My wife packed a basket with a teapot, teacups, tea bags, sweetener, cookies and napkins. When we arrived at the appointed time Louise's husband Jim answered the door. He already had a filled teapot whistling merrily on the stove. Louise was well enough to join us at the kitchen table, and conversation flowed easily as we unpacked the basket and set the table for our simple tea. It seemed more like a celebration than a sick call. Soon Louise began to tire, but she remembered we had said we would only stay fifteen or twenty minutes. We wiped the teacups dry with the paper towels we had brought, and repacked the basket. We joined hands for a brief prayer for Louise's continued healing, and after hugs we left. But not before Louise had thanked us saying, "You will never know how much this time has meant to me."
We all know we should do it. So why do we make excuses instead of visiting a friend who is sick? If you have ever felt this way, you are not alone. If the number one fear of Americans is public speaking, then fear of speaking to a sick or grieving friend must be a close second.
In preparing for this article I stopped by a large bookstore. I explained that I was writing an article on visiting friends who were sick and asked if the store had any books that might help me in my research. "No," replied the head of the book department, "but let me check the computer to be sure." After a brief search she confirmed that there was not a single book available. "But there needs to be," she blurted out. I was shocked by the intensity of her response. "My brother has been sick," she explained, "and his friends did not come to be with him. He died two weeks ago." The pain of her brother's death was still very real. But a hurt that was almost as deep was that his friends had abandoned him in the hour of his need.
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote, "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 (much better than saying, 'You'll get over it', or 'It's not so bad; others have it worse') and I loved them for it." What should you do if you find that some subconscious feelings hinder you from visiting an ailing friend? The good news is that you don't need years of psychotherapy. This is the garden variety kind of problem that is often best cured by the Dr. Phil approach. He would likely tell you that you don't need to understand the roots of your problem. Just do it. Turn off the television and go visit.
You can invite God to be with you. Stop and breathe a prayer. Father Mychal Judge, the New York City Fire Department chaplain who died at ground zero September 11, 2001 would pray, "Lord, take me where you want me to go. Let me meet whom you want me to meet. Help me to say what you want me to say, and keep me from getting in your way."
When you learn a friend is sick it is always good to send a card or a brief note. In almost every hospital room that I have visited I have found cards and letters displayed proudly. A telephone call is another form of personal contact. If you get an answering machine, leave a message. My wife had a friend with MS. She would call Cindy for a few minutes each day. When Cindy became too weak to answer the telephone she could still listen as the message went onto the answering machine. My wife would leave an encouraging word, an inspirational thought, or a Bible verse reminding her friend that she was still loved and not forgotten.
But what should I say?
Remember you are visiting a friend. Put your visit in that context. Do you sit at your desk at work and wonder "If I see my friend at the water cooler, what will I say?" If you are going to do lunch do you think "Whatever will I have to talk about?" Your friendship is not drastically changed because one of you is sick. Be natural. Talk about the things you normally talk about.
Remember that you are there as a friend, not as an authority on medicine, psychiatry, or religion. You don't have to have the answers, especially to questions like, "Why me?" or the problems of pain and suffering in the world. You can say, "I don't know what you are going through, but I'm willing to listen to anything you have to say." If your friend wants to talk about such deep and troubling questions they need you to listen, not to provide easy answers, and especially not to lecture them on moral and spiritual values. A good response is to ask, "What do you make of it?" Remember God doesn't need you to defend him.
And it's natural to feel anger when your life is disrupted by illness, especially a hospital visit. Letting a person express their anger is often the best way to help them move beyond it. Sometimes I say, "So far God hasn't given me the answers to all my 'Why?' questions. He seems to give me more guidance when I ask, 'What should I do now?'"
Don't be afraid to sit in silence. Frank confided in me that the hardest thing for him when he was in the hospital was being expected to keep up a conversation. Bonnie interrupted Frank and said it was more difficult to endure a loquacious visitor who never stopped talking. Just being there, ready to listen if they prefer, but showing your caring with your presence is often what is needed.
Recently the father of a friend of Linnea, my six-year old granddaughter, was killed. How do you comfort a six-year old? While the grownups were debating the question, one of them noticed that Linnea had gone to her friend and hugged her. Then the two little girls stood there, hugging each other and crying together. It was exactly what the child needed in her grief. No words.just being there.