Visiting the Sick

October 25, 2012

7 min read


Reaching out to others in difficult times.

She drove me around to look at nursing homes for my mother. I could have done it myself, but she went with me…. I’ll never forget it.”

After my husband’s business went bankrupt, two good friends offered us no-interest loans. We didn’t need the money, but just knowing people cared gave us a lot of confidence at a really horrible time.”

When my daughter was sick, a couple of friends told me they would start lighting Shabbat candles in her merit. It was such a thoughtful gesture, and gave me a lot of strength as I knew they were thinking of us each week.”

Lately, I’ve been asking people what gestures have helped them through difficult times. Everyone has a story, I’ve noticed, and in most cases the gestures they remember years later – the ones that got them through their darkest times – were the ones that seemed the smallest at the time.

“She came over with her famous homemade fudge. We just sat there, eating and talking, and it made me feel so much better….”

And the opposite: I’ve heard of missed chances: times when people were emotionally raw and no one, it seemed, cared enough to connect. Often, the emotions are still tender many years later.

“I remember the first social event I went to after my husband died, like it was yesterday. I sat in the corner by myself. Nobody came over to talk to me, and I left early….”

I started collecting these stories last summer when my husband was diagnosed with cancer. Everyone asked us if we needed help, and at first our answer was “no.” After all, my husband was still able to get around. I was still able to shop and cook for my kids. On a practical level, we had everything we needed.

One who visits the sick takes away a sixtieth of their burden.

But on an emotional level, we did not. We longed for others to help us share our burdens, though we didn’t know how to ask. The Talmud relates that one who visits the sick takes away a sixtieth of their burden. What we learned during my husband’s illness is that this can be accomplished even with little fanfare, with the most “ordinary” visits and favors.

Two days after my husband’s diagnosis, a neighbor called up, announcing, “I’m bringing you dinner!” “No!” I cried. I had a refrigerator full of food, and certainly no need of meals. Plus, she’d already done us a “real” favor and watched our kids recently. She came over anyway, juggling heaps of trays from our favorite deli. I couldn’t believe it; she’d bought tons of delicacies we’d never have bought ourselves. “This cost a fortune!” I objected, but she was already putting the food away. It was only later, when my husband and I talked about those meals that we realized: the practical help she’d given us was welcome, but the “extra” gift – all that food – is what made us truly feel cared for.

There was the friend who stopped by the hospital on his way home from work and brought us cappuccino and cookies. The friend who drove a hundred miles round-trip just to come by for a couple of hours when my husband needed company. My husband and I savored these seemingly small gestures, marveling at how generous they seemed and how special they made us feel.

Related Video: Sicko

How Are You?

Visiting the sick, bikkur cholim in Hebrew, is a fundamental mitzvah; the Torah relates how God Himself visited Abraham when he was unwell (Genesis 18:1). Consoling people who are in pain often requires no more than being there for them. It’s the smallest gestures that say “I am here for you” that help us connect to others. In fact, the great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Hama, explained that when God visited Abraham, he just “inquired of his welfare” – this was enough to comfort.

I thought of this recently when I ran into an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in some time. “How’s your mother doing?” I asked. We were in a very noisy room and she misheard me. “My dad’s not so good!” she shouted, and told me what was going on. There was so much she was concerned about, so much she needed to share, that merely asking how she was gave her a much-needed avenue connect. For a moment we were united, sharing and lightening her burden.

“When I was a kid, my dad lost his job. One day we found bags of groceries on our front step. I remember feeling so safe, knowing there were people in our community to help us.”

“I dreaded telling my daughter she couldn’t go on the class field trip, but then other families in her class chipped in to set up a fund for kids who couldn’t afford it.”

While my husband was sick, we gained so much strength from our larger community. When he was first diagnosed, I asked people to pray for him. Within weeks, I heard from people all over the world who had added his name to synagogues’ lists of sick members, who had included his name for groups of women to say Psalms for. Friends made a commitment to start lighting Shabbat candles weekly in his merit. We even found out months later that a good friend had started learning Torah with other people in our community in merit of his recovery. We were so blown away that even as we faced our hardest challenges, we could be a catalyst for good in this way.

In the midst of my husband’s illness, some friends from synagogue decided to cook us Shabbat dinner. The woman delivering it accidentally pulled up to a house a few doors down, and was about to hand over the meal when she realized her error. Apologizing (and leaving a bottle of grape juice to wish our neighbors a Shabbat Shalom), our friend then brought us our meal. Later on, when I spoke with the neighbor who’d nearly received our meal, she told me how lucky we were. She was new to the neighborhood and was now thinking of joining a synagogue, spurred in part by this vision of a community that came together to strengthen its members.

Here are a few suggestions about connecting with others during difficult times that I’ve learned from conversations with others and my family’s own experiences.

  1. Let other people take the lead. Often all it takes is asking “how are you doing” help them open up and share their burden.

  2. Spend time with people. Even just sitting down with someone and sharing a cup of tea is enough to make people feel less alone in difficult times.

  3. Realize that you don’t have to perform. There is nothing magical you can say to make people’s problems go away; showing you care is enough to help lighten their load.

  4. Little gestures can make a big difference. I’ll never forget that cup of cappuccino a friend delivered me in the hospital.

  5. You don’t need to do it alone. When comforting people, get your community to help you. Even if it means organizing prayers, Torah learning, or a communal meal, giving others the chance to help means you can be that much more supportive of people in need.

Next Steps