Learning to Cheer the Sick

The ways we are

I learned much about visiting the sick during the year when my late husband Paul fought so valiantly against leukemia. I had always thought that visiting sick people was important, and I tried to do it when I could. But, like most Jews, I didn’t see it as a mitzvah in the sense of “commandment”; instead I preferred to translate mitzvah as “good deed” — something a nice person did when she felt up to it.

The year I spent with Paul during his illness — six months of that time in hospitals, sleeping in his room many nights, keeping him company and boosting his spirits — made me understand the importance of the mitzvah. If people do not have visitors, they find it that much more difficult to mobilize themselves to heal, to engage in the drive to overcome their illness, or to live as fully as possible in the face of it.

I mastered the art of living in a hospital — I developed a strategy for getting space on the perpetually overcrowded elevators so as to get the food I was heating up in the microwave oven in the basement lounge back up to Paul before it cooled off. On the other hand, I learned a deep spiritual truth — that through love and attention to small details and through learning to listen and to hold hands in silence, you can help a person transform fear and terror into hope and occasional peace of mind.

What are small details?

Clothes: Paul hated hospital pajamas, hated lying in bed dressed unnaturally, so I went out and bought colorful sweat pants, sweat shirts, cheerful T-shirts, and he felt like a normal person.

Music: We discovered that some tape decks can play continually, and we learned that some New Age music is very soothing. He played these tapes, and a guided meditation tape of Bernie Siegel’s all night long, so he wasn’t so frightened when he woke up in the middle of the night, and could eventually get back to sleep.

Food: Paul hated the airplane-packaged kosher meals at the hospital, so our friends cooked for him, and froze the food, and I brought it down and heated it in the microwave. Each meal he’d ask, “Who cooked this?” and then feel pleased to know he was eating Sharon’s chicken, or Jackie’s pea soup, or Doris’s rice and beans.

Domestic routine: I brought a coffee pot and made him tea, poured him juice, cleaned up the room. I brought bright pillow covers and a pretty bedspread. I hung up all the cards he got and had a few photographs of the kids blown up to poster size for the walls. I constantly tidied up, and made him feel that he was living in our space, not theirs.

Books: Friends sent him books, or went out to buy him new ones. Several of us researched what books on the experience of cancer patients were helpful, which ones were too flaky, or too gloomy.

An interesting project: He worked on projects he cared about, so that he was a productive writer, not just a patient. He also invented a hospital project — a trivia quiz book on the 1960’s which entertained him and our friends, and gave them all something cheerful and distracting to talk about.

A telephone tree: Patients and their families get overwhelmed by always having to report on their illness. Several friends organized telephone trees to let people know how things were developing, to answer questions people might have and to get people to donate blood, or to bring food, or to send cards. Paul came to feel that the perfect hospital call was a two minute chat, in which his friend Judy told him a bit of gossip, told him she was thinking about him, and hung up, without expecting him to rehearse his symptoms or take his emotional temperature.

Letting people help: Many people react to illness by drawing into themselves, feeling ashamed of their illness. They have always been used to the idea of having control; now they feel powerless. They are afraid of feeling dependent, of being needy. They are reluctant to ask other people for help. They keep telling people not to bother, they’ll be all right. They should be encouraged to let people into their lives, to understand that people like to be able to help, if there are specific things that they can do.

Rituals and holiday celebrations: We celebrated Shabbat with challah and kiddush and a special meal every week. We even made Shabbat in the emergency room while waiting for the diagnosis — we shared a kosher hospital meal, and made kiddush over grape juice from a vending machine and a motzi over a piece of white bread. We also decorated the room for Sukkot, conducted two seders, ate blintzes on Shavuot, and davened with tapes of the High Holiday services. A friend came to blow the shofar. Again, all these celebrations helped Paul to retain his identity and integrity as a human being, not a patient. Paul laid tefillin every morning, too, looking out over the East River as the sun came up, sharing a quiet time in prayer before the nurses came in to begin the day’s bustle of activity. Paul was able to maintain his firm belief that God was with him in that room, that God cared about him.

Rachel Cowan is a Reform rabbi and teacher. She is the author of Mixed Blessings (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1987) with her late husband Paul Cowan. This article was originally printed in In The News, the newsletter of the Coordinating Council on Bikur Cholim Greater New York, and is reprinted with their permission.