I am terrified to see people who are sick or are experiencing loss because I never know what to say. I am afraid of putting my foot in my mouth or making things worse for them. I become so anxious that I avoid all situations (like funerals shivas hospital visits etc) where I might be required to express myself. I know this is a problem and I don’t know what to do.
Anxiety is no small problem for many people, and neither is the sensation of powerlessness in the face of tragedy or suffering. One of the books of the Torah, Job, tells the story of one mans profound pain and suffering and his ‘friends’ responses (and their missteps) to his challenges. So this is an issue so ubiquitous that it is literally biblical!
Some of the commandments in the Torah are to ‘visit the sick’ (in Hebrew Bikur Cholim), to ‘escort the dead’, to ‘bring peace between man and his fellow’. These are all deep and vulnerable acts which can be challenging at the best of times. And yet, the purpose of our being here on this planet is to elevate our souls, bring peace, and repair the world around us. So despite our angst, these directives heal us as much as they heal others and our discomfort cannot be a factor in following this path. The Talmud (Baba Metzia 30b) says that “He who visits a sick person takes away one-sixtieth of their illness.”
When visiting the sick one need not ‘say’ much but instead, opt to do much! Go dressed nicely and put a smile on your face! Make sure that all of the sick person’s needs are met; tidy their room and ensure their bed is comfortable.
Before visiting, take action. You might call or send a note, saying:
“I am going to the grocery store. I am going to pick up a meal for you/your family. Do you prefer meat/dairy/fish? Any dietary restrictions I should know about?”
“I am driving carpool for you while you are in the hospital so don’t even think about it! What snacks are you comfortable with me giving your kids after school?”
“I am sending my cleaning person to your house. Any particular directives for them?”
“Before I come, I would love to know if you have a really good fluffy blanket/robe/magazine I can bring with. Do you have color preferences?” or “How about I bring my manicure kit (just being touched works for some people)”?
“I give great hand/feet massages if you are interested! Do you have lotion there or shall I bring? What scents do you prefer?”
You will note that these statements include both ‘assumptions’ and ‘questions’. Asking someone ‘what can I do’ puts the onus on them. Telling or offering a menu of choices takes some of the stings out of accepting and engages them in the process.
When you arrive, smiling, of course, you might say:
“Oh gosh – I am so happy to see you even under these circumstances”
“I wish I could give you half my strength! Half my heart. Half my energy! For sure you have all my heart!”
“I just needed to see your face and give you my love and prayers. If you don’t feel like talking that’s cool”
Above all take your cue from them, but don’t bring negativity into the room by making it about your feelings. One thing I have heard repeatedly from women who were ill is that they felt doubly bad because they felt like they had to coddle their friends! Or that some people avoided them out of fear. Or that they felt cut off from the world. You can bring the world into their room for them with stories of school socializing and life in general. “The only thing” you can say ‘that would have made it better is if you could have been there!; and please G-D next time we will do XYZ together!”
If you still feel nervous (normal of course) remember that “Courage is not the absence of fear; Courage is the decision that something is more important than your fear” (Ambrose Redmoon). And this is one of the most important things of all!
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Being a peacemaker among our peers can deepen our ability to see two sides of a story and offer perspective in problem solving. This advice isn’t just for adult relationships. For kids, this opportunity can play out daily during recess, in the cafeteria, on Instagram, or over text.