I am so proud of the A Graceful Death exhibition. So many people, too many to name here, are responsible for making it strong and simple, gracious and loving. It exists because there are those who have a huge heart and a strong mind. I include in this all those who help to transport, hang, catalogue, publicise and do workshops for the exhibition, and those who are painted and who tell their stories, and who write the poetry that is used. Having the expert and excellent Eileen Rafferty http://www.eileen-rafferty.com/2011/11/different-kind-of-truth.html on board as co-producer is another feather in the exhibition's cap. This link to Eileen's blog shows some small films that Eileen has made, where we discuss the latest paintings for A Graceful Death, which is on the subject of the suicide of Stuart Pryde's wife Sue.
But I am now moving in a different though parallel direction. I have taken on the job title of Soul Midwife, and have begun a journey that both thrills and terrifies me. I simply do not know how to do this job. And yet, it is quite simply the most important thing I have ever done. I have been on a course in Dorset with the wonderful Felicity Warner www.soulmidwives.co.uk, I have been inspired by the concept of graceful, gentle dying and the place of the Soul Midwife in working with those who are going to die, to create the best death that they can together. The idea behind the Soul Midwife movement seems to be very like the ideas behind the hospice movement, and the work of all the most influential palliative care pioneers. The beauty of the Soul Midwife is that we do not have to be trained medically or as a counsellor, we work alongside other professions and provide spiritual and emotional support. We listen, we support, we are not afraid. Many have other services such as reiki, healing, bach flower remedies, meditation to offer. Some are experienced in helping the dying person to reconcile differences within the family, some are wonderful with music and art, and can help to unlock thoughts and memories that need to be celebrated or acknowledged. The most important offering, I think, is a listening love. If only we start with this, the rest is just icing on the cake.
Where am I in this wonderful new world? Having done my course with Felicity, I am so far down the ladder as to be almost unable to see the starting rung. I have spent a week letting my thoughts settle after the course, and making myself do nothing. I can see how this work can be done, and I can see that it is so very important, but where on earth do I start? I am paralysed by the enormity of the task. How can I, with very little experience, possibly help another to die well? I know nothing. I know nothing. It is the other way round, it is me who will be saying, help me. I will be saying, will you help me to know what is going on as you die, will you teach me how to do this? I need to watch and wait, I need to go directly to the dying and learn from them. I cannot do this work yet, I have much to learn and a long way to go. So I have decided to start at the beginning. I need to learn. This new job as a Soul Midwife starts with some training at the front line. It is fine that I know nothing, it is not fine if I stay like that. So learn something. Ask someone. I am a Soul Midwife in Training. It is fine to take my time, in fact, it is essential. Maybe I will learn quickly and set myself up in no time at all. That would be wonderful; I cannot think of a more perfect job than that of a Soul Midwife. And maybe, I find that I do not learn quickly. Maybe I am someone who needs to sit at the feet of many many different people before I set myself up as a Soul Midwife. Or perhaps a third option, in that I do a bit of both. I don't know right now, I have not quite started.
Here is what I have done. I have contacted the Snowdrop Trust, a charity that cares for children in West Sussex (where I live) with life threatening and terminal illnesses, in their homes. I have asked to train as a volunteer, as their volunteers are highly trained and supported, and are not expected to do anything medical. I will, I am told, be doing fun things with the children alongside the Snowdrop Trusts doctors and nurses. A lady from the Trust is coming here to my home next week to go through it all with me. I volunteer already at my local hospice, where my role is to make teas and coffees and listen. And finally, just as I returned home from the course, I received an email from a lady who I admire tremendously. She is a highly intelligent, articulate and compassionate speaker on all subjects from palliative care to moral issues in the approaches to dying, legal issues at the end of life to matters around mental health. I have found her willingness to help me work out how to best produce the A Graceful Death exhibition over the years so helpful and insightful. Her email, received at 7.30am the morning after I returned from Felicity's course in Dorset, said that quite out of the blue she had been diagnosed with a possible terminal condition, and that everything in her life had been turned on its head. The most extraordinary thing, she said, is that the tests that found this dreadful illness, were routinely given for something else, and that she still felt very well indeed. And yet, she is extremely ill, and possibly has not got much time left. I asked her to come and see me as a friend, not in a professional capacity, and she did. The following morning she came for breakfast.
She is an extraordinary lady. It was a wonderful breakfast. We laughed, we ate, we spoke of life and death. And here, in my kitchen, is the person who can teach me how to be a Soul Midwife. She had agreed to talk me through her experiences and to be my teacher.
And finally, as the dust is settling, and I am making more sense of how to move forwards not only as a Soul Midwife but as an artist who is dedicated to producing the A Graceful Death exhibition as an ongoing Artistic contribution to the subject of death and dying and love, I am aware that the most difficult thing to overcome is my own lack of confidence. One of the bonuses of being a Soul Midwife is the contact with other Soul Midwives. We seem to care greatly about each other, and to offer a huge amount of support in all ways. I met and made contact with some wonderful people on Felicity's course, and am really, once I get over my confusion, in very good hands indeed. And that is what I want the people I work with to say of me, that they are in very good hands indeed.
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