The Art of Holding Space

By Susan Coffey
[Mind of an MT]

I was in massage school the first time I heard someone use the term holding space. I was baffled, but curious. The instructor was attempting to teach us an important lesson about listening. At the time, I thought, “I am a great listener. This holding space concept is easy.” Looking back, I realize the foolishness of my confidence.

That same instructor told us that when someone is crying, we should not give them 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 counterintuitive to me, almost cruel. After all, wasn’t offering a tissue an act of comfort?           

Like so many people who are drawn 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 and helping them be at their best. My intentions were good-hearted and kind, always. I know now that being a giver or a helper sometimes gives me more than it does 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.

An Awakening

When I began working with hospice patients, I realized that holding space would be my greatest challenge. By the time a person enters hospice services, they’ve probably already had years of treatment, including surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and more. Once with hospice, patients understand that all treatment ceases and the focus shifts to solely providing comfort. My role in this setting is quite different than the massage therapist I am in private practice. Here, my purpose or intention shifts to meet my clients 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. I am being asked to honor that space and all that comes to light.

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 client; being with them and their pain, their fear, their loss of control, their vulnerability. All the massage techniques in the world would not change the fact that they were approaching death. 

I have had to learn to listen in all the ways my instructors tried to teach me many years ago. My role is 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 bite my tongue and quell my inner optimist so as to not minimize their feelings. I listen fully without interruption. I sit with their fear and say nothing. Instead of speaking out, 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 us to give them all they need and all I want to say.

The Connection

In all, holding space is not about words of encouragement or understanding or compassion, even though all those reactions make us feel better as helpers or givers. Holding space is just that—giving space for someone to feel all of their 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 support one 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. Therein lies our oneness, our harmony, our truth. 

Susan Coffey has a private practice in Watertown, Massachusetts, and also works for Care Dimensions (formerly Hospice North Shore). She teaches continuing education classes, including hospice massage and all levels of reiki. Visit to learn more about her work.