At this stage family members often feel at a loss of what to do and want to support but don’t know how.
When I first met Tracy* she was in her final stages of a cancer that had metastasised. The cancer was eating into her body and her arm and there was a distinct odour in the room.
They took a seat and as I prepared Tracy and massaged her legs and hands, the room became very still.
Her friends started reflecting on how they were living, where they could take better care of themselves and how they had lived up until that point.
Instead of the usual anxious conversation and ‘the good intentions’ to help, a level of honesty and realness started to characterise the way they were speaking and in that there was a greater settlement in Tracy too.
Often the person who is dying can’t let go of their social obligations and will try to appease or entertain the people that are coming to see them at hospital. When we enter a room in the anxiousness of trying to help or feeling heavy with sympathy we are actually not supporting that person through this important phase.
To truly support someone with remedial massage during palliative care is not a feel-good exercise, the dying process is a very poignant time for everyone to reflect and on how we are living and how we have been living – that is the gift that death brings.
It is not about just putting on a happy face and ‘staying positive’. If there is one thing I have learned from working with lots of people before they pass over is that ‘affirmations’ just mask what is really being felt. The key to healing (even when physical healing is no longer a possibility) is to love ourselves deeply and surrender to the love that is there in us.
One of the last times I saw Tracy* she was lightly vomiting mid conversation but her eyes were wide and joyful.
Whats going on? I said to her, your body is not so great but you look amazing your eyes are shining so bright.”
She said, “I have lived a very joy-full life. And I am ready for what ever is next.”
Her surrender and acceptance was truly beautiful and very humbling.
Of course death is not always like this. Some years ago now, one of my clients, Ed* had a degenerative brain disease that became more and more advanced. During this time there were uncontrollable rages and self-harm. At a certain point the nursing care can only do so much before a patient is a danger to themselves and others.
Even up until his final days I would visit him and give him remedial massage.
The nursing staff kept encouraging me to come back saying, When he has his ‘massage day’ he is so lovely, he’s more appreciating of the staff and more caring to everyone.”
Some months before, when he could still speak and find a few words he asked me, “What is this dying thing about” to which I replied, "I don’t think any of us know. What matters is how you feel right now.”
With each massage he would say to me "this is such a luxury", he started to express appreciation with a depth that encompassed the whole of his life and everyone in it. So much so, that his family didn’t recognise his behaviour. When his daughters came to visit they were taken aback that he wanted to give them a hug.
The oldest daughter was particularly stand-offish, as if she were saying with her eyes – ‘who is this?’
Later he said to me "whats up with her" and I said – “You just keep loving them they will work it out, like you did.” In the end we all get to see the things that really matter. Death is a beautiful time of realisation and reflection.
*All names have been changed to ensure privacy
Yasmin Lang is a qualified Remedial Massage Therapist working in Byron Bay. Previously a nurse and carer, she has a particular interest in supporting people in aged and palliative care.