I often go to Maine to relax and soak in the beautiful scenery, it’s my natural therapy. The ocean with the sound of the waves crashing on the beach, the walks along the rocky cliffs that give me the feeling that time stops meaning something and I could walk all day. I go on sunrise and sunset hunts, photographic walks to find the most interesting rocks, shells, cliffs, flowers, drops of water hanging from the tips of the leaves. Making the trip extra 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. Coming to Maine now was about helping comfort, being there to help in any way I could. All the compassionate care I learned as an oncology massage therapist was now being put to the test on a much more personal level. Seeing such a grievance all he wanted to do was help in any way he could and say the right things at the right time. I knew that all I am qualified to do is listen, there is no way to relate, there are no suggestions to make me feel better day by day, or even month by year. During the time I spent with her I took out all the tools in my compassionate care toolbox; hugs, sitting quietly, working very hard not to say something insensitive. I was also quickly reminded of the importance of serving small amounts of food.
It’s amazing how quickly I sized up the kitchen and found all the ingredients for the chicken soup. Making the soup filled my need to do something useful. The aroma from all over the kitchen reminds him of the need to eat. Freezing small amounts that would be eaten once I was gone made it easier to go. I quickly realized that I would take over the driving; concentration was not possible, as well as engaging in meaningless conversations to distract herself, making difficult phone calls, and showing up to help with difficult appointments.
Offering my friend a chair massage, I realized she might refuse, but she accepted the offer and created a comfortable place for her to sit. I gently placed my hands on her back and allowed her breath to connect with my hands. I knew she was doing more than just “holding” her, I was trying to help her hang on, keep 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 witnessed an intense grievance and I honestly didn’t know if she could quell the trauma that was preventing her from sleeping, eating, relaxing, thinking rationally and making any kind of decisions. I prayed that when she massaged his back, he would feel her breathing relax, see her shoulders drop, and recognize that deep breath that meant letting go of physical and emotional tension.
We fell silent, and I knew that the hours of grievance had created the tension I was feeling. She complained of pain in her neck and shoulders from previous surgery that definitely helped increase muscle tension. I moved up and down her back to find the spots along her spine that needed the warmth of my hands. My techniques consisted of gentle compression, light pressure from the shoulders to the lower back with a rhythm that seemed to make it easier for her to breathe. The massage lasted about 15 minutes. It became clear that the changes he could feel on the outside also had an effect on the inside. I noticed that her breathing became easier and I could notice for only a few minutes that her shoulders relaxed. It is something that is very familiar to me, helping patients in cancer treatment. This time I really wanted to offer a compassionate touch to a friend. We both ended up calling the massages from her “grievance massages”.
Dating was very difficult, I knew I needed to do something to keep her “on my mind” and allow us to stay connected long distance. They made a one-year commitment to stay in touch by sending him one of my nature photos each morning. My way of connecting with a beautiful photograph to reflect on. It is a reminder to me that the grievance she is living with will not end anytime soon and I will be respectful of that and be there to listen as she regains her footing and continues her life without her husband.
Tips for giving a simple massage at home
- Comfort is important to both. Seat the person to be massaged at the kitchen table and use a pillow to support their arms. Sit behind them to make sure they are comfortable too.
- It’s all about a soft touch and simple compression. This is not deep work to fix a problem.
- Use music to help you relax to a simple rhythm that allows your hands to rest and move up and down the muscles along the spine.
- Lightly compress the shoulders to the base of the neck. Compress their heads and feel like you are helping them “hold it in.”
- Limit to 15 minutes.
- Repeat as often as you can and be receptive.