If you buy into my honesty-is-the-best-policy approach to visiting a friend who is sick, here are some ground rules of the new Truth Telling Etiquette:
1) Ask the patient to be honest with you and all their friends and express their druthers, whether it’s zero visitors, certain hours of the day when friends are welcome, a limited number of people allowed in the room at once, or a time limit for each visit.
2) Be honest with yourself about your attitude toward the visit. The everyday demands of work and family are stressful enough. Would you feel more guilty disappointing your friend than disappointing your kids or shortchanging your work project? If so, swallow your stress and visit the friend (assuming they want visitors). But if you’d feel more guilty disappointing your kids (say because you’ve been out every night this week) or facing your boss (who’s been unusually critical lately), then explain the situation honestly to the patient.
3) Think through your role in the visit. This is yet another instance of the obvious having to be spelled out. Ask yourself: what am I prepared to do and what do I expect my visit to accomplish? To avoid misconceptions and misapprehensions, it’s a good idea to review your expectations in advance. Do you feel that, having taken time out of your day, you’ve done enough, or are you prepared to make your self useful by pitching in on one or more of the following chores while you’re there:
cook a meal
clean the kitty litter
fix the DVD player
offer to make a pick up at the drugstore or dry cleaner
water the plants
sweep the floor
walk the dog
do the dishes
dress the patient’s wound
help them bathe or dress
take them to the toilet
change their sheets
rub their aching back
pay their bills
pack or unpack for them
babysit their kids
shovel their driveway
make calls to cancel any appointment
ask what else you can do to help
You may not know what your friends need until they tell you, or what you have to give unless you make the effort to notice what’s needed. Remember to Ask and Act.
4) Don’t visit if you can’t abide silence. There’s a chance that all your sick friends want from you is to “be there.” People who give good visits are good listeners. They pick up vibes. They know when to comfort and when to keep still.
5) Be prepared to respond without flinching to whatever scene or circumstances greet you during your visit. Some illnesses leave a brutal imprint on their victims’ appearance, capacities, and state of mind. Are you willing to stay the course even if your friend is hideously unsightly? Even if they’re not getting better?
6) Be sensitive to your friend’s losses. Discomfort, pain and misery are hard enough to witness. What can break your heart when you visit a friend is the confrontation with their multiple losses, whether it’s loss of hair (chemo); facial and bodily contours (steroids); energy and vigor (from the illness or medications); loss of their time, freedom, and independence (from being bed-bound or disabled); or their forward motion (a stalled education; interruption of their social, sexual, and developmental progress).
Beyond your control are the aching, sometimes irreversible losses that often go hand in hand with grave illness, but the one loss you have the power to prevent is the loss of your sick friend’s friends, starting with yourself.