Grief might live in the heart, but it affects the body, too, contributing to pain and tightness.
Massage therapists Leslie Freeman and Annie Murphy created Bereavement Massage Therapy to help clients who were going through the grieving process.
“As we thought about ourselves and our past clients who had suffered losses, and shared their experiences with us, we remembered the stiffness of muscles, holding patterns in joints, their feelings of being at loose ends, a lack of grounding and vitality,” Freeman explained.
Freeman practices the technique at her Sarasota, Florida, office.
This type of session is part of a growing trend that recognizes massage therapy as an effective means of addressing stress and sadness, and helping clients find peace on the other side of the session.
Research reported in Science Daily found that receiving massage therapy for eight weeks after a loved one’s death helped them cope.
“Eighteen people, aged from 34-78, who had lost a relative to cancer took part in the study. They all said the massages provided consolation, helping them to balance the need to grieve and the need to adapt to life after the loss of their relative,” the article noted.
According to Freeman, Bereavement Massage Therapy is a distinct method that combines various modalities to address grief, and is not to be confused with end-of-life massage therapy.
Where the intent of end-of-life massage is to ease the transition of the dying from one realm to another, Bereavement Massage Therapy focuses on reconnecting the grieving client to their body.
To do this, the technique uses flat-hand vibration, gentle rocking and comfort holds to loosen and calm disconnected areas. Bereavement Massage Therapy also incorporates such techniques as reflexology, polarity, Swedish massage and craniosacral techniques.
“When a loved one dies, it’s like you crash and you have all these pieces,” said client Mirta LeCuona. “You don’t have an integrated body. With [Bereavement Massage Therapy], it’s like you start to put your body together. It’s like a wave around you that puts you back together.”
Freeman stresses that Bereavement Massage Therapy does not eliminate the grieving process or fix all pain issues. “Grief is a journey that each person has to take in their own time,” she explained.
Nor is it intended to fix pain issues, although pain relief can be a side effect as the client’s muscles relax.
Instead, Bereavement Massage Therapy is used to give the client a sense of balance during a time of upheaval. People who have received sessions report a sense of feeling lighter as a result.
“Afterward, I felt very calm and at ease, as if a weight had been lifted off of me,” said client Deb Fillion.
Before the session, the intake is key. “Our intake form is a little bit different than the average intake form that asks clients about injuries or illnesses or medications taken and that sort of thing,” said Freeman.
“We ask about appetite, sleep patterns, anything that the client wishes to tell us. We want to get an idea of what’s going on with them during the illness or loss and afterward.”
Putting the Pieces Back Together
It was while working with hospice patients that Freeman, who has a background as a certified nursing assistant, felt inspired to create Bereavement Massage Therapy.
She found the experience of working with the terminally ill extremely rewarding, but acknowledged that her deep inner reservoir of empathy presented an obstacle for that type of work. With 17 years of massage experience, and the hunch that her empathic energy was leading her elsewhere, she decided to meditate on a path forward. As she sifted through her memories of loss and its physical effects, she received a message.
“I clearly heard these words, ‘Work with those who are left behind. You were,'” she recalled. “And I had this vision of putting humpty dumpty back together again.”
With this vision in mind, Freeman sought out a collaborator. She approached Murphy, telling her, “‘I want to tell you about this idea I have and I’m looking for someone to help me put it together. So take your time thinking about it.’ And she took about three minutes and said ‘I’ll take this journey with you.'”
Bereavement Massage Therapy uses a combination of established massage modalities—reflexology, hand-and-foot massage, Trager work, craniosacral techniques, polarity and more—to create groundedness, lightness of being and balance.
Using the same sequence of these modalities for each of the three sessions is a key component of Bereavement Massage Therapy.
“Usually, with massage therapy, pretty much every session is different,” Freeman said. “One time it might be to fix a shoulder, the next time it might be to just de-stress.
“Doing something in the same sequence, in the same way, was very different for me, but it gives a comfort zone for the person who’s already torn apart emotionally. They know what to expect and they find solace in routine,” she added.
Freeman also takes the client’s breathing into account.
“It’s easy to hold your breath for a long period of time when you’re anxious, or to breathe too fast,” Freeman said. “So we work the lung areas [via reflexology] on the feet and the hands, and the heart areas too, to bring those areas back into balance.”
Communication without Counseling
By venturing to help clients in such a tender emotional state, there is a danger of crossing the boundary between massage therapy and talk therapy. Freeman clarified that Bereavement Massage Therapy is not counseling.
“There is very little talking by the therapist in a Bereavement Massage Therapy session. It’s only to ensure that the client is comfortable,” she said.
Clients are always welcome to speak during a session, but clients who expect counseling should contact their care providers, such as hospice, a family physician, clergy, funeral director, or veterinarian, in the case of pet loss; or to find licensed mental health care providers or local support groups.
Freeman keeps business cards on hand to easily refer clients to mental health professionals.
Touch for the Spirit
LeCuona had just taken possession of her late husband’s ashes and was about to go into a Bereavement Massage Session.
“I thought to myself, ‘Where do I put [the] ashes?’ This was the first time I was in custody of him, leaving the car. I called Leslie and I said ‘Leslie, I have a problem.’ I asked, ‘If you don’t mind, can I take the ashes of my husband into the room?’
“She said ‘Of course.’ That means it was not only me, it was my husband. Leslie allowed me to do this. It was very important.”
LeCuona sums the experience up nicely. “[Bereavement Massage Therapy] is very emotional. You have to be very centered to do this. This type of massage is not for your body. It’s for your spirit … for me, I felt I was saved. It was my shelter.”
Freeman said nurturing touch is up there with life’s necessities.
“People have needs,” she said. “We need water, oxygen, food. And we need human touch.”
About the Author
Phillip Weber is a San Diego-based writer and co-founder of The English Adept, a language-learning website where he blogs frequently. He writes news and features for MASSAGE Magazine, including “Male Body Image: Massage Addresses Muscular and Emotional Tension” (June 2017, in print) and “How Crossfit Massage Grew this Practice from Two to Seven Employees.”