Back in 2003 when I was in massage school, we spent a lot of classroom time learning things like proper body mechanics, perfecting our strokes, and the origins and insertions of muscles.
I went to a good school and they taught us many other aspects of client management, which mainly focused on how to build a practice. They filled our hours with so much information in preparation for the state board exam that I thought I would forget things I previously learned.
But I don’t remember our instructors teaching us how to treat a client who is grieving.
Perhaps it was just an oversight, or possibly the topic was not considered important enough to spend time on. When I was being certified as a personal trainer five years prior, we did learn the psychology of our clients, but more in a way of motivation and to determine if a potential client was even ready for the change they were about to go through. I didn’t think the absence of massage client psychology was odd, until recently.
I’ve been working with a married couple, Lisa and Bert (names have been changed), for around seven years. I would see Lisa and Bert every month like clockwork. About two years ago, Bert was diagnosed with a form of skin cancer that spread to his lung. He fought hard and his condition improved.
Unfortunately, the cancer returned in the form of a brain tumor and he passed away suddenly.
Bert was a kind, thoughtful man, and as an example of the lives he touched, his friends flew in from all around the country to pay their last respects. The funeral home had to open up a divider wall because there were so many people and we not only filled the second room, but a number of us had to stand along the back wall because they ran out of chairs.
I have seen Lisa a couple of times since Bert’s passing, and her grief seems to be worse. I wanted to help her deal with her sorrow, but since this is beyond my expertise I didn’t really know what to do. Massage is mybest tool for treating physical andemotional pain. We know that massage can help reduce the tension of muscles, release endorphins to boost mood and help decrease depression.
Yet, I still wondered if there was more I could do.
I reached out to Townley Peters, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist who has a wide range of experience including treating veterans with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as working with people experiencing grief and loss. Her recommendations are as follows:
• Suggest the client seek professional help. A licensed mental health provider with experience working with grief and loss is the best place to start. That provider might suggest the client consider joining a support group. This can be beneficial for the massage therapist who is grieving the loss of a client too.
Grief can feel very lonely, even when you have loved ones around you. The key is not to isolate. When experiencing grief and loss it is normal to want to withdraw from others and retreat within oneself. Expressing your feelings is an important part of the grieving process.
• Focus on self-care. Support yourself emotionally by taking care of your physical health which may include making sure you get enough sleep, eating well, exercising, seeing a massage therapist, and monitoring your alcohol and drug intake.
• Postpone major life changes following a major loss.
• Recognize the diﬀerence between grief and depression, which you can do with the help of a trained mental health professional.
I think it’s also important to remember that we should for the most part “stay in our lane.” Former Philadelphia Phillies World Series winning manager Charlie Manuel had a saying, “Know thyself.” Now, I’m sure he’s not the first person to say this, I believe it was actually Socrates, but it is a personal mantra of his nonetheless.
As massage therapists we can have tremendous eﬀects on our clients, but we need to remember we are not trained to counsel people who are dealing with severe emotional distress. It is in our nature to want to help the people we come into contact with, but sometimes the best course of action is to step back and allow someone else to take the reins.
Following a loss, a person may experience all kinds of diﬃcult and unexpected emotions that may come in waves, hence the expression emotional roller coaster. Grief can also aﬀect someone’s physical health, making it diﬃcult to eat, sleep, and or even think straight. It is worth noting there are many types of grief, although we often associate grieving with the loss of a loved one. Grief can also occur following the loss of a pet, loss of physical or mental ability, loss of a job or relationship, or loss of financial security, just to name a few.
For many people, grieving can be a very lonely process and can go hand in hand with other things like depression. The touch of a massage therapist can be the only human contact they receive — and as such, could possibly help soothe their grief as they begin to share their most vulnerable, inner selves.
I’m happy I met Lisa and Bert. I am thankful for the time I spent with Bert and I’m hopeful that my massage therapy can help Lisa.
I never expected to help my massage clients with emotional stress, but it was foolish of me to think I would be working with just athletes, ailments and injuries my entire career. The world is just not that black and white.
David Hess became a massage therapist in 2003. His practice, Hess Massage And Fitness, is located in West Palm Beach, Florida.