I had the pleasure earlier this year of being introduced by Merla Zellerbach to the legendary Florence Henderson. Ms. Henderson was in San Francisco to speak in support of the work done by “Compassion and Choices,” an organization that provides information and emotional support to mentally competent, terminally ill individuals seeking a peaceful death.
I was surprised to learn that Florence Henderson is a certified hypnotherapist (her late husband, Dr. John Kappas, was one of the most important figures in the development of the field), and that she considers it her true avocation in life. She told us about her personal decades-long experience in helping people prepare for their passing.
“In this role, I’ve had occasion to work with several people who were in transition,” she said, “And it’s truly a great, great gift to me to be able to do this work.”
Her husband is among those whom she’s helped. “Two days before my husband died, he asked me to put him in hypnosis, and asked me to take charge, and I did. And it was not easy. But I was so grateful and so proud that I could do that,” she said, explaining that through the hypnosis “he went into deep state of relaxation, and never really came out of it. That was his choice.”
She believes that it’s important for people who are dying to be able to have control over when and how they die. “If you let them know that they can make the decision, and that they are in charge, it makes all the difference. And if you can do this with compassion, with concern, and with care, it just means so much.”
“Compassion and Choices” relies on a staff of dedicated volunteers to provide counseling and support to patients and their families, to educate the community, and to advocate for improved end-of-life care, and end-of-life choice. As Merla Zellerbach pointed out to me, “This is an organization that’s new to mainstream San Francisco,” but it’s one which is gathering an impressive roster of supporters.
In addition to Merla, figures such as Dr. Dean Edell (who spoke at the event), Dr. Robert Brody, Dr. Robert Liner, Senator Mark Leno, Bishop William Swing, Rabbi Suzanne Singer and numerous other lawyers, doctors and community leaders are providing support to the organization.
Near the end of the presentation, Florence, still youthful and vibrant at 79, shared her own burial plans. She will be at Westwood Mortuary, near dear friends such as Carrie Burnett and Dr. Elsie Giorgi, and by a plaque for her husband. But she has two places reserved, she said. “Don’t ask me why, because I haven’t found the guy yet — but I picked out two places just in case I got lucky!”
Realistic about death, but optimistic about life. Perhaps that’s what has given Florence Henderson such strength and endurance, and made her such a comfort to countless individuals around the world, those who know her and those who’ve only admired her from TV.