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Massage Today
December, 2010, Vol. 10, Issue 12

Practice Dying

A CranioSacral Therapist's Story

By Sharon Desjarlais, CC

It was nothing more than a clerical error. But it was enough to allow Don Ash to die, an experience that transformed his CranioSacral Therapy practice for life.

As a hospice volunteer in the mid-'90s, Don was required to get a physical, which included a test for AIDS. In those days, it was standard protocol for the results to come from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Don quickly got the lab work back from his doctor. Everything checked out fine. There was only one report missing. The one from the CDC.

A week went by, but he didn't think much about it. Two weeks went by and he began to wonder, but he brushed off his concerns. After five weeks with no word, it hit him: "I have AIDS."

Usually an easygoing, open-hearted man, Don quickly became an introvert. "I had heart palpitations," he says. "I lost weight. My cranial work suffered and I pulled away from my wife and kids. I couldn't burden them." After eight weeks he found himself erupting in tears at odd moments. "This overwhelming feeling would come over me. Deep, dark depression, loneliness, isolation, and so much sadness."

Finally, he couldn't bear it. He went into his office, closed his door and placed a phone call to his doctor. Holding his breath, Don informed him he never got the results. "Oh no," his doctor replied. "I thought that went out months ago. The test was clear. I hope you weren't concerned."

Don thanked him, hung up the phone and realized, "This is what it feels like to die."

Completing the Biological Process

holding hands - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark That painful experience opened Don up to a new understanding about his therapeutic work. "Dr. John Upledger talked a lot about using CranioSacral Therapy to complete the biological process," he says. "But he was usually talking about a birth that's interrupted. I saw how that same principle could apply to healing a body into death."

Don soon had the opportunity to test that theory with his grandmother at the end of her life. "I was monitoring her cranial rhythm, inducing little still points here and there, when she got quieter and quieter. In the moment of her death, her breathing stopped, then her heartbeat stopped, and then I felt nothing but the cranial rhythm until that slowly, gently trailed away."

In the end, Don says, there's nothing left but a great quiet, a great peace. "It really is an amazing grace. If you can help a person witness their own grace with softness and relaxation and acceptance, it's a beautiful thing."

Healing the Family Dynamic

Don has since worked hands-on with hundreds of dying patients. "It's very different than working with anyone else," he says. "You often don't have many body parts to hold onto. You can't uncover them to hold their feet. You can't get to the head of the bed to hold their head. And you can't turn them on their side to do a diaphragm release. So you may have only three fingers on a forearm. You learn to monitor the cranial rhythm and feel what's happening from there."

Using the cranial rhythm as a "significance detector" also becomes an important tool. In the Upledger model of CranioSacral Therapy, when the cranial rhythm comes to a sudden stop, it indicates that something physiologically significant is happening for the client.

"When I'm monitoring a patient and someone comes into the room and the cranial rhythm stops, that's significant," Don says. "I might ask the patient how they feel about that person. It may be that the patient needs them close or needs them to stay away. This understanding can help the family provide the best environment for the patient."

Don insists that as a therapist, you still don't project or direct in any way. "But you can support the family, if they choose, to do some tremendous healing together. That can help everyone discharge a great deal of apprehension and anxiety, so the patient can take a deep breath and relax into the experience."

Facing Big and Little Deaths Hands-On

Don has been teaching his techniques on facilitating the process of suffering, loss and death in a class he calls "CranioSacral Therapy Around Death and Dying." (You can learn more about it at "We go deep into the skills it takes to help a person relax into their body and mind so they can get to a place where they can set their soul free, if that's what they need at the time."

Yet these skills are every bit as effective with what Don calls the many "little deaths" we each experience throughout life. "We all have moments of successes and failures, of giving and receiving, of gathering in and letting go. It could be from a divorce, a relocation, a job change, the death of a pet. You can use cranial work to help a patient ease through those little deaths, too. When they do, that's when they can really cherish living."

Ultimately, Don's best advice to CranioSacral Therapists who want to support the death and dying process is to "become a very good listener. And follow Plato's advice. Just before his death his disciples asked him, 'Do you have any last words?' 'Yes,' he replied. 'Practice dying.'"

Click here for more information about Sharon Desjarlais, CC.


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