This past year I wrote a series of eight life cycle booklets that will soon be posted on Temple Israel’s web-site. I wrote them because I have noticed how ill-equipped so many of us are when confronting joyous and stressful life events. Among the most challenging is illness. Below are a few of the frequently asked questions and responses that are included in the “Illness and Healing Guide.”
What should we do when our dear ones become ill? Depending on the seriousness of the illness, there are times when it is best for the ill person not to receive visitors except the closest relatives and friends. No one should visit the hospital, rehabilitation center, or home without checking first with either the ill person or a close relative.
When you visit, what should you do? When visiting, stay briefly, sit down, and allow the ill person to determine the nature and tone of the conversation. The visitor should be as non-intrusive as possible and not speak about themselves unless directly asked by the sick person, and then only briefly. The focus should be on the patient, first and foremost. Extreme displays of emotion are out of place and tend to not benefit the patient.
When visiting how long should you stay? Visitors should stay no more than 10 or 15 minutes even if the ill person welcomes the visit. The energy necessary to receive and “entertain” guests should be directed rather towards healing.
Who should visit whom? Only close relatives and friends should visit a person who is seriously ill or recovering from surgery. Though tradition requires everyone to visit the sick, there are other ways to offer one’s love, support and good wishes than actual visitation. Sending get-well cards and email messages are usually welcome because the sick can read them according to their own schedule. Phone calls to the hospital room or home may be a disturbance and should be handled by the closest relatives and friends. Unfortunately, some people avoid visiting or making contact with the sick as much as they can because of their own discomfort. This can isolate the ill. Those who are chronically ill often suffer from feelings of isolation and depression. Attention from relatives and friends can mitigate loneliness and despair.
Should you offer a healing blessing when you visit? Yes. Judaism affirms that a visitor should end a visit by offering a healing prayer. In addition to the traditional longer mi shebeirach healing blessing, there is a short five-word healing blessing first recited by Moses for his ailing sister, Miriam, when she was afflicted with leprosy: El na r’fa na la (for a female); El na r’fa na lo (for a male) – “Please God heal her/him!”
What should visitors say and not say? All conversation should be determined according to the wishes and interests of the ill person. If the ill person wishes to discuss his/her condition, the visitor should listen and, if warranted, ask leading questions, but not give false hope or cause the sick to despair as a result of his/her condition. The visitor should avoid self-referencing comments (i.e. turn the conversation around to him/herself).
Should you take a gift for the ill when you visit? If you are visiting a very ill person in the hospital, bringing gifts is probably not a good idea. If you are visiting someone in their home, a gift of healthy food or flowers, magazines or books is welcome. Sending flowers and notes to the hospital can usually be counted on to be well received.
What do you say to and what do you do for the family of a very ill person? When a loved one is very ill, members of the family are often depressed and fear the worst. What they need is the loving support of family and friends, offers to taken them for a quick meal away from the hospital or home, magazines to distract their attention while they sit with their dear ones. There is, however, no set prescription that fits everyone’s needs. Friends need to be sensitive to what will help and never impose themselves.