Intimate Death: How the Dying Teach Us How to Live
by Marie De Hennezel
translated by Carol Brown Janeway

I am sitting in the little gray salon next to François Mitterrand's bedroom in the Elysée Palace. The president, whom I called yesterday, asked me to come and see him. He has just left the hospital. Like the world in general, I know from the newspapers that he has had an operation for cancer. "I'm soon going to need your palliative care," is what he said to me.

The room is groaning with books, pictures, pieces of sculpture-presents given to the president-which he keeps under the gaze of these dark walls until he can send them to the Nièvre Museum, to which he consigns them all. It's Saturday afternoon; silent, gloomy, and cold.

A door opens. The footman announces that the president will receive me. I'm ushered into the beautiful bedroom with its pale paneling and elegant proportions. The room is agreeably welcoming and calm, in contrast to the antechamber. The president is in bed. His customary aura of dignity seems to have followed him even into this intimate place. It derives, as I know, not just from his position but from his personality. There is something in this man as he lies there that commands respect even as it suggests his utterly accessible humanity. His face looks drawn, but he seems very calm. I go over and sit on his bed, the way I often do in the hospital. I have always had a simple and straightforward relationship with this man, who now greets me like a friend and tells me with absolute directness what's happening to him.

"The process has begun. The illness is fatal, I know..." His voice is calm; he is looking directly into my eyes. "I'm not afraid of death, but I love life. It always comes too soon." Then we talk about time, and the amount he has left to live. Nobody can give a prognostication about this. The will to live often wins out over medical opinion. I've seen it often myself.

"You mustn't start dying before death comes," I say. We both know that one can be clear-minded about the approach of death and yet continue to have all sorts of plans. It's a matter of staying absolutely alive until the end.

The president wonders if believers face death with greater serenity. Is there a connection between faith and peace of mind? Our conversations about death have often turned toward the mystical. Could it be otherwise? Can one talk about the eternal mystery that is death without evoking our connection to the invisible, given everything we cannot explain, but only intuit? The president, who describes himself as agnostic, says this doesn't stop him from having a religious belief-- that he is linked to some dimension beyond himself. The experience is both sensorial and intimate, which, he says, is more of an argument for the existence of God than any article of faith provides.

"One can be a nonbeliever and yet serene in the face of death; one can prepare for it as for a journey into the unknown. After all, the unknown is simply another form of the beyond," he posits.

I tell him about a woman who met her death with absolute serenity recently, and who had said to me, "I'm not a believer, but I am curious to know what's coming next." Is this not a form of faith, this confidence in the unfolding of things? Belief in something after death is not much help if it is not rooted in the experience of a deep inner trust. I have known two priests who were each in absolute torment on their deathbeds, unable to pray or to let themselves go.

"It's not faith, but the texture of a life lived that allows one to give oneself into the arms of death," I say.

We talk quietly about dying. It is such a gift to share a moment's intimacy with a man who has so little time left so little time for himself, so little privacy, even though he has always fought to preserve that for himself.

The president starts talking about his visit to the palliative care unit. "What a wonderful experience!" The calm of the patients he met is still vivid in his mind. He says he hopes with all his heart that when the time comes, he will be able to retain this self-mastery to the end. "I know I'll need you. You don't bring peace to your patients just by talking to them-you do it by being there. You allow people to let themselves go."

His confidence is touching. Of course it would be a privilege to accompany him through his last moments. He knows I feel that.

I don't know how we come around to talking about the inner strength that comes to us when times are worst. Can one rely on oneself? He and I have often talked about meditation and prayer-- regathering one's troubled spirits into one's innermost self, creating silence, listening to the breath of life as it courses through one. Prayer has nothing to do with the perpetual droning of words, nor with requests for the impossible. In the phrase of the monk Seraphim of Savov, it is "being part of a presence that envelops both body and soul" or being in contact with the community of all who pray.

"When you pray, you rise to meet in the air those who are praying at that very hour and whom you may not meet save in prayer." The sentence is Kahil Gibran's.

"So, you believe in the communion of saints?" The president says he is receptive to the idea that one cannot rely on one's own inner strength alone, and that one needs prayers, the invisible communion with others as they set their thoughts to something higher. I have often talked to him about the prayer group I belong to with friends; we dedicate some of our time and our thoughts to this spiritual communion in a form of solidarity. It is a beautiful idea to believe that at any moment on earth, thousands of people are praying, that one can link oneself to this in thought, and that one can yearn with all one's heart and soul for this shared energy to be of help to someone who is enduring loneliness or suffering.

La Mort Intime ©Copyright Éditions Robert Laffont, S.A., Paris, 1995. Translation ©Copyright Carol Brown Janeway, 1997. All Rights Reserved. No portion of this work may be reproduced of transmitted in any form of by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system now or hereafter invented, without permission in writing from the Publisher.