What is a Soul Midwife? An Interview with Felicity Warner: Part Two

In a two-part interview, Felicity Warner of Soul Midwives explains what it means to help someone explore and experience — even enjoy — their dying process

This is the second half of SevenPonds’ interview with Felicity Warner (read part one here). Felicity is the mind behind Soul Midwives, a service that has helped pioneer the movement towards holistic and spiritual palliative care. As the founder of the Soul Midwives School, she trains others who wish to become “holistic and spiritual companions to anyone at the end of life.”

Felicity Warner, Soul Midwives, Death Midwifery, Home funeral consultant, home funeral, dying at home, home death, home death UK, UK midwives

Felicity Warner.
(credit: Daily Mail UK)

MaryFrances: Do you have a sort of foundation – a text or philosophy – for the way you work with the dying?

Felicity: Well, Soul Midwives does work with a model of the dying process. It’s somewhat linked with the Buddhist model of the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which looks at the full stages of life and death as they are linked to the elements—fire, water, earth, air—to connect with them. We find it helps us understand when to use sound, for example, or perhaps holistic massage.

MaryFrances: There tends to be some confusion about end-of-life terminology. Is a soul midwife the same thing as a home funeral consultant in the States?

Felicity: It’s slightly different. In the States, as far as I’m aware, there are death midwives who are much more to do with handling the body after death. And they are a real, important part of the home burial movement. Over here, by contrast, a soul midwife focuses on working with those before and during the dying process. We do a bit of post-care – perhaps we’ll wash or anoint the body, tap into those age-old traditions. We’ll hold a vigil, for example. Usually we help someone prepare and come to peace with their diagnosis beforehand, then accompany them through the actual dying process.

MaryFrances: Generally speaking, what’s the longest time a loved one can stay in the home after they have died?

Felicity: I would say about three days. It’s a complicated matter! It depends on what illness, if any, the person has had. Often, to keep someone in the home, families will have a cooling platform, perhaps dry ice.

“…as death approaches, [we often see people] wake up to become very alert. There’s a sort of attentiveness. They’ll talk of seeing another loved one, or of a bright light or presence. It’s remarkable to witness those moments.”

–Felicity Warner

MaryFrances: Can you walk us through the process of what a person hiring a soul midwife would expect – a blow by blow?

Felicity: We prefer working with people when they’ve just received their terminal diagnosis. At that stage, the person is often fairly active. We use that time to help them get their priorities into focus—an end-of-life wish plan, you could say. Would they prefer to be in their home or a hospice environment? Who would they like to be with them at the various stages?

Then, as someone becomes more ill, a soul midwife will start to wear her clinician’s hat, if you will – we offer holistic therapies and deep, spiritual companionship. Those are our hallmarks.

Felicity Warner, Soul Midwives, Death Midwifery, Home funeral consultant, home funeral, dying at home, home death, home death UK, UK midwives

Soul midwives learn the benefits of “soothing touch”.
(credit: Felicity Warner)

MaryFrances: How long do you generally work with someone?

Felicity: We might work with someone for three or four days, or ten months. If someone has contacted us quite late, then we really just try to sit with them, sing and hold a personalized vigil.

MaryFrances: What is the most surprising thing about your work?

Felicity: There are several, really! One of the most interesting is we work with a lot of people with extreme fear. They’re locked into a state of terror – a prison. But after working with someone, you can help them to really accept their reality in a beautiful, serene way.

“We work with a lot of people with extreme fear. But you can help them to accept their reality in a beautiful, serene way.”

–Felicity Warner

Then there’s what happens when death occurs. A soul midwife may be with someone who has been unconscious for several days, and then, suddenly, as death approaches they wake up to become very alert. There’s a sort of attentiveness. They’ll talk of seeing another loved one, or of a bright light or presence. It’s remarkable to witness those moments. It reminds me very much of when Steve Jobs died, and said “Oh, wow!” because all of us here said, “Finally! People can hear about this beauty, this liberation!” Because we see it all the time, but of course not everyone does.

MaryFrances: Have you noticed any other ‘patterns’ with those you care for?

Felicity: You know, it’s true what they say. People tend to ‘go’ in the style that they lived; if they were happy, they tend to drift off more peacefully and angry people tend to go in an angry way. But the more you begin to consider and prepare for your death, the more you can transform that experience.

MaryFrances: Thank you so much, Felicity.

Felicity: Thank you!

You may enjoy:

  • Our interview with death midwife Cassandra Yonder
  • Our book review of A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir
  • What are Home Funerals? An Interview with Ann-Ellice Parker

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Our Weekly Tip: “Love Box” for Children in the Stages of Grief

An easy healing craft to help kids express their grief
Love box, heart craft, DIY, grief craft, healing craft, heart box, valentine's day box

Credit: napavalleyregister.com

Our Tip of the Week: There are plenty of DIY activities out there for those who are grieving – remembrance quilts, balloon releases, etc. But what about activities specifically made for children in the stages of grief?

