The loneliest time in life is often its very end, but 'soul midwives' make it their mission to help the dying pass away in peace.
But while we like to think we're happy to talk about anything, anywhere, any time, there remains one last taboo. the 'unmentionable' in today's society death.
For Felicity Warner, however, death holds no such fear. Over the past decade she has trained herself and others in the art of being a 'soul midwife'.
Drawing on the traditions and wisdom of many different faiths and cultures, Felicity and those who have followed her aim to help people reaching the end of their lives to achieve a 'good' death, to leave this life without fear, loneliness or anxiety.
"Working with the dying can, of course, be very sad," she ays. "It can also be very moving. Often it can be surprisingly funny and joyful. Some say that it can be the source of the richest blessings imaginable. It's certainly the greatest privilege to help someone die well." It was her grandma thelma's long battle with lung cancer when Felicity was 12, followed by her stepfather's fatal heart attack at just 34, that brought Felicity into contact with how ugly and brutal death can be.
Later, while working as a journalist, she interviewed several women who were dying of cancer and discovered that this put her in a unique position.
Unlike the women's doctors, who were often too busy to talk, or their friends and family, who might be scared of illness and death, Felicity was able to listen and "simply sit with them and be there".
The interviews often lasted several hours. During these intimate times Felicity, now 53, forged strong bonds with the women, who took comfort from chatting with a sympathetic
outsider. "Relaxing and letting go at last, they'd say how good it was - as one of them put it - to 'talk dirty' about dying to a complete stranger, who listened and wasn't upset or squeamish, and didn't try to give them advice," says Felicity.
The greatest privilege of all, she adds, came when interviewees asked her to be at their death.
Felicity became a volunteer at a local hospice, enrolled on a counselling course and honed her healing skills. As she researched other faiths and cultures, she realised that a vast body of knowledge about helping people to die at peace and with dignity was out there, but few people still knew it and no one had brought it all together.
To do just that, Felicity set up the Hospice of the Heart, an internet-based centre to provide help, advice and information on death and dying. She also began to give seminars
and workshops on how to die well and how to create support networks
for the dying and bereaved.
Right from the start, 10 years ago, demand grew strongly, and after a few years the Hospice of the Heart became a registered charity. Felicity, meanwhile, went on to found the soul midwives movement. there are now 195 soul midwives in the UK, and a growing number of hospices and hospitals are using them.
So what qualities does it take to be with a dying person on their final journey?
"People naturally seem to desire a spiritual dialogue towards the end of their life. If we, as soul midwives, can develop and widen their thoughts in an appropriate way, through being there and chatting with them, this can help to dissolve their fear and let them die more peacefully."
People who have already begun their work describe what being a soul midwife means to them.
Nigel Spencer is a 46-year-old nurse based in Brighton. He says: "In many communities in Asia and Africa, preparation for death is part of life. But in our culture, the family unit is breaking down and more people are living on their own.
That makes it much harder to link together all the different aspects
of caring for a dying person. Getty.
Also the healthcare system has become over-medicalised, as well as fragmented between the various specialisms, so caring for the dying can become a paper exercise in which money becomes more important than the patient.
Patients sometimes need to ask big, difficult questions to which there are no answers, and to which they know there are no answers. As soul midwives, we have to be willing to sit with that "not knowing", to sit in that difficult place with them, and not abandon them.
Dying can be a very lonely experience, but simply by being with the patient — being with them and their suffering — we can help to alleviate that suffering and that loneliness. (Pippa Kelly/The Daily Express)