Visiting the Sick and Being Visited as a Sick Person

Visiting the sick is one of the seven Corporal Works of Mercy. To me it always conjures up visions of cool, wide-aisled hospitals in southern Europe around the turn of the seventeenth century; or Victorian ladies bringing soup and improving literature to the hovels of the poor in industrial Britain. Recently, however, I have been confronted by its contemporary reality. I’m not exactly well, so people visit me, either here at the monastery, by telephone, or online via email and Social Media. It may amuse you for a minute or two if I share a few thoughts, from the point of view of one being visited rather than doing the visiting.

It is very nice to know that people care, especially when one is no longer able to do many of the things one used to take for granted. The unexpected ‘phone call from an old friend living far away, the brief visit from a friend, old or new β€” these are (usually) a delight. But the telephone call that comes just as one is about to go to bed; the ‘friend’ who claims to be of long-standing since we met twenty years ago at a conference and therefore drops in unannounced; the group that turns up expecting tea and cake as they do their Christian duty of visiting the sick β€” these sometimes strain the charity of the one being blessed by their presence. The truth is, when one isn’t well, one’s mood is unpredictable. There can be sudden and dispiriting losses of energy; one can become peevish over trifles; one isn’t always as welcoming as one would like to be, and then is left full of regret when one hasn’t risen to the occasion. The people one would most like to see tend to be very reluctant to put themselves forward. They don’t telephone or visit for fear of intruding. The net result is that the sick see rather more than they want of people they don’t greatly care for, and far too little of those they do. It is part of what it means to be sick, losing the ability to choose how one spends one’s time and with whom; and because I am a lazy letter-writer and am eternally slithering about on the slopes of the monastery’s email mountain, I am full of regret at the friends I haven’t been able to keep up with, and the people I have (unintentionally) ignored.

I think Benedict probably got things right when he spoke of ensuring that the sick should suffer no neglect and be patiently borne with, while the sick themselves should take care not to weary others with their excessive demands. It’s a two-way thing. We are all ill at some point in our lives; and we all have to care for others who are ill. We do the best we can, whether sick or well; but when we are well ourselves, it is difficult to enter imaginatively into the feelings of those who aren’t, no matter how hard we try. Loneliness and fear can affect anyone , and for the elderly, in particular, who may have no family living near and whose friends are probably in the same state as themselves, a visit, especially from a younger person, can be a great joy. It is, however, not always easy to gauge what would be appropriate or when. That is why I myself have opted for total honesty. I have now learned to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m really too tired for a visit today and I find it difficult to plan ahead,’ although I haven’t yet learned how to cope with the reaction such honesty may sometimes provoke.

That brings me to my final point. Illness tends to be a messy business, as life itself is. We shouldn’t be surprised that we ‘get it wrong’. On the days I’m tired and tetchy, I have to work hard to convince myself that my current unsociability is not the whole story. Whatever my failure to respond to the kindness of others, I know that their kindness will be rewarded; that the sacrifices they have made to serve the sick are not in vain. As they say in the Facebook relationship status, it’s complicated; but one day we’ll see how it all works out.

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21 thoughts on “Visiting the Sick and Being Visited as a Sick Person”

  1. I have very similar thoughts on this subject. I am able to say that I now know who the really good pastoral visitors are and who to run away from as fast as possible….legs permitting. The ones I am able to repel are the ones who listen….the others, often health care professionals are hardest to deal with as they think they know what’s best for you. I can be very firm with those!
    Sister you are the only one who knows how you are feeling day by day and what you can cope with….just know that you are loved and are being prayed for daily….

  2. It is a very difficult balance. I agree that when one has been really ill, you sometimes look forward to having a visitor but then find that you are really too tired to greet them, let alone enjoy the visit.

    Three years ago my wife was very ill in hospital and nearly every day I visited her (the exceptions being big birthdays when I visited my sisters and one when I stayed with family friends overnight). Sometimes she was totally unaware that I was there, other times she was being treated and was exhausted afterwards, so I only stayed a few minutes with her. One memorable day was the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. By then Anne was out of intensive care and half way through her 5 months stay, and I asked if I could go in outside visiting hours to watch the wedding with her – it was a very special day as it was our Wedding Anniversary too.

    I take the Eucharist to sick and housebound parishioners, and we are usually welcomed warmly and thanked. But there are times when they are tired or grumpy and we make the visit shorter, but usually there is time for conversation.

    I think that it is often better to phone beforehand to check whether a visit would be possible, and then be sensitive to how the other is feeling.

    • Yes, but I think those we most love, and are most loved by, are in a special category where visiting is concerned. For example, Quietnun and Bro Duncan PBGV are always welcome, whatever my mood.

      • Yes, but I also sometimes visit sick or housebound parishioners in between Sundays. At some I always know I’ll be welcome – at others it varies. One always grumbles that she doesn’t get many visitors, but when we look at the visitor’s book she gets quite a few regular visitors who stay quite a long time. There’s no pleasing some people!

  3. Thank you for your personal insights.
    I am a member of the pastoral group at my local church and would very much like to share this blog when we next meet in a fortnight. I also feel that it would offer invaluable insight to new and experienced pastoral visitors in all walks of life.
    May you be blessed with enough strength to continue slithering and blogging for as long as you feel the urge to turn on the pc…….

  4. I was surprised by people from church saying they did not want to invade my privacy or that I wouldn’t want visitors; they got a warm invitation to visit. Two days on your own with limited energy does demonstrate how welcome visitors are

    • People differ, but I think we have a tendency not to want to intrude. Personally, I find I’m grateful when people check first because, with a long-standing illness, one doesn’t always have the energy one would like.

  5. Bless you, Sister Catherine; this is so relevant in my own situation – as you probably realise πŸ™‚
    I think I get fewer “surprise” visits than you … but I try to make sure that people text beforehand – to give warning, and to allow me to decide if I’m up for a visit. But the irony of it for me is that I get pretty despondent if I have a couple of days on the trot without either a visit, a phone call, and email of DM via social media πŸ™

    • I think that’s sensible, Martin. Until I became ill myself, I didn’t REALLY understand how much it takes out of one some days, and on others, seems not to affect one at all. We have a prayer pact, don’t forget! Blessings.

  6. A lovely thoughtful post, and one against a background that would make most of us blanch and feel helpless. That you have done so is actually a blessing because it demonstrates that being in others thoughts and prayers, and knowing it, might be as much comfort and consolation as our popping in full of compassion, which might be the opposite of what is needed.

    Rest assured that you are in my prayers daily and that our parish is also praying for you in all of our services and through individual and prayer groups.

    I count you as a dear friend, who has been very formative for me in the past couple of years, and while geography separates us, when you write, it’s a if you are just next door, a kind, forgiving, caring neighbor. πŸ™‚

  7. It is,as you say, a two-way thing. However, it seems to me that it is not fair to expect to meet exactly half way: the onus must always be on the well to try to show tact and patience. However much we would all like to show saintliness in adversity, when we are enmeshed in chronic illness it is often beyond our ability to be tactful and patient on top of everything else – and most well people understand this, or at least try to do so! I’m thinking as I write of my father’s last summer, when chemo, steroid treatment and constant medical interventions became unbearable to him and sometimes made his behaviour upsetting to his family. But we understood, and we loved him. I’m quite sure that your friends feel the same.
    I pray for you too.

  8. Hello Sister Catherine,

    Though I am not ill in the way that you currently are, I can relate to much of what you say here, as I use a motorized wheelchair due to having been born with cerebral palsy, so I know what it is to be dependent on others and to perhaps have to spend more time with those one doesn’t necessarily want to than with those whom one does. I pray for you each day.

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