Melissa White has one of the most unique jobs in the world.
You may have heard of a midwife: someone who helps pregnant women through the difficult process of giving birth. But Melissa is a 'Soul Midwife' - someone who supports dying people as they approach their final days on Earth.
Melissa took up this unconventional occupation as a response to the bereavement she suffered in her own life. She lost her mom Floy to lung cancer in 1991, her brother Charlie to pancreatic cancer in 2008, and finally her other brother Tommy to lung cancer in 2017.
In all three cases, Melissa was by her relatives' side as they died, and shared their last moments with them before they passed away. After losing Charlie, Melissa was diagnosed with complex grief – a chronic, heightened state of mourning – and thus resolved to train to become a 'Soul Midwife' to help her cope with her feelings of hopelessness and mourning.
Now, she has voluntarily provided emotional support for seven other people, meeting most of them just a few days or hours before they died. While it might sound unusual, Melissa claims the experience has been profoundly emotional and transformative for her.
Commenting on her job in a recent interview, Melissa stated: "I can’t tell you why, but I have walked away from those final hours and been gobsmacked, you’re just in awe of the feelings that you have, the love, the compassion and whatever the energy is that you’re sharing with that person, it’s just incredible. You walk into the room and you’ve never seen this person before in your life but in those hours, there’s something that builds that you just can’t explain. You cannot explain the feelings of love and human connection.
"It goes by many different names but it’s an end-of-life companion. Someone who invests their time and energy in you while you go through that end of life journey, whether that’s hours, weeks or even months. Ideally, through soul midwifery, we would like to meet people as they get that terminal diagnosis and build a relationship with them and understand their wants and needs. It doesn’t always happen like that, sometimes we get called in during the final days or even hours."
There are no official qualifications for someone who wants to become a Soul Midwife, as the concept is a relatively recent one. However, there are courses out there to assist potential volunteers. Thus, in 2014 Melissa signed up to train on a course run by Felicity Warner, founder of the Soul Midwives’ movement. She also volunteered at a local hospice, where she would sit by the bedsides of patients as they slipped away.
Melissa added: "It was something I was meant to do. I was very comfortable with death. It didn’t scare me – some people are freaked out by the whole idea, but not me ... I just hold space and be there with them but it’s rough when you don’t know the person and you don’t know what they do or don’t like, or what they want their last moments to look like."
Melissa wants to be a Soul Midwife for the rest of her life; but what does she want to happen when her own time comes?
"I’m going to be in Tibet talking to some monk," Melissa wishes. "And I’m just going to keel over with a heart attack. If that doesn’t work out, I don’t want to be kept alive, so I have a do not resuscitate in place. If anything happens, I just want to go as peacefully and comfortably as possible with the people I want around me."
If you'd like to do something similar, and think you have the necessary skills to follow in Melissa's footsteps, please consider visiting the official website of Doing Death Differently for further information.