Death of a Client

An MT’s Personal Account of Grief and Loss

By Samantha Lynn
[Mind of an MT]

Working behind a desk to line someone else’s pocket was not what I wanted out of a career. I wanted a vocation that allowed me to be active and do a little good for my community. After realizing this, I went back to school to become a massage therapist.

One of my first clients was a woman in her late 60s named Nancy. Nancy quickly became one of my favorite clients and, eventually, a friend. When Nancy came into the office for her weekly appointments, we would slide easily into conversation, and our 50-minute session would feel like five minutes. Nancy told me stories about her past, her job as a paraprofessional, her children, her grandchildren, and her husband of 41 years. She would bring me homemade baked goods (mostly cookies) because she knew I got hungry later in my shift. I never told her, but I would often have to give away her treats because of my lactose intolerance. Mostly, I brought them home to my husband who never complained. Even if I couldn’t always eat what she brought me, the gesture was what counted.

About a year after we met, Nancy was diagnosed with lung cancer. Having never smoked and being in fairly good health, she was floored by the news, but she was determined to come out on top. She had an intense surgery removing part of her right lung. Understandably, I didn’t see her for a few weeks, but she kept me updated and insisted everything went well.

After her surgery, Nancy was doing fairly well despite some fatigue and pain around her incision, which we always focused on during her sessions. She was in great shape for several months and would tell me about all of her appointments, often joking about her young, good-looking doctors.

At the end of Nancy’s sessions, we had a routine. First, I would help her clasp her necklace back around her neck. Then, I would tell her to eat good food and drink plenty of water. Often, she would reply, “Pizza and vodka, got it,” or “Well, you’re no fun.” I would laugh and tell her again, “Water, Nancy.” We would sometimes hug, and she would be on her way. Her visits were predictable, as was our dialogue, but her presence was comforting and always made me smile.

In late 2019, Nancy’s cancer came back in several different parts of her body, including her kidneys and, unfortunately, her brain. This time she lost weight and just a little bit of her fire, which I had come to admire. During our 50 minutes, we would talk strategy, and I would tell her not to give up. She always replied, “I won’t. I’ve got too much to do still.” Some days were better than others. Some days she was exhausted and discouraged. Some days she was angry that she couldn’t garden or do activities like she used to. But overall, her spirit remained high considering her circumstances, and she stayed fairly busy with easy hobbies and family.

When COVID hit, Nancy was one of the first people I thought of. By then, I had her phone number, and I texted her and begged her to stay safe. Being on chemotherapy and a slew of other drugs, her immune system was compromised, and she only had one fully working lung. She was pretty stubborn, but she agreed and said she and her husband would quarantine at her cabin with her family. I jokingly told her to make sure she had plenty of toilet paper. She responded, “I’ve got TP, vodka, and porn, so I’m set.” I laughed and was grateful that her fire was still intact—and that she wasn’t being too stubborn about not being able to go out and about as she pleased.

I checked on Nancy here and there throughout the spring even though I wasn’t working for about three months due to the pandemic. When I finally went back to work in early July, I wasn’t expecting to see her as the virus was (and still is) dangerous for people with weak immune systems and health conditions.

I hadn’t heard from her in a few weeks, and I was driving home from a family trip to our cottage when I got a text from her number written by her daughter. She told me that her mom was in hospice care at her home, and Nancy wanted to let me know that she was thinking of me and appreciated our friendship. As my eyes began to well up with tears, I responded and asked if Nancy wanted any visitors. I was surprised but relieved when she told me yes.

Her daughter and I set up a time later in the week for me to visit. I had never experienced anything like that before. I’ve never had to say goodbye to anyone. Knowing it would be the last time I would see someone I cared deeply for shook me to my core. My heart was already aching for my friend and her family. I arrived at her daughter’s house on a rainy day around noon. I had never met her daughter, but after years of hearing stories about her, I felt like I knew her well. It turned out that she felt the same. Nancy had been telling her stories about me too. There was definitely a comfortable familiarity even though it was our first meeting.

When I walked into the house, I saw Nancy lying in a hospital bed set up in the living room. Her daughter gave me a chair and I sat next to Nancy’s bed. She was clearly exhausted and looked so small to me. She couldn’t speak much, but we were still able to catch up. She asked me familiar questions with one word, and I did most of the talking. Eventually, I could see she needed to sleep, so I told her I would leave so she could get some rest. She reached for my hand and held it tight. She looked up at me, and told me how grateful she was for me. I let the tears fall, and I thanked her for being my friend. She told me she loved me, and I told her I loved her too and would remember her always. I told her to drink plenty of water, as I often did at the end of our office visits, and she took a deep breath and said, “Well, you’re no fun.” I laughed through the tears and held her hand tight for a few more moments.

I stood and told her goodbye as I kissed the top of her head. I hugged her daughter and thanked her for letting me say goodbye, and I left. My heart had never been so heavy. Nancy’s friendship was unexpected. When I met her I had no idea how much she would mean to me. I’m so grateful for the time I had with her, and I’m so grateful I got to say goodbye. I’m humbled that she thought of me, her massage therapist, in her last days on this earth.

In school, we don’t really talk about how connected you can become to clients, especially if you see them regularly. We are taught to establish emotional and social boundaries with our clients in order to remain safe and professional. I completely understand the importance of boundaries, and I agree that they are necessary in our profession. However, as humans, we naturally crave connection. We are born to bond, encourage, and commiserate with other humans.

During our time with our clients, we slowly learn about their lives and what makes their hearts beat. It feels so routine, we don’t even realize an unavoidable bond is forming. For some clients, the conversational part of the session is just as needed as the bodywork. I’m not implying every therapist should freely cross boundary lines—and I know not every person is the same—but if a client offers you freshly baked cookies, take the cookies.

I know there are a lot of therapists who work in hospitals and have to deal with the loss of a client quite often, but it was a first for me. Although I wouldn’t trade our friendship, or the opportunity I had to say goodbye for anything, I’m struggling with my grief. No one in my life had ever really met Nancy, so even though I have an amazing support system, sometimes I feel like I’m going through it alone. I know with time my heart will lighten, but until then I’ll hold my grief close—and I’ll remember my friend smiling and full of fire.


Samantha Lynn is a writer and massage therapist from Michigan. She graduated from Central Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 2012. She lives with her husband and two fur babies, Juno and Sophie. She loves to read, write, travel, and practice yoga. For more information, visit