How to Visit the Sick

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.


After enduring both a brain tumor and chemotherapy for lymphoma, I learned something about how to be sick, and how to visit those who are sick. As a Rabbi I have also seen these lessons enacted - and too often violated. So here are ten simple rules and suggestions:

1. Do not greet the sick person morosely. If he is feeling well, he must now accommodate your level of sadness. One who is sick does not spend all day thinking, "I am sick." She may be thinking about lunch. Greet normally, and allow the patient to guide the emotional tone.

2. If you visit someone going through chemotherapy, remember: Losing hair is visible and dramatic, but not catastrophic. After all, the Talmud tells us that Rabbi Akiba was bald. Yul Brenner was bald. This is usually more trying for women than for men, but it is a stage to seeking wellness. Don't make it more important than it is; it is not a symptom nor a symbol; just a side-effect.

3. Offers to help should be specific. "Let me know if there is anything I can do" though well meant, places the burden on the sick person. "Can I bring you dinner tomorrow night?" is far better. The best gifts I received were an IPOD loaded with music to listen to during chemo (mostly classical and gentle melodies) and a credit at a local restaurant to charge dinners for delivery. If you make a dinner, there is always the chance the person will not like it; they are obligated to return the dishes, and they have to communicate their thanks and praise. Every extra obligation is wearing on the sick person. Ordering is easy.

4. If help is refused, or offers and good wishes met with silence, do not be hurt. Sometimes coordinating help, checking on it, thanking, is more trouble and fatigue inducing than refusal. Responding to even the most gracious message requires energy the person may need elsewhere.

5. The Jewish tradition esteems the art of medicine. If you have the blessing of good doctors and nurses you understand why. Anyone who has ever spent an uncomfortable night in a hospital is not likely to undervalue nurses. A good nurse is God's most gracious emissary in this world. A bad one...well, less so. So don't hesitate to ask the person if he or she trusts/ likes their doctor, and if you have a suggestion for another, offer it without insisting. Second opinions can be lifesavers.

6. Strength and weakness both are good, and each has its place. If the patient is acting strong, they may need to; if they are self-pitying, they may need that too. Particularly when we are ill, our moods shift with pain, medicine, diagnoses and whim. Do not flaunt your own strength or health. Don't stand above the bed. Sit at eye level. Sick and well are not superior and inferior, just sick and well.

7. In every sickness one can find mission and meaning. That does not make the sickness welcome, but it can give it a new and powerful dimension. Don't assume the person cannot find light in this darkness. But it is their light to find; yours at most, gently to suggest.

8. Even a dying person can still teach. Indeed these may be his or her most powerful moments. I study each week with a 93 year old man who still remembers his mother, some seventy years ago, saying to him as she died, "Do not be afraid. It happens to everyone." The thought gives him comfort to this day. So let the person know that you wish to learn from them, not only comfort them.

9. No matter your theology, there is a great power and beauty in prayer. The heart overflows - with fear, with hope, with thanks. Don't be afraid to let it pour out. Prayer is poetry. Check your caveats at the door and don't deprive yourself of this comfort and strength. An offer to pray for or with someone can be refused, but also can gratefully be accepted.

10. To the one who is sick: Death is inevitable. Love is a choice. Kindness is a decision. Don't let what must happen rob you of what can happen. Live the time you have.