Death is an inevitability we all face, but how we each experience the process of dying varies hugely.
Felicity Warner is someone passionately committed to helping those at the end of their lives experience “gentle and tranquil dying.” The founder of Soul Midwives, she trains and provides ‘end of life companions’ for people in their final days.
“Few people die at home anymore,” says Felicity. “That didn’t used to be the case. People knew how to sit with the dying, when to call the priest, how to wash a body. These days death has become medicalised and we have lost that ancient folk knowledge. I want to bring it back.”
As a small child and as a teenager, Felicity experienced a number of very close deaths in her family, and during her years working as a health journalist she found herself particularly moved and inspired by stories of women dying of breast cancer. In 2000 she set up Hospice of the Heart, a website and virtual hospice offering advice and support on palliative care. From there, while volunteering herself to sit with the dying, she developed the ‘gentle dying method,’ which is now used by soul midwives.
Soul midwives have a non-medical and non-religious approach, which is both practical and loving. They might sit in vigil, as it used to be called; holding the hand of the dying person, encouraging them to reminisce, listening, reading, helping them to write important letters, planning their funeral, saying prayers. They might even perform anointing or blessings, and they also draw on practices from other cultures and traditions, such as massage, visualisation, breathing techniques and meditation.
“The dying may feel a whole range of emotions. Death is not just about shutting down. People have a lot of things they need to resolve,” says Felicity. “We accompany them on that journey and basically help with the fear.”
“These days death has become medicalised and we have lost that ancient folk knowledge. I want to bring it back” — Felicity Warner
Soul midwives also help the families and friends of the dying. “A lot of what we do is intuitive,” says Felicity. “But we do also have a great wealth of experience and we can tell families things they might not know; for instance, eating and drinking are not always necessary towards the end, and that it is good to be very quiet with people when they are dying, so that they can do all their thinking and sorting.”
Sammy Hurden contacted Felicity when her close friend Kate was dying. “Felicity helped us to understand that there are stages to death, that it is all a natural process,” Sammy says. “She helped Kate accept her dying and she gave us confidence. She brought a kind of joy and lightness to the situation. And she also helped us encourage Kate. It had never occurred to me before that dying people need encouragement, but they do. They need to be told: ‘You’re doing really well.’”
Felicity runs regular courses, training soul midwives from her own home in west Dorset; a one-day introductory course followed by an intensive three-day course. The trainees also do master classes in, for example, therapeutic massage. They then get a certificate, enabling them to get the full insurance needed to practice.
Five years ago there were only about 20 soul midwives, now she has trained more than 185. “In the last year people just seem to have got the idea, and that’s very exciting,” she says.
To date, Felicity has trained a rock musician and a headmistress, as well as many members of the medical and caring professions. “The really great thing is that anyone can become a soul midwife,” she says. “The only qualifications needed are commitment, integrity and compassion.
“Many people feel called to it because they have been touched by a particular death in their family. When they have healed themselves they feel the need to put something back. Others join up because they want to use the skills with their ageing parents, or in their community, church or women’s group. And increasingly we are seeing people who want to understand more about their own dying process.”
Hospices are taking on Felicity’s ideas too, teaching their own staff the skills of soul midwifery. There are now soul midwives in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and Felicity hopes that within the next five years there will be a soul midwife in every care home, hospice and hospital in the UK.
“At the moment we desperately need more trainees. We can’t keep up with the demand for soul midwives and that is very frustrating. A ‘good’ death is an extraordinary, moving, sacred, profound and peaceful experience. And that is, surely, what all of us want.”