As a child Abigail McCarthy remembers waking up one night and wandering outside her bedroom in her home in Johannesburg.
"I saw a woman at the top of the passage. I thought it was my mother, so I called for her. But when the woman turned around, I saw it wasn't my mother," she recalled.
It later emerged that the woman had died in the house many years before.
"Seeing (the spirits of) dead people started when I was around six years old," said McCarthy, in her early 40s with long, dark hair and intense blue-green eyes.
In her 20s, she began reading tarot cards.
"While doing this for clients I would often see people in their lives who had passed away. I would just get a picture of someone and say (to the client): 'Who is this person; why do I see them? This is what they look like; this is what they're saying.' And I would find that people would suddenly be in tears or they'd be sitting there and saying: 'Oh, wow, that's (my relative)."
McCarthy, scribbling on a notepad to help her relax, said she was initially "very afraid" of communicating with the spirits of the deceased.
"I didn't like the idea. I was embarrassed by being a medium. I couldn't tell people what I did. But when they found out, either they'd run up to me and start asking me all sorts of questions, or they'd roll their eyes and not come near me!
"Because of this, it took me a very long time to be comfortable with what I do. But the more it (communicating with the dead) happened, the more I realized I was helping people to cope with the deaths of loved ones, and I enjoy doing that. It's fulfilling."
McCarthy stated that people often struggle to accept the deaths of relatives and friends who pass away in "terrible circumstances."
"They're in great pain. I help them to let go of some of this," maintained the spiritualist who now works as a medium at the House of Isis spiritual healing center in Johannesburg. "It helps them to know that their loved ones are still out there and are safe and at peace."
She has assisted parents who've lost all their children in auto accidents.
"When that happens, the pain is unbearable ... Or somebody losing their partner - you do find a desperation with them; they are lost," McCarthy explained.
A few years ago she was doing a tarot card reading for a man when she said the spirit of his girlfriend, who had also died in a vehicle collision, unexpectedly started communicating with her.
"I picked up from this woman that she was totally at peace, and I told this to my client. When something like this happens it's wonderful to see the relief on people's faces. There's a wonderful feeling... Just a big sigh of: 'Thank goodness' - or tears; you do get tears ... "
McCarthy said she sometimes communicates with the spirits of people who have committed suicide.
"That's interesting for me because some religions believe that if you take your own life you go to some awful place in the afterlife. But I still see and talk with people who've committed suicide, so I can't believe that."
McCarthy continued: "A lot of people come to me and want to know if their deceased loved one is still angry with them, or they want to know about jealousies and hatred. But my communication with the spirits is overwhelmingly positive. I think once we die, why would we want to be negative?"
'Nothing bizarre ... '
She likened her contact with dead people to "painting on a blank canvas."
"I ask clients to tell me as little as possible about the person they want me to reach. And then I just see who I'm picking up (in the spirit realm) and I just start talking. It's a very gentle and natural process. The more relaxed I am, the easier it is," McCarthy explained.
"It's not that I see dead people actually physically in the room, but I feel them. In my mind I see exactly what they look like, and then they speak to me and I describe to the client how they look and what they're saying - and it's always right."
She added, laughing, "Nothing bizarre happens; the room doesn't shake; things aren't knocked over (by unseen forces)."
McCarthy pointed out that she doesn't know "where exactly" the spirits of the deceased are.
"I think if human beings were supposed to know this, we'd already know it. I think it's supposed to be a mystery, and something we're supposed to find out only when we pass on," she emphasized.
McCarthy hesitated to describe her ability to contact and to communicate with spirits as a gift ... But conceded that "maybe" it is, before adding: "I do believe we've all got our gifts. I don't agree that it's something that's special or that (I'm) above others. I think it's got to be used in the right way; I think you've got to be very careful that you don't become arrogant with it."
Science and logic
Some faiths, most notably Christianity, condemn attempts to contact departed souls and the consultation of mediums as sins.
In reaction McCarthy commented: "I have had a couple of readings with people that are religious and have been a bit nervous and have said, 'Is this okay; should I maybe not be here?' And I always say: 'Well, that's up to you. I certainly don't believe what I'm doing is evil. But if you really are that uncomfortable then maybe you mustn't do it.'
"I believe that what I do comes from the right place. I don't hurt people; I help people and give them peace of mind. Therefore I think of myself as a good person."
However, she stressed that she has the "utmost understanding" for people who are convinced mediums are charlatans.
"I do understand why many people don't believe that there are people who are able to contact and communicate with deceased people. As strange as it's going to sound, I'm actually a very practical, logical person. I believe in science and I believe in religious faith. But I can honestly say that what I do is not a hoax ... "
But McCarthy acknowledged that in the past she often wished that she wasn't a medium, and had pursued a "more normal" occupation.
"There have been times when I've wanted to stop, but as time has passed I've grown to accept my ability. I am honest with myself who I am, and also with others.
"I don't run around preaching love and light. I just do what I do in the time that I do it. And I've learned to see that it's helpful for others, and I'm seeing that as the good side. And actually, if I had to stop now it would be a little disappointing. I enjoy helping people."