Touch is one of the first ways to communicate with a newborn, and one of the last ways to connect with a dying person.

massageMassage can still offer pleasure as we begin our journey of active dying. Family and friends, who often feel there is nothing they can do for their loved ones, can offer some caring touch. You do not have to be a trained massage therapist to do so. A back rub used to be a part of the nurses’ role, a part of a hospital visit.

After 32 years as a massage therapist, and many years working in palliative care, I now specialize in palliative massage as part of my end-of-life doula work.

Research shows that palliative massage has several benefits. In particular, it can:

  • Provide comfort and relaxation
  • Ease feelings of isolation and loneliness helping to restore a sense of well-being, feeling safe and of belonging (the “oxytocin factor”)
  • Reduce symptoms like anxiety and depression
  • Enhance sleep quality
  • Aid digestion – as Cicely Sanders, founder of the hospice movement, said “bowels are of upmost importance.”
  • Prevent bed sores by increasing the circulation(although frequent repositioning of the client is also necessary)

Although massage is beneficial in many situations, there are some contraindications, for example, massaging on or near cancer lesions and tumor sites, enlarged lymph nodes, sites of radiation, medical devices (such as iv and catheters), bruising and any suspicious areas. Application of deep or intense pressure is also not recommended. It’s best to consult your doctor or a trained massage therapist if you’re in any doubt.

So whether you offer a caring touch to a loved one yourself, or they choose to visit a trained massage therapist (which may be covered by some health care plans), palliative massage can provide comfort at towards the end of their journey.

Written by Rayne Johnson, a massage therapist specializing in palliative and end-of-life care. She is also a death doula and consultant. Contact Rayne Johnson at 780-267-5007 or

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