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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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