MANDY Preece is a midwife – but not in the conventional sense.
When faced with the ‘what do you do?’ question, the mum-of-one can easily silence most drinks parties.
That’s because Mandy’s line of work is society’s last taboo – not sex, money or religion, but death.
Rather than help new life enter the world, as a ‘soul midwife’ she sooths the path for those who are about to leave it.
So far Mandy (pictured) has sat with more than 100 people as they have been dying to ensure they have a ‘good death’.
“There are good deaths and very anxious deaths. I help create good deaths.
“My job is to make sure people leave this life without fear, loneliness or anxiety.
““People do say to me ‘how do you do that? Isn’t that depressing?’ I can kill conversation anywhere but I always say what I do because people should talk about death much more.
“I think people think some midwives are quite unusual, but I think they are secretly interested and find it fascinating when we talk about it.
“I feel honoured. Most people fall into a very gentle place at the end. It’s hard to say there is a beauty about it, but there certainly is.”
Mandy, 50, used to work as a legal editor.
However after caring for her mother as she died of cancer and coming into contact with the harsh reality of death and grieving, Mandy realised she wanted a radical career change.
“Mum had a very painful death as she chose to manage it with very little morphine because she wanted to stay compos mentis for me so she could still chat to me. Mum died asleep next to me.
“Now, looking back, I realise she taught me so much.”
But as she grieved for her mum, one of Mandy’s best friends was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer aged just 37.
The young mum with a one-year-old son gravitated towards Mandy for advice knowing she had seen death.
“I was the friend who would talk about death,” explains Mandy.
“So we’d have conversations that most people would shy away from, like what should she do? How could she let her son know she loved him but also let him go?
"In the end she didn’t want to write a letter for each of his birthdays because she wanted him to have a new mummy and didn’t want him to be constantly reminded of her each birthday. In the end she chose to write just one letter to him.
“Somehow, I just knew I couldn’t go back to reading law books.”
After seeing an advert for an Art of Dying workshop by chance, Mandy knew what she wanted to do – and began training to become a soul midwife.
Unlike medics who the patient may regard as unapproachable or friends and family who may be overcome with emotion, Mandy spends hours, often simply listening to people’s greatest fears as they cope with their death and helping them find peace.
Most of Mandy’s work is voluntary like her work at her local Macmillan Cancer Hospice where she sits with people of all ages, who sometimes have no friends or family, in their final hours.
Mandy also gets asked to work privately one-to-one with people who are dying in the same way a midwife acts as a birth companion.
“We go in without an agenda,” says Mandy, who lives in Bransgore with her husband Simon and her six-year-old son.
“I never tell anyone I’m a soul midwife. I just say I’m a volunteer. That way I am just one person sat next to another person and I just listen. I find that works extraordinarily well.
“We are people who will sit with someone as they are dying, sometimes people may be really struggling or really angry but we’re not afraid to just be with them and listen.”
Just as there are stages in labour and child birth, Mandy says there are also stages to dying.
“We go through stages as we die and the idea is the soul midwife is a holistic companion so we can midwife someone through their stages.
“There’s a stage most people go through when they are quite weepy and it’s important to give them time and companionship.
"There’s a stage called terminal agitation where people can get very angry. It’s all about supporting someone where they are.
“The final stage when someone’s breathing changes can be very distressing for carers because that’s when they feel they can’t do anything anymore.
"Often we sit with the carers after offering support, because we have been there and know what it is like to lose a loved one.”
And Mandy has seen it all.
One man, she says, decorated his young wife’s hospice room like a grotto, complete with fairly lights everywhere she looked. He brought in a screen to put family videos on loop so whenever she did open her eyes, she would see her children playing or the family on a beach.
Mandy, added: “I once sat with a young mother when she was dying and said ‘your husband has gone to pick up the children and they are all together.’
"You could tell her face just instantly relaxed and it brought her comfort that everyone else was okay.
“I ended up singing to her, it just came, goodness knows why. I sung ‘Beautiful Lady You are Loved.’
