Visiting the Sick

I don’t do hospitals.

I was sufficiently traumatized by two separate trips to the emergency room as a child. The thought of sitting in a waiting room is enough to make me queasy! It’s no surprise that I rejected the idea of hospital chaplaincy during Divinity school. Looking back, I’m envious of my classmates who recall their chaplaincy experiences as challenging and rewarding experiences, filled with profound reflections on life, death, suffering, and resilience.

If you’re anything like me, I wonder how to best practice this important work of mercy, knowing that I don’t have a genuine call to minister to the sick. Healing comes in many forms – through our presence, prayers, simple gifts, a home-cooked meal, or an encouraging word. Often, what the ill need most is to be seen and to know they are not forgotten.

A lesson from a baby girl:  

Several years ago, during a mission trip to Haiti, our group spent a morning with the Missionaries of Charity at their home for children. There I met Esther, a beautiful little girl, 14-months old, with huge eyes and sunken cheeks. She wore a dress the size of a baby doll, and the smallest diaper appeared two sizes too big. I stared at her for the longest time, unable to pick her up because of the feeding tube attached to her body. I whispered a quiet prayer and then began to walk away. Her head turned toward me, and she began to whimper. As my eyes settled back on her face, the crying stopped. We went through this routine several times. I would start to walk away, she began to cry, and then I would return. I felt helpless to do much else but cradle her body with my eyes and hold each other’s gaze.

In the book of Lamentation, the suffering woman cries out to be seen. “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.” (Lamentation 1:12) The longer I stood at Ester’s crib, the more she remained calm and rested. It was enough to spend time simply being with her.

Face-to-face Encounters:

It is not easy to look upon those who are suffering, let alone spend extended periods of time with them. Pope Francis encourages us to not be afraid of the sick and suffering. “The Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 88)

The experience of physical illness can be isolating, confusing, and incredibly lonely. When we have the courage to “see” another person in their pain, the result can be liberating, life-giving, and even healing. I learned this while visiting my grandmother dying of cancer, sitting at the bedside of a friend recovering from surgery, and accompanying a student to the emergency room during an asthma attack. Our very presence can have a tremendous impact for those who are fighting to live or recovering from injury.

I have a colleague who died of breast cancer several years ago. Tobi was the epitome of health when she was diagnosed, and she refused to let cancer define her! I think about how many people looked upon her with love for the last 5-years of her life. Beyond the pain and struggle of illness, they saw a wife and mother who fiercely loved her boys. Through Tobi’s eyes, they saw a passionate advocate for those who were not as “lucky” to have friends, family, and the financial means to cope with a serious illness. Doctors and care-givers saw her determination and pursued every possible alternative with the hope of a cure. Even after her death, her friends hope to see Tobi’s dream of helping those less fortunate become reality.

When we visit the sick, we are called to see them as their true selves, and to not define them by the ailments that confine them. Whether we lend a helping hand to someone on crutches, offer to drive a friend to/from the doctor’s office, or walk the long journey with someone toward death – we do so to remind them that they are not alone in their struggle and bring a little joy to ease their pain.

Putting Mercy Into Action:

  • Who am I called to look upon today? How can my presence be a comfort to those who are sick or injured? Is there a tangible way that I can help – with a meal, a letter, a prayer?
  • Find a book of quotes or prayers by Blessed Mother Teresa. Ask her to show you how to pray with and serve those who are most in need.
  • How do I see people around the world who are sick and suffering? Spend some time learning about prevention efforts of wide-spread diseases like malaria or become an advocate for greater humanitarian assistance.
  • Consider making a donation to a charitable organization that supports individuals or funds research for a cure.

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