It’s important to heal through self-expression, especially for younger children who’ve yet to grow into more articulate shoes. The DIY “Love Box” is a creative, easy craft for kids to express themselves.

How-to Suggestion: The great thing about this craft is it’s a) inexpensive b) very open-ended. The only thing you’ll need is an empty candy box (particularly heart-shaped), some white out and colored markers. First, paint over the candy sections with white out and let dry. Next, have children fill in the white sections with drawings that reflect their ponderings, memories or feelings – their love, in short. You could even glue in some items from the loved one (ex. a button or small photo). Finally, hang the box wherever you see fit. It will be a great reminder to that little someone that their voice is being heard.

More Tips: Explore more of SevenPonds’ memorial resources through our stages of grief guide and explore other end-of-life tips through our Practical Tips column.

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Book Review: My Foreign Cities by Elizabeth Scarboro

A woman’s memoir of young love and learning to live life to the fullest in the face of her husband’s impending (yet with an uncertain timeline) death from cystic fibrosis
My Foreign Cities book cover, Elizabeth Scarboro

Credit: Amazon.com

What if, as a teenager, you fell in love with a peer who was already facing their middle age years as well as dealing with declining health that would lead to eventual death at a relatively young age from a condition they were born with? That is what happened to Elizabeth Scarboro when she met Stephen, a young man with cystic fibrosis, in high school. Starting out as very close friends who become lovers and then spouses, Elizabeth and Stephen choose to face the uncertain and often bumpy road of his impending mortality by living life to the fullest together regardless of whatever the challenges may be. My Foreign Cities allows us to follow them on their journey. We feel as though they could be our friends, loved ones or even ourselves as they deal with both the usual challenges in life and the threat of impending death.

We feel as though they could be our friends, loved ones or even ourselves as they deal with both the usual challenges in life and the threat of impending death.

My Foreign Cities traces Scarboro’s journey with her husband by sharing vignettes in each chapter that act as snapshots for us into a life filled with lots of love and a thirst for living fully. These moments sustain them through the dark moments and challenges that come with cystic fibrosis. Scarboro shares both the sweet and humorous moments, and the difficult moments of her life with Stephen. All the while, she colors her narrative with her philosophical ponderings about her time spent with her beloved husband.

Elizabeth Scarboro

Credit: whytherearewords.wordpress.com

During one of Stephen’s hospital stays, he ends up in a room on the cystic fibrosis floor where the previous occupant was an 80-year-old man who died of pneumonia. The man was only there because of the lack of overall beds in the hospital. Since this late man lived such a long life compared to the others living with cystic fibrosis on that floor, Scarboro reflects on a colloquialism she always heard. She “wondered whether it was true what they said about pneumonia being the old man’s friend. Did old men actually see it this way, or was it only younger, healthier people who thought the end of life wasn’t worth dragging out?” This philosophical musing demonstrates how a serious illness, such as cystic fibrosis, affecting someone you love deeply can make you rethink what certain phrases meant to comfort us about death and loss are actually about. These colloquialisms bring about a whole new meaning when impending death is expected for young adults  in love who are just figuring out their futures.

Her words, memories and ponderings trigger you into reflecting on your own life, raising questions like whether you are living each day to the fullest and what kinds of decisions you would make if you were faced with the same challenges the author must face.

My Foreign Cities serves as a beautiful reminder of how precious life is as a whole. Scarboro tells her readers that she “want[s] to give you post-hospital bliss. Because there’s nothing like it…It’s a cross between the feeling of falling in love and having narrowly escaped being hit by a car.” Scarboro’s writing style, including metaphors and word choice, grabbed me from the start and propelled me to keep reading to learn about her life with Stephen and her personal views about death and loss of a spouse from becoming a widow at a young age. Her words, memories and ponderings trigger you into reflecting on your own life,  raising questions like whether you are living each day to the fullest and what kinds of decisions you would make if you were faced with the same challenges the author must face.

Check out more of our literary and film reviews here.

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“Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.”

- W. Somerset Maugham
Rain on Thassos: A Dreary Day in Greece

Credit: Wikipedia

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Warding Off Evil Spirits

The many ways we wrangle unwanted spirits

Much of Halloween’s appeal is its dark underworld mystery we love. Once again it’s that time of the year when we find ourselves naturally embracing our paganism going back to when the world was filled with the scary unknown. This instinctual fear is what drove so many cultures to come up with their own ways to ward off evil spirits. The result is some visually beautiful rituals that cultures have adopted over time.

