Yesterday, my friend, Sue and I went to visit a mutual friend, Jan, who was suddenly diagnosed with acute leukemia. We entered the hospital room, both of us anxious, not knowing what to say to our friend who was exercising last week at the local YMCA and three days later was getting intravenous chemotherapy.
We let Jan set the tone of our visit as well as the flow of conversation. First, she explained the chronology of her illness. Then, we joked with the nurse, who entered the room to answer the beeping machine attached to Jan's arm, that Jan looked like a crime scene with bruises up and down both arms. Laughing helped break the tension we were all feeling.
We caught up on her family and their responses to her hospitalization. Another hospital employee came in and asked what Jan wanted for dinner. The employee read choice after choice, to which Jan answered how terrible each one tasted. After only four days in the hospital, she already had a list of likes and dislikes. She settled on grilled cheese and tomato soup, a meal we decided couldn't be ruined.
Sue brought some books to leave. I selected a bouquet of flowers which I discovered too late were not allowed on the cancer floor.
As our visit was ending, I asked Jan how we could pray for her.
She held up a pamphlet with the name of her type of leukemia on the front. "This is what I have. Do you know anyone who survived?"
We finally acknowledged the elephant around which we danced for thirty minutes.
"Yes," I said. "I know someone." One of my daughter's friends, had the same diagnosis in high school and now is a healthy mother of three young children. Jan seemed somewhat encouraged by the news.
Visiting Jan was not easy, as we were in shock how a seemingly healthy person could be so sick in such a short time. It forced us to consider our own mortality while facing the possibility of losing a friend.
However, we knew our visit provided company and distraction to our friend whose home was five hours away. Given the distance, she would have few visitors during this time of stress and fear.
How Do We Approach People Who Are Confronting Difficult, Life-Threatening Illnesses
Here are some suggestions.
1. Show Up - It's never easy to be present to someone with a serious illness, but showing up to visit, mirrors the compassion Jesus had for those with physical or emotional discomfort.
2. Bring somthing for the person to do. - Hospital days can be long. If the person left home in a hurry, as our friend, Jan, did, he or she may not have remembered to bring an activity to fill the long hours while receiving treatment or waiting for the doctor or other staff to arrive.
3. Let the patient direct the flow of the conversation. - He or she will let you know what to talk about.
4. If you feel comfortable, pray with the person before you leave. - Bring an awareness that God is present and at work in the life of the patient. You'll offer comfort through your words.
By the time we left, Jan seemed more relaxed than when we first arrived- in fact when I turned to wave good-bye, she had a huge smile on her face. I want to believe we were vessels of God's love and our care and concern will linger in Jan's heart when she is afraid or lonely.
Prayer: God, thank you for strength needed to visit those who are sick, for we face our own mortality when we do so. Give Jan whatever she needs, for you are the great provider. Amen.