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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Dealing With the Death of a Client

A fellow MT and friend had a client pass away last week.  As she was contemplating attending the funeral, and how to best go about being a support for the family - I realized that this is not something that massage school prepares us for.  (At least, not mine... did yours? If so, I'd love to hear more about your experience.) 

Dealing with death is difficult enough on it's own.  Add in the professional relationship (and in the capacity of a therapeutic one at that) creates it's own special challenges.  

The stages of grief are:

  • shock or disbelief,
  • denial,
  • bargaining,
  • guilt,
  • anger,
  • depression,
  • acceptance/hope.
The funny thing about these stages is that it isn't always nice and organized - experiencing the list in order.  Often times, these feelings jump all over this list, bouncing around to different aspects with no rhyme or reason.  

I don't have any secrets for dealing with the death of a client.  It's a very personal thing and how to best deal with it will vary from therapist to therapist.  Whether or not you choose to go to the funeral, or simply send a card... so I guess, although it would be nice to have some kind of preparation for this situation in massage school ... What would that entail?  

Grief is a crazy thing. 

Myths and Facts About Grief

MYTH: The pain will go away faster if you ignore it.
Fact: Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it.

MYTH: It’s important to be “be strong” in the face of loss.
Fact: Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal reaction to loss. Crying doesn’t mean you are weak. You don’t need to “protect” your family or friends by putting on a brave front. Showing your true feelings can help them and you.

MYTH: If you don’t cry, it means you aren’t sorry about the loss.
Fact: Crying is a normal response to sadness, but it’s not the only one. Those who don’t cry may feel the pain just as deeply as others. They may simply have other ways of showing it.

MYTH: Grief should last about a year.
Fact: There is no right or wrong time frame for grieving. How long it takes can differ from person to person.

Source: Center for Grief and Healing

This help guide offers some great tips for dealing with grief

Coping with grief and loss tip 1: Get support

Family, friends, a support group, a counselor, etc.

Coping with grief and loss tip 2: Take care of yourself

This one is often difficult for massage therapists.  We're used to being the ones who take care of others.
Remember to take care of yourself during this difficult time.
Eat right, get enough sleep, and up your appointments with your massage therapist.

Have you dealt with the death of a client?  How did you support yourself during that time?

Tweetable: Grief is a crazy thing.

Cindy Iwlew is co-founder of Bodywork Buddy Massage Software, a complete online management solution for independent massage therapists that includes online scheduling

She continues to operate her own private massage practice of 13 years.


  1. "it would be nice to have some kind of preparation for this situation in massage school"
    I would like to see some guidelines regarding professional actions to take.
    I had a client pass who was not a regular so it was difficult for me to learn that the client had passed. When i did learn of the passing, I reached out the the spouse who was also a client, and offered a free session to help bring some normalcy back into their life.

    1. I love your idea to gift a session. that was a beautiful way to show some support.

  2. This would be difficult. Although I connect with my clients personally one on one in the treatment room, I have some kind of odd barrier where I actually don't know many of the families or spouses of even my long time clients - so if something where to happen to my client, I might feel awkward being with their family in person, having never been introduced. But, having experienced the other side of the story, hearing from my dads friends after he died was completely amazing. It was so comforting to get to know him a little differently though the eyes of other people in his life. So I would hope that if I had the chance to share with a clients family how great of a person he/she was, it might help them see a new aspect of their passed friend, as it helped me. I understand all too much the anger stage, I might still be there actually - so hey, I could be a good person to vent to, even though they don't know me!

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Jeni. It's helpful to me to know that you found stories from your Dad's friends helpful - as I'm always left wondering "should I say that?".
      Sorry for your loss, Jeni - and thanks for sharing.

  3. Great article, Cindy. I have one about David scheduled to publish Sunday on my blog. I think it's titled exactly the same as yours. Need to look at that.

    I agree that we need some kind of guidelines about how to respond professionally. Every MT I've talked to about this has said the same thing, nothing in massage school and they've just had to go with their gut about what to do.

    This has been so difficult for me because his wife is also my client (however reluctantly, mostly at his urging) and I felt like I needed to show up for her as well as for myself. I like the offer a freebie idea. May do that soon, but I think I'll let a little time pass as I don't want to seem stalkerish.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Sharon. I'm looking forward to your blog post on Sunday.

      Big hugs - I wish it were black & white with an easy answer for you. This is definitely a situation that most of us never think about going in to this field or even working in it for years until it happens. Thanks so much for sharing your story and inspiring this post. Wish I had more solutions to offer, but all I have is empathy and a shoulder!

  4. I had some training in massage and death, but not dealing with the emotional aftermath when your client passes. My school was woefully inadequate in giving us training in how to deal with the emotional aspect of working with clients.

    However, we did spend a few days talking about the grieving process, how to help clients move through the grieving process, and also learned a small protocol on how to give massage DURING death, ie: how to help your client move on when they are dying (from old age or illness). I graduated from massage school with a focus on massage in hospital/acute care settings and long term chronic care in home and nursing homes settings.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Alex. Sounds like your school included more information on this topic than most.

  5. I have never had to deal with the death of a client as of yet. I now for myself it would be like the loss of a family member. I am very close to many of my clients

    1. I agree, Jess. I've only lost 1 client, and it was especially tragic circumstances - so at the time it was hard to differentiate all the different emotions that went with that. But I'm also very close to most of my clients. It's too bad there aren't more resources for MT's specifically for dealing with this issue.

  6. I haven't had a client in my health coaching business, pass away. However, when I was working as a speech pathologist in special education with children who had all kinds of needs, including medical issues, I had one 4 year old boy who was a client of mine that had breathing issues. I had a professional relationship with the family but they were not the kind of family that would be close to the therapists that worked with their son. I really cared about the little boy, Tyler" I was working with, though. He was always smiling, even though it was a constant struggle for him to walk, talk, eat, breathe. He passed away overnight because he just stopped breathing. I found out the next day when I went into work.

    It was hard for me to deal with losing him as a client because I do get attached to my clients, but also because personally did not get closure. The family didn't stay in touch with our learning center, so it was very strange. Maybe it was their way of grieving for their son, by not letting us in.

    This happened about 20 years ago and I haven't really thought about "Tyler" it since you wrote this post. I wonder how his family is doing now...and if Tyler would have any siblings if he were still here.

    I think if I had the chance to go to Tyler's funeral, I would have been comfortable doing so. I hope that I don't have to deal with a client dying again.

    1. Wow, Renee. That must have been incredibly hard to lose a client/patient who was a child!
      Thank you for sharing your experience.