Massaging Mom Until One of Us Dies

The room was silent except for the pings of the medical devices that were keeping my dad alive in the ICU. The family sat around him. My mom was in a wheelchair and held dad’s hand. The elective heart surgery had not gone well and we, the family, had just made the decision to take dad off life support. I worried how mom was going to do when he was gone. Little did I know that her massage sessions with me would help her get through some tough times.

Mom and Massage

I started training to be a massage therapist in 1992. As with most schools at the time, the practicing part of massage happened outside the classroom, and my mom happily volunteered to be my first massage body to practice on. Mom was a great massage body. She was good at giving feedback without hurting my feelings and didn’t complain when I had to poke around to find a particular muscle.

After I got my massage certification, I was ready to move from massage bodies to massage clients. Ironically, mom was too. She now wanted to be one of my paying customers. It made sense that mom would want to continue with her weekly massages. She had learned that massage could help her manage her post-polio pain, and she liked having the one-on-one time with me.

The Imperfect Son

I wish I could say that I was the perfect son and embraced my mom’s request as an opportunity to further connect with her, but to be honest, it felt more like a life sentence: I was going to have to massage my mom until one of us dies.

There were several reasons why I felt this way. For one, I wanted to be the therapist that actually got clients better, not the therapist who only helped clients reduce their pain. In addition, I had worked on my mom for a year—I knew all her conditions and she was not a challenge. But the most significant reason why I didn’t want to work on my mom was that even though I felt close to her, I had some unresolved family issues that were affecting my desire to see her on weekly basis. Emotionally, I was in a difficult place.

Fortunately for me something stronger than self-preservation won out in my brain: guilt. Guilt had a strong case: Mom had made all the mom sacrifices to raise me—and she was genuinely a nice person. If I didn’t massage her until one of us died, I would be rightfully consumed by guilt.

A Powerful Force

Massaging my mom for the first five years was a mixed bag. Sometimes we would joke and other times she would lecture me and I would dismiss everything she had said on the basis that she was my mom. But as time went on things slowly started to change. We laughed more. We actually listened to each other. And I felt more connected to my mom than I ever had.

To me, the turn of events in the massage room couldn’t be explained entirely by the idea of people mellowing with age. I believe that there was another powerful force at work here, something that we as massage therapists harness each day at work—therapeutic rapport. Therapeutic rapport is the means by which one connects (psychologically and emotionally) and stays connected to a client to positively affect treatment outcomes. Over the years, as I became more experienced as a massage therapist, my ability to maintain therapeutic rapport throughout the entire massage session became automatic—even with my mom. Don’t get me wrong, there were times when mom and I still had our disagreements and my rapport was not so therapeutic—but if that happened, it wouldn’t be long before my automatic pilot took over and I was back to focusing on what’s best for mom.

A Treasured Gift

On Sept. 15, 2015 my mom climbed onto my table like she had done for 23 years except this time something was profoundly different—the man she had loved and been with for 68 years was dead. I could tell my mom really needed to talk about dad and as I listened to her I felt myself become overwhelmed with grief. But before I lost control of my emotions, my automatic pilot took over. This time, this hour, was about my mom and what she needed in order to feel better. It was a good feeling knowing that I could hold it together, maintain therapeutic rapport, and help mom process her thoughts and feelings.

There’s no doubt that working on a family member can be tricky because you share a deep and complicated history with that person. However, if you can learn to establish and maintain therapeutic rapport throughout each session wonderful things can start to happen—and who knows, you may discover that at first what feels like a life sentence may actually turn out to be a treasured gift.

What has been your experience when working on family members? Do you have a tip on how to maintain therapeutic rapport? Please let me know by posting a comment here or on our Facebook page: Looking forward to hearing from you!

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