness. A young woman who dies as if she's giving birth. And a mother, concerned only for her young son. It falls to de Hennezel to tell him she's died: "He has to know how much he helped her. She told me so. He was her joy and her support... The child listened to it all with absolute attention, then thanked me gravely. I went and had a coffee. I was shaken to the core."

Along the way, we come to know a great deal about the people who do this hard but rewarding work, and about de Hennezel, most of all. How can it be otherwise? Success here means holding nothing back. Just listen to her:

We hide death as if it were shameful and dirty. We see in it only horror, meaninglessness, useless struggle and suffering, an intolerable scandal, whereas it is our life's culmination, its crowning moment and what gives it both sense and worth.

It is nevertheless an immense mystery, a great question mark that we carry in our very marrow.

I know that I will die one day, although I don't know how, or when. There's a place deep inside me where I know this. I know I'll have to leave the people I love, unless, of course they leave me first.

This deepest, most private awareness is, paradoxically, what binds me to every other human being. It's why everyman's death touches me. It allows me to penetrate to the heart of the only true question: So what does my life mean?

Those who are privileged to accompany someone in life's final moments know that they are entering the most intimate of times. Before dying, the person will try to leave his or her essence with those who remain -- a gesture, a word, sometimes just a look to convey what really counts and what thus far has been left -- either from inability or inarticulacy -- unsaid.

Death, which we will live to the end one day, will strike our loved ones and our friends, is perhaps what pushes us not to be content with living on the surface of things and people, pushes us to enter into the heart and depth of them.

After years of accompanying people through the living of their final moments, I do not know any more about death itself, but my trust in life has only increased. I am certain that I live more intensely and more aware of those joys and sorrows that I am given to live, and also all the little, daily, automatic things -- like the simple fact of breathing or walking.

I may also have become more attentive to the people around me, aware that I will not always have them at my side, longing to explore them and to contribute as much as I can to what they are becoming and what they are called to become.

Moreover, after spending years with what are called "the dying," although they are in every way "the living" until the very end, my own sense of aliveness is more intense than ever. I owe this to those I have imagined myself to be accompanying, but who, in the humility of their suffering, have revealed themselves as masters.

Shortly after my first reading of Intimate Death, I had reason to be in Paris, so I wrote to Marie de Hennezel and asked to meet. A few weeks later, I found myself seated across a restaurant table from her. How could this attractive blonde woman in a white silk blouse and pearls have witnessed -- and shared -- those deathbed revelations? It didn't compute.

She kept talking. I closed my eyes, ignoring the words, listening only for the emotion.

What I heard: boundless love, compassion, faith. What I got: how much I'd like her to be holding my hand as I died. And then, after, what I really got: that her book helps me to learn to help others die and it helps others to help their loved ones move into position for their final passage.

No wonder the readers of Intimate Death feel mostly... gratitude.

Cross-posted from