Visiting the Sick

“It must needs be,” Lehi taught his son Jacob, “that there is an opposition in all things.” (2 Ne. 2:11.) One undeniable aspect of that opposition is illness, physical disability, and death. Even the healthiest among us become ill now and then. And all of us see the misery that illness and dying can bring to friends and loved ones.

The scriptures confirm that the earthly experience of the Lord also included physical pain and personal suffering. But more often the scriptures tell of the compassion and tenderness of the Savior’s care for others who suffered. Ministering to the sick and distressed seems to have been a central part of the Lord’s earthly mission. And the Lord has made it clear that those of us who bear his name are to share this work. We are to “bear one another’s burdens” and “comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” (See Mosiah 18:8–9.)

But it isn’t just our sense of duty that calls us to serve those who are suffering. Usually we want to help. In cases of long-term illness, we are often eager to prepare meals and perform other services. But, in the less tangible aspects of ministering to the sick—serving emotional and spiritual needs—we are often less at ease. Fear or apprehension may cause us to postpone a visit. Sometimes it is only when our guilt outweighs our reluctance that we actually make the visit. Then after a hurried chat, we leave with a sigh of relief.

What causes our discomfort? Perhaps we feel helpless in the presence of the incurable. We may also feel a little awed by the efficiency of the hospital, and we usually hurt when we face the pain and suffering of another. Often, we truly don’t know what to say, so we find ourselves gushing with news, ideas, and gospel principles.

My work as a chaplain has given me many opportunities to visit people with all types of illness and infirmities. The experience has suggested several ways we can improve our effectiveness in ministering to the emotional and spiritual needs of the sick.

1. Examine any fears that may interfere with your ability to minister to the sick. You may not be able to overcome your fears right away, but recognizing them will help you cope with them. Do you fear you’ll get sick? Do you feel that a handicap makes a person only a partial person? Do hospitals seem fearful, or cold, or awesome? Are you afraid of dying? Does the pain of surgery frighten you?

2. Decide the purpose of your visit before you go. Are you going to give a blessing? Are you going to perform some other specific task? Or are you going just to visit? Don’t expect to change a patient’s emotional attitude or level of spirituality. This is almost always an unrealistic goal, especially in the case of serious illness. I believe the best reason for a visit is to share the patient’s suffering, emotional and spiritual.

3. Check ahead on the best time to visit. A call to the hospital or family may save a wasted trip or a frustrating or embarrassing experience.

4. When you arrive at the home or hospital, check with a family member or nurse before going into the person’s room. Ask them about the patient’s current condition and if there are special rules to observe during the visit. Checking beforehand will also help you avoid interrupting examinations, saying inappropriate things, or even contracting or giving a disease.

5. Expect to see a sick person. Sick people are not as nicely groomed as well people. They may look haggard, tired, badly kept. They may be in rumpled clothes in a rumpled bed in a room that smells differently. They may have large bandages, areas of skin discoloration, or exposed wounds. They may have needles in their arms, tubes in their noses, and an array of equipment around the bed. Some sick people have intense pain that will not let them move, speak, or even think very well.

6. Don’t stay too long. Sick people need all their energy to work on getting better. If the person is very sick, five or ten minutes may be all that is wise. Regular, short visits are generally more effective than one long one.

7. Don’t talk too much. Ask the sick one how he or she feels. Avoid relating your own similar experiences. Don’t try to console by telling of others who are suffering more. Each sick person is unique and suffers in a unique way. The patient will appreciate your honesty when you admit, “I really don’t know what that feels like because I haven’t experienced it. But I care about how you feel, and I want to understand.”

8. Be sensitive to the mood of the patient, and let that mood direct the conversation. Sometimes a patient will enjoy a lighthearted conversation about family, friends, activities, and social events. Other times, an ill friend may need you to share his or her suffering, by just listening or by caring enough to be there.

I remember coming home one evening after seeing a little girl die. She had had a lingering illness, and I had been with her young parents that afternoon in their bereavement. That night I needed to express my sorrow, so I let the tears come. When my wife asked why I was crying, I told her it was about the little girl who had died. She said that I didn’t need to cry, because the girl was in a far better place. “I don’t care,” I said, “I feel sad that she died.” Then my wife put her arms around me and held me. And I was comforted.

We usually can’t stop the suffering of another person. We can only share it and thus give comfort. I’ve held many a hand in silence while a patient cried or told of deep, painful emotions. Occasionally, tears have come to my eyes. Sometimes patients will finish expressing their feelings, and say, “Thanks for caring and listening.”

9. If the sick person wants to talk of spiritual things, allow him to share his perceptions and beliefs with you. Don’t sermonize. Ask him to tell you how the Lord has blessed him, sustained him, built his faith. What does his faith mean to him?

You may be able to share some of your own feelings, but often only in very small doses. Some sick individuals will ask you to remember them in your prayers. This can be an opportunity to offer to pray with them before you leave. This can be a source of strength and comfort.

Above all, visiting the sick is a time for true charity, for considering the other person’s needs above our own. Especially in working with those who are seriously or terminally ill, we must care enough to allow the sufferer to express negative emotions, even if they make us feel uncomfortable. We may be tempted to ignore the unpleasant so that we will not be upset. Keeping our intent firmly focused on the patient’s needs will help us know the best things to say and do. With a real desire to comfort and bless, we truly can follow the Lord’s admonition and example in giving comfort to the sick.

Let’s Talk about It

After you read “Visiting the Sick,” you may want to consider or discuss some of the following questions and ideas.

1. Whom do you know right now who is ill and whom you could visit?

2. Are most of your services on behalf of the sick the “tangible” sort—preparing meals, doing yard work? What are emotional needs you might not have considered?

3. The last time you were ill, what visit meant the most to you?

4. How can you overcome your discomfort with illness and death so that you can be more effective in visiting the sick or bereaved?

5. How can you resist the temptation to direct the conversation when you visit the sick?

6. How can you allow the Spirit to play a more active role in directing your efforts in ministering to the sick?

[photo] Photography by Jed A. Clark

Ralph R. Nielsen, father of eight, is a chaplain for the Church in the U.S. Air Force and a high councilor in his Bessemer, Alabama, stake.