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Karthikai Deepam Festival with oil lamps placed at homes
(credit: http://www.thehindu.com)

Karthikai Deepam is a Tamil Hindu festival that takes place sometime from November to December when the moon aligns with the constellation Karthigai. These six stars are part of the legends and mythology today. The festival has a religious story that ends with the worship of the flower Thazhambu and a Lord appearing as a flame. In honor of this flame, oil lamps are lit on the streets and in homes once darkness blankets the end of the festival day. Often they are placed on the flower or the symbolic six stars Kolam, a painting using colorful rice powder.

tribal taboo signs

Split Bamboo signs to ward off evil spirits
(credit: blackeagleflights.blogspot.com)

 

A tribe that lives in Northern Thailand’s hills believes in all kinds of spirits that have been around since the beginning of time. Spirits that oversee people’s lives and their deaths, be it good deaths by natural causes or bad ones by accidents. Spirits that oversee the sky, land, trees and weather, each in their own particular way. The spirits act out in spite or power or to protect. Anything that happens is believed to be caused by a spirit. There are shaman experts to handle angry spirits, to calm them to not cause harm.

Burning-money-and-yuanbao-at-the-cemetery-3249

Hell bank notes burning in Ghost Month
(credit: wikimedia.org)

When I was in China, I witnessed a Chinese funeral where the family burned “Hell Money” or “Joss Paper” to make the ghosts that live in the underworld happy. The hell money allows the dead ancestors to live comfortably by buying lavish items. Once a family member dies, they are believed to be a ghost. The Chinese also celebrate a hungry ghost festival on the 7th month of their calendar. Spirits can take on many evil forms – snake, wolf, moth or other forms – and it’s believed that to be possessed by one can result in an unfortunate life of physical or mental illness.

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Salt at the entrance of a home to ward off evil spirits
(credit: http://shizuokagourmet.com)

The practice of salt at the entrance of a Japanese home or business can still be seen in practice today. It is believed to chase evil spirits and while the salt is usually placed in a pile on the ground, a dish or platter, it can be spread out in shapes as well. The Japanese can only purchase it during the day or bad luck will happen and then some of it might be tossed into a fire as an extra measure to prevent any evil outcome. This is based on the belief that the devil is afraid of salt. Mythology has it that if sprinkled on the devil’s tail it will burn him terribly.

There are many myths and folklores to ward off evil spirits, with each practice more beautiful in its own way. These are just a few of many examples still around today.

Check out our other posts on cultural death practices around the world here.

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Atul Gawande Says Doctors And Patients Should Stop Running From Death

The physician explains that patients often live longer when they opt out of unecessary medical interventions
The book cover for Atul Gawande's Being Mortal featuring black text on a white background

Credit: atulgawande.com

Holding onto life is our most basic and natural instinct. If we have every medical treatment that can extend life at our fingertips, why not use it?

Physician Atul Gawande disagrees. In his latest book Being Mortal, he questions whether these medical interventions extend life, or simply make us miserable. It might sound counterintuitive, but he has a point.

More cancer patients live an average of 25 percent longer when they are on hospice care than those who continue chemotherapy until the bitter end.

One study shows that hospice care can actually improve and extend a patient’s life more than serious medical intervention. More cancer patients live an average of 25 percent longer when they are on hospice care than those who continue chemotherapy until the bitter end.

But why is this the case?

Gawande suggests it’s hospice’s focus on quality that counts. Nurses talk to patients about what they expect their deaths to be like, using pain medication and other treatments to simply make the patient comfortable. Gawande says we should not only accept that death is inevitable, but we should also plan for it.

In our industrialized medical system, the focus is on what new drugs can stave off death as long as possible. Doctors, pharmaceutical companies and investors pump millions of dollars into the latest drug research, trying to find that next great breakthrough.

If we have only months to live, he wants us to consider how to make those months enjoyable, rather than trying to squeeze out a few extra heartbeats.

Medical interventions certainly have their use, but Gawande wants us to think of the bigger picture. If we have only months to live, he wants us to consider how to make those months enjoyable, rather than trying to squeeze out a few extra heartbeats. What’s the point in living three days longer if you feel physically exhausted from treatments?

His idea isn’t new. In fact, it’s been in the news a lot lately. Legendary editor Diana Athill has an essay published in The Guardian of her experiences facing death head-on. She shares Gawande’s sentiments, saying, “One of the many things I like about my retirement home is the sensible practical attitude towards death that prevails here. You are asked without embarrassment whether you would rather die here or in a hospital, whether you want to be kept alive whatever happens, or would prefer a heart attack, for instance, to be allowed to take its course, and how you wish your body to be disposed of.”

Just as we would plan for college or retirement, we should plan for how we want our deaths to happen.

With Gawande’s book gaining a huge audience, and the news revolving around alternative attitudes toward death, society seems geared for a more holistic approach to the end of life. Rather than fearing death and wishing it away with unnecessary procedures, we can treat it as a natural process that requires careful planning. Just as we would plan for college or retirement, we should plan for how we want our deaths to happen.

That’s not to say that medical intervention should be completely discounted. Gawande is a physician after all, and he believes in medicine. The idea is to only use interventions when it will vastly improve quantity and quality of life.

To learn more about this topic, visit Gawande’s official website, or check out his appearance on “The Daily Show” in the video below.

For more information about other writers who believe in quality over quantity for death and dying, read this.

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