I was in massage school the first time I heard someone use the words “holding space”.
I was baffled and curious. The instructor was attempting to teach us an important lesson about listening. I thought, at the time, “I am a great listener. This holding space concept is easy”. Looking back, I realize the foolishness of my belief.
That same instructor told us that when someone is crying we should not give him/her a tissue. I was shocked. She said that by giving a tissue we are telling the person to stop crying. She advised instead that allowing the person ample space to cry was part of holding space. It felt counter-intuitive to me. It felt almost cruel. After all, wasn’t offering a tissue an act of comfort?
Like so many people who are attracted to massage therapy, I was a fixer, a giver, and a helper. I was driven by my own need to feel good about myself through the act of caring for others. My intentions were good-hearted and kind, always. I know now that being a giver or a helper sometimes gives me more than the receiver. It feels wonderful to help others. It makes us feel like we have purpose. It affirms for us that we are indeed needed and good. This is how life works. In the circle of giving, the giver is rewarded, as well. There is beauty there. And for most of my adult life, that is where I have lived.
When I began working with hospice patients, I realized that “holding space” would be my greatest challenge. By the time a person decides to utilize hospice services, most patients have already had years of treatment including surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and more. Once with hospice, all treatment ceases. My role in this is quite different than the massage therapist I am in private practice. My purpose or intention shifts to meet my patients where they are. And for most, their bodies are frail and weakened. They are processing what it means to be dying and in turn, I am being asked to hold that space, to touch that space. I am being invited into that space. What happens there makes all the difference in the world.
For the first time in my career, I could not rely on compassionate words to show understanding or offer hope. Instead, an awakening of sorts took place. My work suddenly had nothing to do with fixing and everything to do with being. Being present with the patient; being with them and their pain, their fear, their loss of control; their vulnerability. All of the massage techniques in the world would not change the fact that they were approaching death, sometimes unwillingly. I have had to learn to listen in all the ways my instructors tried to teach me many years ago. To listen to their stories, their sadness, their regret, their frustrations, and their anger without adding any trite words of wisdom or encouragement. Many times, I am biting my tongue, quelling the inner optimist so as not to minimize their feelings. I listen fully without interruption. I sit with their fear and say nothing. Instead, I rely on my hands to offer support and love. I use my silent intention to tell them they are not alone, they are loved, they are beautiful. I count on the connection between our hearts to give them all they need and all I want to say.
Holding the space is not about words of encouragement or understanding or compassion. All of those reactions make us feel better as helpers or givers. Holding space is just that, giving space for someone to feel all of his or her feelings even when it feels uncomfortable for us. It is sitting in the muck, offering only your quiet presence. In that space, we are able to hold another without words, without holding a hand, without a hug. It means we are holding them with everything that makes us who we are. We are holding them within our awareness and beyond what we think we can control. We are holding every piece of their story, so that when we do offer our hands and our touch, we are offering them the opportunity to truly feel connected to their bodies, their experience, and their souls in the process of letting go. ~Susan Coffey, LMT