Our Wednesdays on this blog are devoted to the Year of Mercy, and specifically to presenting each of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy in turn. Mercy, as Pope Francis reminded us in Vultus Misericordiae, has to be incarnated and practical; it cannot be left as an abstract idea and have any reality to it.
Today we have come to the work of visiting the sick. This is a most delicate work of mercy. At the same time as the sick do need visiting and when done right this work of mercy can (literally!) be a life saver, this is also of the corporal works of mercy one of the easiest to botch up. It can become not a work of mercy at all (well, in intention, yes) as a terrible burden on the person.
On the positive side, we know that sickness can be a terribly isolating reality, both for the sick person and for their caregivers. Especially in our North American culture of go-go-go, busy-busy-busy and of rampant individualism, the person who is forcibly removed from the normal stream of human activity and work can find themselves quite lonely.
So a bit of a visit from a friend goes a long way. And in situations of long-term illness, perhaps a slow terminal disease or a chronic suffering of some kind, both visits and offers of practical help are in order. Be mindful of the caregiver in those situations, too—often it is a spouse who him or herself is not doing so well, may not be too young and may need real assistance, or an adult child who is juggling caregiving on top of their own adult responsibilities. Is there anything you can do, even washing a sink of dirty dishes or (if you’re up for it) spelling them off for a few hours so they can run errands or just go out?
At the same time, there is great delicacy needed in the matter of visiting the sick. Sometimes the sick don’t want visitors! Sometimes they want them, but their energies are limited and it may not be the right time, or they may only be able to have a short visit. Calling ahead is a good idea, if possible: “Is X up for visitors today? OK, then, but is there anything I can do for you otherwise?” That kind of thing.
And upon visiting, remember that you’re there to help and support them, not to add to their burden. There is a useful chart floating around on the Internet that depicts a series of concentric circles, the actual sick person being in the center, their primary person or people (spouse, children) in the next circle, close friends and extended family next, then pretty much everyone else.
The general idea is that care, compassion and support flow from the outer circles inward; pain, grief, anxiety, frustration, anger flows from the inner circles out. So you don’t go visit a sick person and expect them or their spouse to comfort you because they’re doing poorly. You support them, and then if you need consolation, go get it somewhere else.
It is delicate. To go and visit the sick, overstay one’s welcome, and chatter away about all sorts of things that may not be helpful for them—one’s own life and cares and problems and situations—is well meant but not really helpful. And when the person is actually dying, there is more delicacy needed yet—those final days and weeks of life are precious for the dying person and their intimate circle—it is not always the case, but often it is just not the time for lots of other visits. Dying is hard work—even the intimate immediate circle of the dying person have to move with care at that point.
Well, it sounds like I’m making such a thing of it that you might decide it’s all just too delicate (a word I’m using too much, perhaps) and you’d better just stay away altogether, insensitive clod that you are. Well, no. It’s just that this is a work of mercy that needs to be done well, and the key is to remember that the focus here is the sick person, and what he or she needs, not your need to see them or to get something from them.
But it is great thing when done well, and even if done poorly the love and effort we bring to it are appreciated generally. Sickness is such a basic form of human poverty and need, the body breaking down and our mortality raising its head. Fearsome, and sobering—and the support of the community is needed and a great work of mercy indeed. And in our aging society (you will notice I am NOT talking about euthanasia in this post) there will be ample opportunity to practice this work of mercy in years ahead—so let’s not neglect it.