By Mandy Preece
I sit with you dear mother
Watching your chest rise and fall
I am hyper-aware focused on your breath, alert for any change.
But nothing changes, so I begin, eventually, to settle,
to sit with the ebb and flow of your remaining life force.
I read you prayers,
but mostly I sit in silence,
aware that this is the last of our time,
that you will leave and I will stay.
The hours pass and still I sit:
the observer of your final journey.
When will you be free?
I can do no more than be present for you:
to be the witness to your journey.
I finally sleep next to you. I am so very tired.
You pass into the light; and when I awake my life has changed forever.
That is the story of my mum’s final days as I sat in vigil with her. The art of vigiling is as old as time – to sit with a dying person, to honour their journey by being a loving presence next to them. When my mum died, I sat with her because I loved her and didn’t know what else to do. Now I know that if sitting with someone, holding their hand, is all you do – you have done enough. But years later my mum’s death still left me feeling something beyond the grief: could I have done more to ease her journey? I saw an advert of an Art of Dying workshop, met a Soul Midwife and within weeks began my training with Felicity Warner at the Soul Midwives’ School.
So what are soul midwives?
Soul midwives are non-denominational, holistic and spiritual companions to the dying. We sit, we listen, we hold a hand, we may give a therapeutic treatment, we may play soothing music, but most of all we give our time and our presence.
Soul Midwives work with the terminally-ill from point of diagnosis to death. We can teach our ‘friends’ (the name we give the dying people we work with), breathing techniques, meditation (or what I like to call ‘finding your happy place’) to ease pain and anxiety.
Soul midwives also recognise four distinct stages in the dying process – and adapt therapeutic techniques to match each stage. Recognising these stages are the cornerstone of our work – they act as a map of our friend’s journey and help us to assist our dying friends by recognising these signposts. Thus, soul midwives aim to sooth and support our friends through the stages of dying just as a birth midwife assists a mother through the contractions of birth.
And finally there is the vigil. Mother Theresa said that ‘Each human should die with the sight of a loving face.’ As someone nears the end we begin the vigil. Dying, wherever it happens, is an important rite of passage. Everyone’s death is unique to them. For a soul midwife, sitting in presence with someone who is dying and bearing witness is one of the most devotional acts of loving care we can provide.
To sit in vigil and witness someone’s journey towards death and beyond it is an honour. To support someone achieve a gentle death is also a pleasure. It is deeply humbling and deeply life-affirming. Sitting in vigil is sacred. There is a sense of time slowing, daily concerns drift away; there is a sense of ‘beingness’ – just being in the moment – sharing a journey with honour and love. All is well. All will be well.
The vigil also creates a peaceful space in which loved ones can begin to make their own transition: from carers to mourners. It gives them the time and space to begin to adjust.
The wonderful friends and their loved ones have taught me some truths about supporting the dying:
- meet your friend where ‘they are’ rather than where you would like them to be
- resist the urge to fix or rescue or impose your own beliefs – be non-judgemental and compassionate
- the dying are our greatest teachers – no amount of study can replace the experience gained at the bedside
- be humble – there is no place for ego in this work
- that one day you may sit with someone as they die, in pure ‘presence’, and be more humbled and honoured that you ever thought possible.
I could never have imagined the gifts my calling has given me: in working with the dying, I have learnt to live.
Mandy Preece is a tutor at the Soul Midwives’ School but also trains volunteers at Macmillan Caring Locally in Christchurch NHS Hospital. Mandy also runs one-day workshops on basic soul midwifery skills (the TLC Course) – an approved course from the Soul Midwives’ School.
Mandy’s passion for supporting people has also led her to create Being Rock – how to support anyone by truly being there and listening: www.beingrock.org
If you would like to speak to Mandy about any of her work or sign up for a workshop please contact her firstname.lastname@example.org