She became famous as Mitterrand's death counsellor, and her book became a French bestseller. But it is her descriptions of the ordinary terminally ill that are so moving. There is Patrick, with Aids, whose sores and tumours on his legs are so bad that he needs to be hugged by Marie while the nurses change the dressings. There is Patricia with cancer of the uterus, and Marie France, a young woman with a tumour spreading across her face. And then there is the extraordinary Danielle, completely paralysed with Charcot's disease, who can only communicate by blinking or tapping out words on a computer screen with her index finger.
Hennezel believes that the purest gift we can give the terminally ill is simply to sit with them. She allows them to express anguish, encourages them not to start dying until death comes and gives them time to talk about their life with someone who is not connected to it. She knows that people can forget their damaged bodies provided that those around them focus on the indestructible aspects of their nature rather than the decay: "Something of beauty always does survive, even if it is only the colour of the eyes."
Acting as diplomat between the dying and their relatives, she offers them the opportunity to resolve conflict and part peacefully: "the worst kind of solitude when you're dying is not being able to say to people you love that you're going to die. To feel your death approaching and not to be able ... to share with others what this leave-taking inspires in you often results directly in mental breakdown, a kind of delirium." She shows us that it is possible to have spiritual strength without religious belief. When a small boy asks his dying grand- mother if it is true that he won't see her again, she takes him on her knee and says "Death is like a ship sailing away toward the horizon. There's a moment when it disappears. But just because you can't see it any more doesn't mean it doesn't exist."
Kate FigesReuse content