by J. Russell Corley
(This article is copied and put out for our members to use in their individual ministry)
During the last years as I have worked with Encouragement Ministries, two questions continue to be asked on a regular basis: Howcan you spend so much time with sick and dying people? What do you say to or do for someone who is seriously ill or suffering? I would like to offer my limited perspective on these rather complicated questions. How can you spend so much time with sick and dying people?
There are weeks when I ask myself that question. Such work is demanding both emotionally and physically. Its effect on an individual can be devastating if that person is not careful about balance. I made a choice a few years ago to do more than work in the hospital context. I try to balance my involvement with sick people with other activities like teaching, counseling and writing. I try to alternate times of intense involvement with times when I step away from hospitals to focus on something else for a while. I still have to be reminded to take care of
myself by my family, my accountability group, and my friends. Still the “how” question looms large and is not solved simply by the suggestion of staying balanced. For me the “how” question is really answered by a “why” question: Why do you work with sick and dying people? Perhaps the following story will express my meaning.
My first experience
When I first began to work as a minister, I received a call from a woman whose young nephew was dying with cancer at The Ohio State University Hospital. She asked me to go by and to visit with him. For a couple of days I wrestled with her request. I did not know what to say or do with someone as sick as she described. I did not like hospitals—the technology, the suffering, the smells, and the staff
intimidated me. I had important things to do: sermons and classes to prepare, meetings to attend, people to talk to, a dissertation to research and write, a family, friends, etc.
After a period of wrestling with my rationalizations, I was finally faced with the fact that Jesus had emphasized the importance of visiting sick people. I could not get around that point with all of my excuses, and I felt it dishonest to encourage people to do what I was hesitant to try. What happened during the following weeks changed my life. Convinced of the importance of trying, I set off for the hospital.
When I walked into this man’s room I realized two things: he was sicker than I had expected and he was younger than I was. He was hurting that morning and seemed reluctant to talk with a stranger. Our visit was brief and ended abruptly when a nurse entered the room to draw blood. I asked if he would like me to come back later. I expected him to say no. Instead he said yes and urged me to do so very soon.
Sadness and overwhelming peace
Over the next few weeks he became my friend. I mainly listened to him talk. Sometimes he spoke to me as he stood on his head on the bed to relieve pain. Our conversations were unlike any that I had ever had before. They were not surface talks. They were conversations about the fundamental realities of living in the face of the threat of death. After our talks we always read scripture and prayed.
He was the first person I ever saw die. When that awesome event occurred I was standing by his bed holding his hand. That experience overwhelmed me. The feelings that flooded my mind were unlike any I had ever had before. There was sadness but also an overwhelming peace because I knew that my friend was ready for death. At the funeral I spoke about him as he had revealed himself to me. His
wife, family, and friends in that rural Ohio town were amazed at what I said because they did not know this side of him. To them he had always been quiet and introverted. For some reason that I do not understand, he had chosen to give me the gift of friendship, a relationship of love and vulnerability. He had loved me and allowed me to love him.
“I had been the one blessed…”
After all of this was over I realized one aspect of what had happened. I had been the one blessed through the visits. God had loved me through this young cancer patient. He taught me about living each day with appreciation and thanksgiving. I became convinced that only those who truly accept death as a reality of life are given an opportunity to really live. He also taught me something about faith in suffering. He knew what it
was to trust God with everything at risk and to hope in the face of harsh realities.
It hurt when he died. My mind holds memories of that day in the hospital room. That experience taught me that God often uses those who are sick to touch and transform the lives of those who are healthy. Perhaps Jesus urged his disciples to visit the sick not only because they could serve those who were suffering but because those who are suffering have so much to teach us at the most profound level.
That is why I do what I do. I think it was Victor Frankel who said that if a man has a why he will find a how. I think that is true. God’s love and compassion is the why for visiting the sick. I believe that if an individual is doing what God wants him to do, then God will provide the necessary resources that enable the effort. Overwhelming fatigue, feelings of burnout, and lack of motivation often are indicators that I
am trying to do something that appears to be God’s work on the surface but may actually be something else at the core.
There are times when my work almost becomes too much—times when too many of the people I love die, when I feel that there is little I can do or say to really help in the face of suffering and death and when I fail those I am trying to encourage and add disappointment to their already painful lives. After I step back for a while, I return to those who are sick and dying because they are God’s people. They need love and they have so much love to give. They are learning what it is to be faithful, and their lives teach that fundamental lesson. Their faithfulness transforms their rooms into holy places.
What do you say or do when you visit someone who is seriously ill? I do not know. That may seem like an inadequate answer, but it is the truth to a point. There is no little speech to memorize, no magic words or deeds that solve the problem or pain or guarantee healing. What may be spoken in one context to comfort one person may be completely inappropriate in another. The exception to this answer is that a sincere heart may speak the words, “I love you.” Those words, when spoken in truth about a reality in your heart, will bring encouragement.
There are some guidelines that I recommend for people who want to work with the sick. Be sensitive to the situation. Watch and listen. Often there are subtle hints that will indicate what you need to say or do. Sometimes you should primarily be silent. If you do not have the capacity to read such clues, I recommend that you send an encouraging note instead of visiting. For very sick patients, notes may have a more profound impact than a visit. If you feel that you lack sensitivity and do not know what to say in a note, ask someone to read your note before you send it. That will help you to learn to express ideas that help people who are struggling.
Keep your visits brief. The patient may ask you to stay and mean it, if so stay a little longer. Please realize though that some people ask you to stay because they feel obligated to do so. Learn to know the difference, I let patients know that it does not hurt my feelings if they do not feel like a visit today. I ask them to be honest with me. I also check with nurses and family members about the advisability of a visit. If there is a sign on the door that requests no visitors, believe that request includes you. In such cases leave a positive note with a nurse to give to the patient later. Do not make the note sound as if the patient has failed you by not feeling well enough today to see you. Sick people do not need the added burden of built.
