My first hospice massage: my father-in-law's feet

I was in massage school in 2001 when my father-in-law was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, with metastases to the spine. He couldn't figure out why his back pain kept getting worse after being adjusted by the chiropractor. So he went to get an MRI and they found a tumor wrapped around his nerve root. Ouch.

The whole experience was one big ouch after another. And there wasn't much I could do. My husband and his sister were both in medical school and they were researching all the latest treatments and prognoses. I felt pretty low on the totem pole -- I was only a massage therapist, and I hadn't even completed my training yet.

I discovered pretty quickly that there was something invaluable that I could offer: foot rubs and shoulder squeezes. The whole family had basically taken on a new full-time job caring for a cancer patient, and they were still expected to show up for work and study for classes. And Gene, my father-in-law, was succumbing to higher and higher morphine doses to manage his pain. This family needed pain management on a level beyond comprehension. But somehow, foot rubs and shoulder squeezes always did the trick.

I didn't know that I was doing "hospice massage". (I wouldn't even hear that term until 2010 when I met Meg Robsahm, LMP.) What I knew was that Gene was hurting, sometimes moaning in pain, and a foot rub would calm him down. As the morphine doses escalated, his words became more slurred and it was difficult to even understand what he was trying to say. Fortunately, foot rubs don't require many words.

As the family poured over housing bills, medical bills and medical texts at the kitchen table, shoulder squeezes were easy to provide. It is an eerie thing to help write one's last will and testament and transfer ownership of their accounts and possessions, while that person is vomiting from chemo treatment. But that's what happens with a cancer diagnosis. They don't tell you that in school.

Gene passed in December, 2001, and  I was standing at his feet. He had decided to forego further treatments and had come home to wait for his final transition.Through one of the universe's many blessings, the hospice nurse was at the house when it happened (they stop by once per day while a patient is on hospice care). Something changed in his breathing pattern that day and the nurse said, "It's time."

Each of the family members gathered around his head to hold him and say prayers and tell him goodbye. There wasn't any other room for me, so I naturally gravitated to his feet, where I was used to being. As his breaths eventually disappeared, the family members each went into their own form of grieving.

Some turned into themselves and the tasks at hand; the coroner needed to be called, the arrangements needed to be made at the funeral home. Others collapsed into crying and wailing. Eventually an ambulance had to be called and sedation was ordered for one family member that couldn't come back from the veil of pain and loss that had fallen. It was surreal to watch everything swirling around the bed of this pivotal person, but this person was no longer there. This entire event is a moment permanently etched in my body.

I graduated from massage school in May, 2002. I had no idea that my future would include training in a field call "End of Life Care." Who could imagine that there is a specialty in touching the body of a person who is trying to leave their body? And that touch is an incredible way to facilitate this transition.

Perhaps I am telling the story of your family, or your client, and you would like to be better prepared for this change. Please attend a "Journeys in Dying" hospice massage workshop so that you might better attend families during this difficult time. All medical practitioners are welcome at this class. Death is universal in this life and blessed are those that can midwife that transition.