“She was completely unconscious but then she opened her eyes and she smiled at me, then she died. I said to the nurses ‘please tell her husband the last thing she did before she died was smile.”
It’s those types of moments that make Mandy love her job.
She says far from being depressing, working with the dying can even have its benefits.
“Of course it is sad but it can also be very moving even surprisingly joyful.
“You witness a person’s strength, their will, their joy.
"A dying person is not just a patient in a bed but a whole collection of wonders, life experiences and wisdom to be honoured and assisted on their final journey.
“It has definitely changed me.
“I don’t worry like I used to and now I live much more for the moment.
“Being a soul midwife makes my soul sing.”
Mandy's tips to ensure loved ones die peacefully.
- Hearing is the final sense we lose. Even if someone appears to be unconscious, they can probably still hear you and understand what you are saying.
- Talk gently and calmly, reassuring them they are safe *Think about the environment. Dim the lights and create a beautiful space.
- Many people are scared they won’t know what to say to someone who is dying. Tell them they are loved.
- The greatest gift loved ones can give someone who is dying is to give their life meaning. Say ‘you meant this to me...’ ‘you were the person who inspired me to do this...’
- Tell someone you love them
- Every visitor could write on a slip of paper what that person meant to them then put it in a bowl and when the person is unconscious and dying someone could read them all out.
- Don’t be scared to hold someone’s hand, or their feet, which get very cold. Stroke their head or put your hand over their chest.
Mandy added: "I once sat with a lady who was quite young when she was dying and she told me what makes a good visitor and I think it’s wisdom to pass on. She said: ‘a good visitor brings me McDonalds, brings me all the glossy mags and tells me all the gossip from the office, and everything going on in their life.
The bad visitor comes with that look of sympathy on their face and asks me questions about cancer I don’t know the answer to. They talk about the disease rather than who I am.”
WHEN artist Antonia Rolls’ partner was dying with terminal cancer, the only thing she could think to do was to paint.
The mum-of-three (pictured) had only been with Steve for 18 months before he was diagnosed with bowel cancer that went to his liver and his lungs. He died three months later in 2007.
However Antonia said her way of dealing with his death was by painting him as he was dying, up until the day he died.
“I thought I hadn’t been breathing until I met this man but after 18 months he was dead. “I was slapped across the face with a reality I’d never had to face before,” she said.
“His body was disintegrating. Each time I looked at him it was worse and worse but it highlighted this thing called life. I was obsessed with painting him.
“I couldn’t find words. When you are out of your depth with fear and loss, there are no words and it’s so hard to express yourself. Painting him was the only tool I had to make sense of something I couldn’t make sense of.
“It was like trying to claw him back. I knew he looked so ill but I didn’t care, I wanted to understand. To actually paint him was to hold him in front of me. When he died, he was still Steve.”
Antonia said she hid the paintings in her studio but people would turn them over – and begin talking about their own experiences of death.
It led to her training as a soul midwife and using art to help others who are dying.
Now she has a collection of 54 paintings of people coming to terms with their death which she tours in an exhibition called A Graceful Death.
“If I had been told I would paint death and dying and the process of bereavement, I’d have thought you were talking nonsense but I genuinely feel it helps people. If this is what death looks like, actually it isn’t too bad at all.”
- A FREE event Dying to Know will take place to get the south talking about death.The day will be opened by TV presenter Fred Dinenage and will give people the opportunity to discuss any aspect of death, dying and funeral choices.
Organised by Mandy Preece and Antonia Rolls, it will feature a panel of experts, workshops, exhibitors and information stands.
Antonia’s exhibition ‘A Graceful Death’ will also be on display.
Mandy, said: “We are very excited to be hosting this event because death and dying is a very important and often taboo subject in society. An event like this will have an enormous benefit in making more people aware of the support and choices available to them at the end of life.”
Dying to Know takes place on Saturday, March 28 from 10am until 5pm at West Cliff Baptist Church, Poole Road in Bournemouth.
For more information go to facebook.com/dyingtoknowevent