Be aware of the patient’s need for privacy and dignity. The patient is living in a confined space, but it is his or her room. Be careful where you sit—use chairs, no the patient’s bed. Avoid inspecting technology, books and papers, personal items, or anything else that is not yours; stay focused on the patient. If there is something that the person has done to make the room a special place, notice and compliment it. Be alert to the fact that the patient’s physical appearance may be an embarrassment. Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, medications, and other things done to the patient for treatment make the patient uncomfortable physically and psychologically. They also create an appearance that my
startle you. Even the gowns given in a hospital may make a person feel awkward. Do not draw attention to these facts by staring or making insensitive comments. Prepare yourself beforehand about the realities of life in a hospital and learn to accept it without making the patient feel more awkward.
Remember that your purpose is to encourage and help. Avoid initiating conversations that reinforce negative thought patterns or emphasize bad possibilities. Do not tell your stories about people who had this disease and did not do well. If the patients insists on talking about these things, then be a patient listener. Hear what the patient wants to say about the situation. Do you best to be a hopeful-realist: do not deny the reality of the situation, but do not lose your personal confidence that God works in the toughest situations to love people.
Avoid making judgments. People deal with suffering in different ways. It is not my job to be a “sheriff” to them. People who are sick and those who are grieving need a loving presence, not a judgmental individual who is eager to advise. Patients go through different phases, they have good and bad days, their styles of coping may be more effective than you realize, and there are always factors involved that you do not know anything about. Your advice may do great damage and close a door to your future involvement. It may show that you cannot empathize and that you lack compassion. Time and love often change a person when nothing else can.
Be vulnerable. Allow yourself to feel something of what the patient feels emotionally. It may mean that you will cry. It may mean that you will smile as you feel her hope in what you see as in impossible situation. There is a limit to entering the feelings of the patient. Your emotional state may have a lot more to do with your fears, your past hurts, and your own problems. Then your emotions may be overwhelming for the situation and not helpful for the patient.
Be faithful. A number of brief visits or cards or small deeds over time has a greater impact than one long visit. If you say “I will pray for you,” make sure that you mean it. Do not speak trite phrases about God, about the meaning of suffering, or the problem of pain. Be a loving person who is trusting God.
Select an appropriate scripture to read and then pray briefly before you leave. Ask permission before reading and praying. Give the patient a real opportunity to say “No, thank you.” Read a scripture that encourages and focuses on God’s love. In praying, do not demand that God heal, but do not resign yourself to the impossibility of healing. Pray in faith that God may heal, that He will sustain, and that He always loves.
Remember that you may actually be able to do more for a family member or a friend than you can for the patient. These people are important too and need encouragement. Often they have a huge burden in making day-to-day existence possible for the patient. Often there are practical things you can do to make their life easier. Take them to lunch. Offer to help with the patient for an hour while they take a break. Are they from out of town and in need of a place to stay over-night? Do they have laundry or other personal needs? Also realize that nurses and even doctors appreciate a sincere word of encouragement. Often they go unappreciated for the emotional price they pay for their involvement.
Learn to trust God when you visit. Often He will prompt your heart in a direction that He will bless if you will be sensitive and obedient. Do not draw attention to yourself or to what you think God wants you to do. Simply do it in love and without comment. Let God receive the glory if it really is something He has prompted in your heart. Be willing to take personal responsibility if the consequences of the action are poor. Be humble and learn to discern the difference between God’s prompting and your feelings.
Be willing to learn from others. Perhaps you know someone who does a lot of visiting in a hospital and who is gifted in the ministry. Ask to go with them to observe. Realize that they may say no because they feel that your presence may create a difficulty with a very sick patient. You might ask this person to go with you to visit someone you know. After the visit, ask for honest feedback based on his or her observations.
Be willing to touch a sick person. I believe that touching a hand or giving a gentle hug sometimes communicates much more than anything we say. Often our fear of getting sick makes us afraid to physically contact someone. If there is a serious danger of your getting infected there will be signs up. If you have some concerns, then wash your hands after your visit in a restroom down the hall (my mother points out that this is a good policy after every visit). I would also stress that if you are sick, do not touch the patient, actually do not even visit them if you are not physically well.
Act out of love and accept your limitations. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to overcome in visiting with sick people is the feeling that we ought to be able to do something truly significant that will make a big difference in the life of the person suffering. This feeling may keep us from trying anything because in our eyes everything we can think of to do or say seems too small, and so we do nothing and feel guilty. This same feeling may pressure us into trying to do something “Important” that actually fails to produce the result we had hoped for, and we feel disappointed. You must accept your limits and remember that you are not alone in working with sick people. Others will do things that you cannot. Your contribution by itself may seem small and inadequate, but when it is combined with the efforts of others it may have more of an impact than you would have guessed. If love is behind what you say or do, the words and deeds which seem inadequate to you may be transformed and express the reality of your love for this person. What is more important than that?
Conclusion: Two important points In closing, there are two points that I would like to emphasize.
(1) You learn to visit the sick by visiting the sick. Be willing to learn and do not wait until you think you know everything.
(2) Pray about your visits and trust in God’s capacity to help you. If God wants you to visit someone, then He will bless that visit and provide the resources, the wisdom, and the love needed Realize that God may do for you what He did for me so many years ago and so many times since then.
God may want to use someone else to teach you what it is to appreciate life, what being faithful really means, what it is to love a stranger, or some other life transforming lesson. Make sure that you are open to whatever He wants to teach you and then learn it through putting it into practice.