Petra Frey was prepared to hold hands because it looked like the man was going to die soon: His breathing was shallow, the area around his nose was pale, and he kept losing consciousness. But suddenly, as she tells it at the dining table in her house near the Gronsdorf S-Bahn station, he woke up from his twilight sleep and told her that he felt a certain appetite. So, as a hospice helper with little experience at the time, she ran off to organize a soup. But unfortunately it was much too hot. She panicked and started puffing. But the man said: “Oh, Mrs. Frey, try it out on me. Nothing will break anymore. I’m going to die anyway.”
Later she often encountered this “black humor” in people in the last few meters of their lives, but it was the man with the hot soup who gave her the idea of writing down her experiences with death. Frey is an actress by profession and on the road on Volksbühnen, but she voluntarily accompanies the seriously ill and dying for the Ottobrunn hospice district. Her second book “Licence to Hold Hands” has just been published. On March 7th at 7 p.m. she will read from it in the Small Theater Haar, accompanied by a marimba. “With premiere glitter,” she says, because after the reading there is a drink, fellow actors with whom she stood in front of the camera under her stage name Petra Auer in the television series “Dahoam is Dahoam” or the “Rosenheim Cops” had announced themselves. As a hospice worker, however, she is Mrs. Frey, sometimes also Petra. However, she does not allow herself to be called a first name. She wants to keep the distance. Something to do with self-protection, she says.
Frey trained to be a volunteer hospice worker after experiencing many years ago how lovingly her own mother was cared for in a palliative care ward. And anyone who takes a look at her books – the new “Licence to Hold Hands” as well as her first book “Sterbemund” (2019) – will recognize after the first few pages that Death would probably not object to a bit of limelight. In it, Frey describes him as a “buddy,” a smug guy who’s often early and rarely late.
But very few in this society trimmed for youthfulness, which likes to organize old age and illness away, concern themselves with the thought of their own death. “Neurologists have found that 80 percent of people have an optimistic misconception about their own invulnerability,” Frey writes in her new book, which she self-published with a crowdfunding campaign. With an appropriate dose of humor, Frey reports on her experiences in 50 chapters, mercilessly honest stories from her everyday life as a dying attendant, some sad, some funny or, in the case of the wife who mists her husband with incense sticks, a bit bizarre. This “slightly different guide”, as the cover says, is about the meaning of living wills.
Listen with all your heart
In the chapter “The Hospital Etiquette” Frey advocates more sensitivity when visiting seriously ill people. Of course, such an encounter can be unsettling. However, a hospital bed is not a shelf for handbags or coats, advice from Dr. Google isn’t very helpful and the grandma with third teeth probably doesn’t have much of trail mix either. What helps against that: listen, touch, be there, with all your heart. And if you can’t find the words, you can say it like that.
A year of work has gone into “License to Hold Hands”, it’s a family project. The illustrations are by daughter Lilli Frey, an aspiring art therapist, her son takes care of social media and the website. And her husband, the actor Winfried Frey, is her “best critic” anyway.
She drinks tea from a red cup, it’s actually more of a bowl that’s on the table in front of her, and her hair is red too. The Munich native is 59 years old. And while she talks about her work, the language unfussy, the voice powerful, the realization paves the way that life is somehow better in the awareness of one’s own finiteness. Because then the time is considered precious. And it can’t be changed anyway.
But the closer the end gets, the more likely it is that sick or old people will end up in isolation because nobody dares to see them anymore. “The dying are living to the end,” Frey pleads for less bias in dealing with them. The last phase of life can last up to six months. It is therefore important to the hospice associations to be involved as early as possible so that a relationship can be established. Frey reports on people she drove to the doctor and helped them choose glasses. “It’s not just holding hands horizontally,” she says.
Volunteer care for the dying is not only sad, there is also a lot of laughter, and sometimes funny things happen. In any case, with her courageous, humorous view of the subject, Petra Frey ensures that the terror of death no longer seems quite so terrible. Only what comes after that, she writes in “License to hold hands”, she doesn’t know either. You’re still alive.
“License to hold hands”, reading with Petra Frey on Tuesday, March 7th, at 7 p.m. in the small theater Haar.