During this pandemic, my friend’s mother had a stroke. She was hospitalized for two weeks and was transferred for rehab to a nursing home. During her over-three-month stay, other friends wanted to call her and wondered how she was doing. They hesitated, because they “just didn’t know what to say” on the phone visit, nervous that their asking how she was doing would seem like they were prying into her personal life.
Eventually, their friend returned to an assisted-living facility, but she was unable to drive and had trouble performing the activities of daily life.
When friends or family get sick, it can be an uncomfortable time of wanting to know how they are doing. There is concern about them and a desire to know about their surgery, treatments, release date, etc., but people are hesitant to visit or even call. What is the proper “etiquette,” if there is any, for visiting or calling someone who is ill or dying? Calling a sick friend is not an everyday phone call like telling someone about our errands at the mall or that there is a new movie showing in town.
Health problems are serious stuff. These times make people timid and tentative because this is not a pleasant situation nor one that people deal with too much. Friends and loved ones do not want to say or do anything “wrong” or anything that is not sensitive to the sick friend. We want to support them but might not do anything because we are afraid of saying the wrong thing.
The wise Rabbi Harold Kushner sums it up well: “At some of the darkest moments of my life, some people I thought of as friends deserted me—some because they cared about me, and it hurt them to see me in pain; others because I reminded them of their own vulnerability, and that was more than they could handle. But real friends overcame their discomfort and came to sit with me. If they had no words to make me feel better, they sat in silence…and I loved them for it.”
Hospital chaplains have keen insights and wisdom of patients and family in the hospital. Chaplains and hospice staff are well trained and not only offer compassionate help to those who are ill, but can also guide family and friends on how to visit and speak and be present to a loved one.
Sister Faith Cosky, OSF, a Sylvania Franciscan who serves as a chaplain, says, “There is no pat answer on what to say to a person who is sick. Sometimes there is little one can say to make it better, whether the person is dying or will not recover. Prior to death, people might say ‘thank you, I love you and I’m sorry.’ The bottom line is, what would you like to hear if you were the sick one? What would be comforting to you?”
It is important to ask the person how they are, to let them talk or to tell you “what hurts” and not presume you know how they feel. You don’t know. No matter what they say, take them seriously and validate their feelings. Let the person know you are there to support them, pray for them, and help them in any way you can.
She says, “When people say they ‘don’t know what to say,’ tell the patient that, and most of the time a conversation will flow from that admission. Do not be afraid of sitting in silence with someone. They know you care.”
One beloved quote (paraphrased) from Francis of Assisi sums up the challenge of visiting and supporting those who are sick: Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.
The biggest thing anyone can say is to be there. Your presence says it all.