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Reprint of Article by Marla Cantrell, published on Inside Fort Smith 

Expert Tiffany Diaz-Linam discusses how massage can help those who are grieving

The phone rings at a blindingly late hour. On the other end of the line is someone telling you to get to the hospital. Fast. A person you love so much your heart quickens at the sound of their name, is in peril. Is, in fact, dying. 

If there has been an accident, you will ask the caller to repeat what’s been said. It will seem like a bad dream, a wrong number, a hoax. If you’ve have had a chance to live with this eventuality—if this has been a long illness, for example—you will have wondered what this moment would feel like. Now, your legs won’t cooperate, your arms are leaden. Your body, recognizing the situation for what it is, is trying to slow you down. Is hoping to keep you where you are, cradled in your soft bed, safe from what happens next.

But there is no stopping the grief that’s coming your way. You wade through the next days, the hours longer than a new preacher’s favorite sermon. You forget appointments, say the wrong things to people you adore, eat too much or nothing at all.

What you’re experiencing is heartbreak. Before you brush that term aside, take a look at research from the American Heart Association. “A study of 1,985 adult heart attack survivors showed that after a significant person’s death, heart attack risks increased to 21 times higher than normal within the first day and were almost six times higher than normal within the first week.”

It’s essential to seek medical attention with any concerns. Beyond that, there are ways to find solace. Support groups, counseling, visits with family and friends who will let you talk about what you’re feeling.

There is another resource available that you might not have considered. Massage. Yes, massage, something you might think of as a luxury or a way to deal with an old injury. But studies show, including one published by the Journal of Clinical Nursing in 2009, that massage can help. That study followed 18 bereaved relatives who were given 25-minute soft tissue massages once a week for eight weeks. The study found those massages to be a “commendable source of consolation support during the grieving process.”

Tiffany Diaz-Linam BSN, MMT, Army veteran and owner of Barefoot Bodyworks in Fort Smith, Arkansas, has first-hand knowledge of these benefits. In her more than 20 years in practice, she’s worked with clients going through divorce, health issues, the loss of someone close, even their own terminal illness. 

For those grieving, it’s a chance to be taken care of. There is busyness to grief: closets to sort, official documents to obtain, a mountain of decisions to make. There, on the massage table, all of that fades. 

Tiffany is mindful of her clients, asking questions before she begins. She wants them to be in charge of their time with her. That includes everything from the temperature in the room to the volume of the music playing, which is always instrumental since lyrics can conjure up sentimental memories. She also adjusts her pace.

I slow way down when working on a client’s core section, knowing that’s where we carry grief,” Tiffany says. “Before the massage, I’ll say, ‘ If you begin to cry, it’s perfectly normal. You just cue me whether you need me to stop.’ I might just keep a hand on them and just let them cry. And when they’re ready, we begin again.”

Tiffany says she’s seen concrete results. “They would say, ‘Well, since I’ve started doing this, my mood is better. I’m looking forward to my appointment.‘”

Those two words, “looking forward,” mean everything. In grief, we tend to look backward to what was. To what we lost. 

One of Tiffany’s clients, Susan Pruitt, sought Tiffany’s help three months after her baby daughter Lily died when she was only 128 days old.

When you are able to go into a massage for 90 minutes and walk out with a little less burden of grief, it is a gift,” Susan says. “My hope was that a small comfort of the massage could make a big difference for a body and heart in pain. I truly believe there is healing in touch. Whether it is a hug and soft caress of a loved one or the therapeutic hands of a massage therapist.” 

Tiffany has a soft spot for Susan, who is a friend as well as a client. She is quick to say that in her role as massage therapist, she offers no advice, relying entirely on her training to help clients in a physical way. 

In recent years, Tiffany has expanded her education. She’s become a Registered Psychiatric Nurse serving on the board of the Arkansas Chapter of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association. She’s currently studying to become a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner. She has a deep regard for those suffering from mental health concerns. She is also certain that her interest comes from her role as a massage therapist where she’s seen clients in every stage of their emotional lives, from their happiest to their lowest points.  

When asked what prompted her interest in bodywork, she reaches back to her childhood, when she was nine years old, and her aunt came to visit. 

My aunt was smart and spoke well. I loved everything about her, even her posture. She was an administrator at Southern Methodist University. She seemed sophisticated to me. When she visited, she’d pay me a dollar an hour to massage her back and her feet and her neck. She would say, ‘Oh Tiffany, you’re going to be a famous masseuse someday.’ I laugh with her now and say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me I was going to be a neuroscientist? Because whatever you said, I believed.‘” 

It wasn’t until she attended the Utah College of Massage that Tiffany was on the receiving end of a massage. It was just as nice as she expected it to be. After graduating, she built her business, and in 2005, she attended classes in Las Vegas to become certified in Ashiatsu (barefoot) massage. She’d read about the practice in a trade magazine and was dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome, which was causing distress in her hands and wrists as she worked.

To do Ashiatsu, Tiffany installed support rods on the ceiling to help her balance while she used her bare feet to do bodywork. The remark she got the most was that the method seemed to produce more pressure. “They’d say it felt like bigger hands.”

It was so popular, Tiffany couldn’t keep up. She started teaching other massage therapists the technique so they could offer Ashiatsu to their clients.

When she begins her career as a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, she’ll continue working as a bodywork professional. The body and brain are amazing, Tiffany says. She is thankful she’s gotten to know so much about each. 

Her dedication to those subjects has served her well. At 44 years of age, she looks at least a decade younger. She works out religiously. Cycles, runs, does CrossFit. Eats as healthily as she can. It shows in her parade of shiny brown curls, her glowing skin, the lift in her step as she crosses a room.

Often, she thinks about her aunt, who saw that her niece had a special touch. Tiffany believed every syllable that came out of her aunt’s mouth, and that set the course for her extraordinary life. In the years since, she’s passed the gift of encouragement on. Tiffany is quick to tell those close to her what makes them special, helping them see the light that shines so brightly in each of us, even when we can’t see it ourselves. 

FINDING A MASSAGE THERAPIST FOR THOSE IN GRIEF

1. Ask your friends for recommendations.

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2. Look at photos of the massage room. Most are available on the business's website or social media page.

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3. Ask where the massage room is located. You'll want to make sure the venue is quiet.

4. Certain smells can detract from the experience. Look for a massage therapist who's in a self-contained building or one that is far enough removed that odors (food, chemicals, for instance) do not interfere.

5. Ask all the questions you want. Make sure the temperature and music are acceptable to you.

6. To help someone you love who is grieving, you can book a massage for them with a trained professional. Consider scheduling a 30-minute session in the beginning to build rapport.