Sunset in Maine

Grief Massage


I usually go to Maine to relax and immerse myself in the beautiful scenery, it is my nature therapy.  The ocean with the sounds of waves rolling onto the beach, the hikes along rocky cliffs that inspires a sense for me that time ceases to mean anything and I could walk all day.  I go on sunrise and sunset hunts, photo hikes to find the most interesting rocks, shells, cliffs, flowers, drops of water hanging from tips of leaves.  Making the trip more special has always included the opportunity to visit friends.

This year our trip was suddenly changed by the death of my dear friend’s husband. Getting to Maine now was about helping to console, being there to help in any way I could.  All the compassionate care that I have learned as an Oncology Massage Therapist was now being put to the test in a much more personal level.   To see such grief all I wanted to do was help in any way I could and say the right things at the right moment.  I knew that I all I was qualified to do was to listen, no way that I could relate, no suggestions to feeling better day by day, or even month by year.   During the time I spent with her I pulled out all the tools in my toolbox for compassionate care; hugs, sitting quiet, working very hard at not saying something insensitive.  I also quickly remembered the importance of small amounts of food.

It is amazing how quickly I assessed the kitchen and found all the ingredients for chicken soup that filled her need to be fed and nurtured.  The aroma throughout the kitchen allowed me to feel that I was doing something necessary.   Freezing small amounts to be eaten once I was gone made it easier to leave.  I also quickly realized the importance of driving for someone who couldn’t concentrate on the road, engaging in mindless conversation for distraction, making the hard phone calls and going along to help with the difficult appointments.

Offering my friend a chair massage I had to understand that she might refuse, but she accepted the offer and I created a comfortable place for her to sit.  Gently I placed my hands on her back and allowed her breath to connect with my hands.  I knew that I was doing more than just “holding” her back, I was trying to help her hold on, hold it all together without falling apart, holding a friend in the palm of my hands.  I can easily explain the Relaxation Response to a room full of massage therapists; I understand how a gentle touch affects the Vagus Nerve in a positive way.   Staying with my friend, I had seen intense grief and I honestly didn’t know if I could calm the trauma that was causing her not to be able to sleep, eat, relax, think rationally and make any kind of decisions.   I prayed that when I massaged her back that I would feel her breathing relax, see her shoulders drop and recognize that deep sigh that signifies a letting go of physical and emotional tension.

We stayed quiet and I knew the hours of grief had created the tension that I was feeling. She complained of pain in her neck and shoulders from a past surgery that most definitely helped to add to the muscular tension.  Up and down her back I went to find the spots along her spine that needed the warmth of my hands.  My techniques were gentle compression, slight pressure from her shoulders to her low back with a rhythm that seemed to ease her breathing.   The massages lasted about 15 minutes.   It became apparent that the changes that I could feel on the outside were also having an effect on the inside.  I noticed her breath becoming easier and could notice just for a very few minutes her shoulders relax.  It is something that is so familiar to me, helping out patients in treatment for cancer.   This time I so wanted to offer compassionate touch to a friend.   We both ended up calling her massages “grief massages.”

Leaving was very difficult, I knew I needed to do something to keep her “in my mind” and let us stay connected long distance.  I made a commitment for one year to stay in touch with nature photography that I would send to her every morning.   It is a reminder to me that the grief she is living with will not end soon and I must be respectful of that and be there to listen.

Tips for giving a simple back massage at home

1. Comfort is important for the both of you.   Sit the person to be massaged at the kitchen table and use a pillow to rest their arms on. Sit behind them to make sure are comfortable as well.

2. It is about gentle touch and simple compression.   This is not deep work to fix a problem.

3. Use music to help you ease into a simple rhythm that allows your hands to rest and move up and down the muscles along the spine.

4. Lightly compress the shoulders to the base of the neck.   Compress the head and feel like you are helping them to “hold on.”

5. Limit to 15 minutes.

6. Repeat as often as you are able to and they are receptive to.




Don’t tell me that you understand.

Don’t tell me that you know.

Don’t tell me that I will survive,

How I will surely grow.

Don’t come at me with answers

That can only come from me.

Don’t tell me how my grief will pass,

That I will soon be free.

Accept me in my ups and downs.

I need someone to share.

Just hold my hand and let me cry

And say, “My friend, I care.”

Author Unknown