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What to Say When You Visit Someone in the Hospital

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“Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.” (Proverbs 25:20)

A little over a year ago I (the Reverend) landed in a very strange, new place…one that felt foreign and quite uncomfortable—a hospital bed in the ICU. I spent five days in this unfamiliar territory. I was poked and measured and evaluated and tested and x-rayed and medicated and fed and bathed and visited. It felt so odd to me to be on the other side of the caregiving but also extremely enlightening. There is no better training for visiting someone in the hospital than being visited in the hospital. I came away with a whole new set of convictions about what is important when making a hospital call.

Both of us have come to the realization that there is nearly a universal response to the prospect of visiting someone who is sick, dying or hospitalized: Terror. What do I say? How do I act? How do I react? What do I bring? This common fear can inhibit good intentions. So let’s begin by naming the fears…

Some people are just phobic around hospitals. The sights, sounds and smells of hospitals make them feel physically ill. In a somewhat ironic twist, they can’t visit the sick without getting sick. That group tends to be the minority.

Feelings of inadequacy about providing care or comfort. The majority of fears revolve around not knowing what to say or being trapped in awkward silence or, worse, saying the wrong thing.

How we will react to the sight of sick or dying loved ones. The default mode for many is simply to avoid the possibility of an inappropriate reaction by keeping their distance. In this situation, their fear has trumped their sympathy.

We’ve come up with a few pieces of distilled instruction that might assuage some fears and create some confidence.

  1. Just being present is a massive gift that brings its own comfort. Walking into the room immediately provides them with an emotional lift of equal parts gratitude, love and joy. This is an exceptional illustration of the maxim, “98% of life is just showing up.” Sometimes people will even become emotional when we arrive—so happy to see us and also so touched by our willingness to visit them.
  2. What you say isn’t all that important. See point #1. This should be a massive relief for many. Most of the time the less you say the better. You are there primarily to listen if they want to talk. And if they don’t, you are there primarily just to be there. Just take a seat and be present for a while. It will mean more to them than we can possibly convey. I (the Reverend) can still remember the people who came to see me in the hospital (including the Rabbi).
  3. Pay attention to the cues they are giving you so you can match their mood if you should have to take the lead on the conversation. In other words, you don’t want to come bopping in telling jokes if they are in a different emotional place. And for others, levity will be perfectly appropriate and the best medicine possible. Here are a few things you can say or do that are perfectly appropriate.
  • Tell them you have been thinking of them or praying for them.
  • Tell them you are sorry that they have been sick.
  • Tell them you and others miss seeing them.
  • Ask them how they are feeling.
  • Ask them if there is anything you can do to help, e.g., bring something from home, take care of pets, get their mail, communicate with anyone, read to them, etc.
  • Bring them a gift—a magazine, some flowers, food they enjoy, etc.
  • And sometimes they really want to talk and you will have one of your typical conversations.

Try to keep in mind that they are exhausted both by their condition and also from simply staying in a hospital, where no one ever really gets a good night of sleep. Their energy levels will be low and so will their attention spans. Don’t stay too long, but do bring lots of love, empathy and a commitment to listening. And never forget that your visit itself will be an immeasurable gift.

Click here to purchase Rabbi Daniel Cohen’s book, What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone?

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