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Visiting When Someone in the Family is Ill

Visiting When Someone in the Family is Ill

Hospital visitor clasping the hand of hospital patient in bed

The mitzvah (commandment) of bikur cholim, visiting the sick, is said to have originated with the Holy One of Blessing. When God visits Abraham by the oaks of Mamre in the heat of the day, it’s understood to mean not just the literal heat of afternoon, but also the internal heat of fever. God visits Abraham as Abraham is recovering from his circumcision. In visiting the sick, we emulate God.

Another teaching, this one from the Gemara, holds that the Shechinah – the immanent indwelling divine Presence – hovers over the head of the sickbed like a mother bird protecting her young. God's Presence is with those who are ill, whether they are aware of it or not. When we visit those who are sick, we enter into the divine Presence. The sickbed is a sacred space.

When we visit those who are ill, it's not our job to offer explanations for why we think they are sick, or tell them why their illness isn't so bad, or tell them how to feel about however they are. It is our job to be present, kind, and ready to listen. To hold space for whatever they want or need to say; to take their cues about what they want to discuss; to let them rest when they need to – these are our jobs as well.

All of these responsibilities may become more difficult if the person one is visiting is part of one's family. We all have roles that we play in our family systems: caregiver, rescuer, mediator, truth-teller, clown, the one who cheers people up, the one who picks fights, the one who makes peace. When someone is ill, those roles and their familiarity may lock old patterns in place.

Part of the work of bikur cholim with one's own family is cultivating compassion for oneself amid the inevitability of sliding into those old roles. If you are visiting a family member who is ill, cultivate kindness both toward the person you are visiting, and toward your own neshamah (your own soul) as you do the visiting. You too are likely to need some gentleness and care.

For anyone who's doing the work of bikur cholim, it's important to seek out a trusted friend, or rabbi, or spiritual director with whom you can process whatever comes up for you. Don't burden the person who is sick with responsibility for your reaction to his, her, or their illness. Emotional reactions are normal! Don't be afraid to lean on your own support network before and after you visit.

It is natural to want to "fix" things – especially if the person you are visiting is a member of your family. And, making things better is not your job – no matter what. The best gift you can offer is your presence, and your attentiveness to their needs. And you can best tend to the one who is sick if you're attentive also to your own needs for solitude and downtime and care.

The mitzvah of visiting the sick is not only for adults. For guidance about helping children perform this mitzvah, check out 5 Tips for Visiting the Sick with Your Kids and Teaching Children About Visiting the Sick.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat was ordained by ALEPH in 2011. She is the author of 70 Faces (Phoenicia, 2011), a collection of Torah poems, and serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
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