Fine-tune your etiquette when visiting the sick

-A A +A
By Bob Mueller

What do you do and say to people who have cancer or any life-limiting illness? Early in my ministry, I had a wonderful mentor – Father Jim Hendricks. He died several years ago, but was amazing in his care for the sick. I learned from him not by pointers he gave me but by following his good example.

When you find someone has a serious illness, hold the gasps. They’re still among the living. Simply ask, “What can I do to be most helpful?”

Then listen for an answer.

Here’s what you need to do:

Stay in touch by phone, visits, cards and e-mails. Allow the person to respond as energy allows.

Help the main caregiver, too. Give the caregiver a chance to go for a walk, take a nap and talk about something besides illness.

Rather than ask, “What can I do?” offer a few specifics. Ask if you can drive them to the library, take them to a movie, or get them something they are craving from the store or a restaurant.

Send movies, books, flowers and meals in containers that the person doesn’t have to return.

It’s hard for most of us to ask for help. Make it easy for them. Offer to run an errand. Bring over a meal. Do the laundry. Fill the fridge. If you can’t do something you are asked to do, be honest.

Help the sick person delegate duties so no one gets worn out. Make a list of what they need and want, then make a list of family, friends, coworkers and neighbors who might be the best matches to meet those needs and wants.

Listen. You don’t have to give answers or advice or offer a plan of action. Just listen. Get comfortable with silence and always look the person in the eye no matter how they look. They aren’t just a patient. They are still your friend, sister, brother, coworker. 

Listen with your heart, not just your ears. Be a good outlet for them. Let the person cry, curse, whine and grunt without any judgment.

And here’s what not to do. Everyone is different, but here are some things I learned from Father Jim and from my ministry that are important to avoid.

Don’t disappear. Don’t be that friend who leaves. Stay involved for the long haul. The longer the sickness lasts, the lonelier it can get.

Don’t share horror stories about people who didn’t make it. Too many people want to tell long, drawn-out stories with bad endings. Don’t go there.

There are no right words. Keep it simple and say, “I’m here for you,” and mean it. Sometimes no words are best. Your presence alone matters more than anything you can say.

Don’t blame the person for being sick. Don’t point out that it might be from lack of exercise, smoking, too much red meat or wine, or negative thinking.

Don’t point out anything that isn’t flattering. Make sure your words are necessary, helpful or kind.

Don’t be afraid of the person. Don’t stand twenty feet away if you’ve always been a hugger. Get in there and hug.

Don’t say you know how the person feels. You really don’t.

Don’t ask personal questions that only doctors and spouses are allowed to ask. Allow the person some privacy. Some people want to keep their medical situations private. Others go public. Each person has the right to keep quiet or shout it from the rooftops.

Don’t promise to do something you can’t or won’t do. Offer only what you are willing to follow through on.

Don’t take anything personally. Being sick can make a person irritated, tense, sad, depressed and angry. Remember, the burden of friendship is on the well person.

I hope that by sharing these insights I can be as helpful to you as Father Jim was to me in ministering to the sick. The memory of his thoughtful caring spirit lives on every time I make a visit.


Bob Mueller is senior director of mission & stewardship at Hosparus. The views in this column are those of the writer.