Losing a Bright Light in the Profession

Irene Smith, massage and hospice educator and pioneer

Saying Goodbye to Irene Smith

By Karrie Osborn

I’m shedding a tear but feeling peace in my heart as I remember the endearing spirit of Irene Smith, one of this profession’s most precious gifts. After recently being diagnosed with esophageal cancer, Irene entered in-home hospice in late February, and died peacefully on the evening of April 4, 2021, with her dedicated caregivers by her side.

Irene gave much to this profession of massage and bodywork, most notably the embodiment of compassion. Irene’s work was some of the first I was exposed to when I joined the ABMP team 23 years ago, and I was instantly in awe of her determination to serve those who needed loving and compassionate touch the most. Her work with AIDS patients in the early 1980s became a touchstone in her professional legacy and inspired her to develop the Service Through Touch program in 1982, which for nearly two decades established massage projects for AIDS patients worldwide. Those who received her work called her an angel, and she was honored as the first inductee of the National AIDS Memorial Grove Award for AIDS service in 1995.

Through her program Everflowing, Irene continued to serve and teach about mindful, compassionate touch in palliative care. She wrote: “I teach touch as a way of honoring the sacredness of life and all its transitions. Touching the dying is my practice.” It’s fitting that her final contribution to Massage & Bodywork magazine led to an award-winning March/April 2018 issue that addressed death, compassion, and the integrity of hospice work head on. I encourage you to read her article.

In her last Everflowing newsletter late last year, when the loss of touch due to COVID weighed heavily on her mind, Irene left us with these words:

“In closure, I want to remind you that life has handed all of us a full plate. For many, usual comfort strategies are unavailable. Our very nature of being thrives on connections, and yet we are being asked to continue to shelter in place for our 7th month. Depression and anxiety are high. It is natural. New strategies for coping have to be created; the connection we are being asked to cultivate is the connection to ourselves. This is not an easy request. Be as compassionate with yourself as possible. Try not to judge yourself harshly for seeming to be unorganized or indulgent. Nothing gets created without tearing down the old structures. Between the destruction and creation there is seeming confusion. Breathe, ground, and hold your own hand. You deserve your support and kindness! I need to read this every day!!!!”

As do we all. Thank you, Irene. We may have lost your bright light, but the thousands you have taught, mentored, touched, will never forget the gift you gave us all.

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