Deepening our Commitment to Bikkur Cholim

Thoughts on how to fulfill the important mitzvah of visiting the sick.

A beautiful thing has been happening on Shabbat afternoons at CBJ following Kiddush. Several B’nai Mitzvah families have begun asking other members of the class to take leftovers to congregants who have been ill. The people who received the meals have let me know how touched they were to be given the delicious food.

The response reminds me of the Talmud’s teaching that visiting the sick takes away 1/60 of their pain. The lesson reflects the belief that our minds, emotions, and bodies are connected; when we feel the love and connection of a visit, it helps our healing in a small way. We intuitively know how important it is to visit the sick, but often don’t know what to do, how to help, or to make it a priority.

As the summer is upon us, I would like to share some thoughts about how to do this important mitzvah, based upon Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s book How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, this well-known author realized that many of her friends were wonderful as she dealt with her illness whereas others didn’t know what to do. Although they were well-intentioned, some were unhelpful, some were suffocating, and some simply disappeared.

Here are highlights from her advice:

  1. Remember the visit is about the person you’re visiting, not about you. Don’t talk too much, too loudly, or too softly. Ask about their condition, but don’t subject them to the third degree, talk about your own health history, or cite someone else’s prior experience with the disease. Keep the spotlight on them – some may want to talk about their illness in detail and others may be eager for distraction.
  2. Watch for cues. Generally, don’t stay too long. Unless they’re notably chatty and insist you stay, your visit shouldn’t last more than twenty minutes. Five minutes or fewer would be best if they’re in pain or yawning a lot.
  3. Your mood matters. Do not greet the sick person morosely – your mood is contagious. Try to greet them normally and allow the patient to guide the emotional tone.
  4. Offers to help are best if they are 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 much more helpful. There are so many things you can offer to help with – household chores; time with kids; bringing over movies, music, or books.
  5. Think twice before giving advice. Your job is to be present, not to research medical opinions (unless you are asked to do so). Be careful about saying things like: “Keep up the fight,” “Be positive,” “Everything happens for a reason,” “Maybe it is for the best,” “Just be glad it isn’t worse,” and “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” As well-intentioned as these words may be, they don’t help and in fact marginalize and diminish a person’s experience.
  6. Ask what is helpful and what is not. Pogrebin’s mantra in the book is “Ask and Act.” For Pogrebin, the essence of visiting the sick is simply to offer our presence and listen with full attention. She teaches us to listen with empathy and availability.

The author writes about how her illness changed her perspective on life:

I make different choices now because I know I don’t have forever. My best years aren’t behind me; they’re within me. They inform who I am, what I think, what I want to do next. And because mortality has brushed so close to my cheek, each day seems more precious, each happy moment more vivid, each pleasure more fully felt. Since being dubbed a “cancer survivor,” the possibility of my own death is no longer distant and theoretical; it’s with me all the time – not in a big, melodramatic way but like an almond stuck in the corner of my pocket. It doesn’t get in the way or stop me from doing what I want to do, but I know it’s there. Contrary to my former propensity, I no longer behave as if I’m going to live forever.

May we take this wisdom to heart and say “Hineini – Here I am” to those in our community and in our lives who are ill.