Being ill is not fun. It takes hard work, it often leaves a bad taste, and sometimes it gets worse and not better. There are some characteristics about being ill that we all recognize, but they are worth mentioning.
Illness is isolating. Whether we are stuck at home or in the hospital, it is not where we normally spend our time. Most of us need contact with others, we do not want to be alone. Although when I get sick or have minor surgery, I am perfectly content to be left alone. Give me a political or medical novel to read, a little bit of food, some Amaretto for the fever, and I am one happy sick patient. But most people are not like me, most people want and need the loving care of others. Isolation is not so good for us when we get sick. Remember that solitary confinement in prison is considered to be the worst punishment of all.
Illness is debilitating. When we’re sick, we usually cannot stand up, which is why visitors need to sit and not stand when they visit the sick. We try to let the sick one stay in control, so that in the midst of losing control over their body, at least they retain some control over their environment. When visitors stand up while the patient lies in bed, the clear signal is given—I’m not really interested in staying here too long. Which is often interpreted as meaning—you’re not that important to me. When that happens, the sick will not talk seriously, for they realize you don’t want to, so they shut down.
Illness is infantilizing. When you’re sick, you cannot do what you had been able to do before you got sick, you need nurses and doctors to do it for you. Just like when we were infants and had to be taken care of by our parents. One remedy is to talk to sick people about what you would normally talk to them about, so they won’t feel too infantilized. After all, they are sick, but alive, so give them the honor of conversation, that will help them recover as much as the medicines. With our humanity intact, we have dignity; without dignity we have lost everything.
Illness is boring. Talk to them, give them a reason to wake up in the morning, aside from their vitals being taken again and again. Do not ask them “how do you feel?” Do ask them “what did the doctor say?” If the prognosis is good, ask “how can I help?” If the prognosis is not good, get them to talk about family healing and resolution issues, pain issues, advanced directives and wills, going home or to hospice to live out their final days in peace without pain.
Finally, illness is a rehearsal for death. Whenever we take care of the sick, we are practicing for their final care-giving, the one before they die. Be gentle and be loving. Someday, and nobody knows when, others will care for us the same way. Give care the same way you want to receive care, and you will be rewarded when your time comes. And that is a reward, don’t you think?
Find Rabbi Mel Glazer at http://www.yourgriefmatters.com and http://www.andgodcreatedhope.com After spending over thirty years as a Rabbi and Grief Specialist, Mel Glazer is now a recognized expert in the areas of grief, loss and hope. He is widely published, and his new book “And God Created Hope: Finding Your Way Through Grief With Lessons From Early Biblical Stories, " follows in the footsteps of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in helping grievers journey “from mourning to morning. " He has lectured nationally to religious organizations, philanthropic groups and public and private schools to convey to them the importance of accepting the reality of death and loss.