I grew up in hospitals. My dad worked in the Emergency Room and my grandpa, who we cared for, was a “frequent flier” in the ICU due to all kinds of health complications. Therefore, it was from an early age that I grew comfortable in the sterile, anxiety-ridden place where a trip down the hall was a lesson in how hard life could be. It was there that I learned how to have one-sided conversations and keep myself occupied by drawing pictures, making visits, having lunch in the cafeteria and enjoying the lobby’s koi pond.
So it came as no surprise to anyone when I chose to work in a caring profession as an adult and found myself learning how to walk alongside people in their darkest hours, often sitting with them in hospital waiting rooms and at their bedsides. Over the years, I have learned that a lot of people are rather awkward in hospitals and are lost when a friend ends up in that small, sterile room with ice chips, Jell-O and a TV awkwardly mounted to the ceiling blaring bad soap operas and infomercials.
It’s for this reason that I’d love to offer a few pointers on how to practice the art of good hospital hospitality:
You don’t have to say something amazing. Just about the worst thing you can do is ascribe empty antidotes about how “God meant for this to happen,” or, “This will be a good thing someday.” If you are visiting a patient, just be there. Don’t fix it. By sitting with your friend and being present in the room, you’ll find your own peace and give your presence as a gift.
Don’t make someone else’s crisis about you. Any crisis will stir up memories of our own. This is normal and even can be good, but it’s best to process those emotions with someone other than your friend or family member who is currently in the midst of their own. This may sound intuitive, but it’s very normal to want to empathize through our experience. It crosses the line when we walk into a room and say, “Oh, this is just what happened to my Aunt Sue. Then Aunt Sue died, but you probably won’t die, it just reminds me of Aunt Sue.” Our tales of similar adventures should be avoided as we make a visit to comfort a friend.
Don’t pretend to be a doctor. Do you know what complaint most people have of their visitors at the hospital? Unsolicited medical advice. Everyone wants to help, but mandating a perfect remedy for what they must do isn’t helpful. There are cases where we can offer something helpful, but don’t force an approach onto anyone. Medical decisions are private, individual choices made based on a unique set of circumstances and factors. It’s always good to ask a friend if they’re looking for input before sharing, being sure to add, “Take it or leave it” if you do.
Don’t stay too long. A hospital visit should average between 15-20 minutes, unless the patient asks you to stay longer. The hospital is a place of rest and restoration, so being “on” for a line-up of visitors, no matter how important your relationship, can exhaust the patient and hinder their recovery.
Bring a gift. Flowers, balloons, a card, a soft blanket, or a great music playlist are just a few ideas. These suggestions, however, depend on the person and their recovery process. Some hospitals don’t allow flowers for some patients due to bacteria that grow in the water. Check into this first and if flowers aren’t accepted, opt for something else.
Give the primary caregiver time off. When things are tenuous or severe, a caregiver or family member often is exhausted from hours at the hospital. Offer to take a shift and stay with the patient while they go home to take a shower, eat a meal out, or just take a walk. Giving them some time to refresh will help them walk the long road of recovery alongside their loved one.
Come prepared. Think of a great story to tell from your week, bring a book to read out loud, have some cards or a small and easy game to play. If you have something to do while visiting, it may help to take some pressure off of the conversation.
Let them share the story. Sometimes it’s exhausting for the patient to re-tell their story 100 times, or it can be therapeutic for them to process their story out loud. Ask, “Would you like to share how things are going?” but be willing to say, “You don’t have to tell me, I know you’ve probably had to relive it all every time someone comes to visit.” Being sensitive to the person and their needs will always win.
Plan a homecoming visit and bring a meal. Recovery is usually long and boring. The few times I’ve been home recovering, it was a visit from a dear friend got me through the day. Also, making meals is often a chore and it can be one less thing to think about if family and friends pitch in and make a meal or two.
Organize your community. There are great online tools such as Care Calendar or Caring Bridge. Helping to organize visits, communication, prayer, and meals for a person in need of comfort can be a loving way to help someone through recovery.
How have you seen a friend or family member through time in the hospital?