How to be a great friend to someone in the hospital is easy and fulfilling but can be surprisingly counterintuitive. Let’s check out the Gold Standard ways to help the healing.
By: Maralee McKee, Manners Mentor
For a patient, time moves at an other-worldly pace in the hospital. One day and night in Room 777 at St. Angels of Healing seems five times longer than a vacation day in the Bahamas, and at least twice as long as a bad day at work.
When we’re in the hospital, we feel anxious, and we’re longing for the comfort of the familiar.
While friends can be a big part of recovery by lifting spirits, bringing the outside world in, and reminding us that we’re loved, there’s a lot more than popping in for a visit that goes into knowing how to be a great friend to someone in the hospital or recovering at home.
To be a great companion, you’ll want to know the Gold Standard of what to say and do to make sure you’re making the patient feel better instead of worse from accidental wear.
From knowing when and whether you should visit, what gift(s) you should bring, how long to stay, and what you should say, there’s a lot to know about how to make sure your time with the patient is just what the doctor ordered while the patient is in the hospital or at home.
Let’s discover these Gold Standards of visiting ill friends! Beware, some of the manners, like so much of modern etiquette, are counterintuitive.
How to Be a Great Friend to Someone in the Hospital
Should You Visit, and How Long Should You Stay?
~ You don’t want to show up at the hospital unannounced. Always prearrange your visit.
~ Try to reach a family member to ask when a good time to visit would be. You never want just to drop by, because you never know how hospital patients are feeling, what kind of tests they’ve had run today which might make them extra tired, and about a hundred other reasons. More friend tips are here in Manners For When You or Someone You Know Is Sick.
~ Call or text just before leaving for the hospital to see whether they are still up for your visit.
~ A good rule of thumb is to stay for about 20 minutes. But use your sixth sense. Cut your visit short if they seem tired or in pain. Stay longer if they’re bored out of their mind and excited for the company.
Things To Remember
~ We’re there for our sick friends. So let’s be 100% there for them. Don’t look at your phone. If you’re fearful temptation will strike, it’s best to leave your phone in the glove box or trunk of your car.
~ Don’t wear perfume or scent of any type. People can be extra sensitive to fragrances, even ones they normally enjoy, when they’re ill.
~ Wash your hands or use hand-sanitizing gel before hugging patients hello. Explain what you’re doing so they don’t think you’re afraid of touching them. “Amber, let me wash my hands at your sink. Then I’m going to give you a big hug! It was a long way up here to the ninth floor. I don’t want to have picked up any germs that might slow down your recovery.” (You can leave out the part that you also don’t want to get the virus de jour and wind up in the hospital yourself from touching the elevator buttons or anything else.)
What Should You Do When Others Come to the Room?
~ When a doctor or nurse steps into the room, stand up and say, “Excuse me, Amber. Take your time. I’m going to be in the hall.” Smile at everyone and leave without giving your friend time to respond. She might feel bad that you’re going to be standing and think she should say it’s fine if you stay. But leaving the room is the right thing to do. You don’t know what they’re going to talk about, and both you and your friend are going to wish you weren’t there if the nurse asks, “Mrs. Barton, have you had your first bowel movement since surgery?” or some equally cringe-worthy question.
~ If the patient is in the early stages of recovery and a nurse or doctor enters close to the 15- or 20-minute mark of your visit, that’s a great clue to say goodbye, promise to return, and leave. The same goes if a family member or another guest shows up.
~ For a family member staying with the patient at the hospital, when a friend whom you know comes to visit, chat for two or three minutes and then excuse yourself. It’s a good time for you to have a little break. Stretch your legs, take a walk down the hall, visit the cafeteria, or maybe go outside for some fresh air. Your leaving will give the patient and the friend some private time together.
Should You Bring a Gift, and What’s a Good One?
~ Most people think of bringing flowers, but that’s one of the worst gifts to give to someone in the hospital. Flowers take up the little bit of horizontal (shelf) space in the room, and all your friend can do with them is sit around watching them die a little bit each day. It’s not exactly an encouraging sight for the patient.
~ Another thing about flowers is that they’re difficult to transport home when patients leave the hospital. Too often, the vases fall over, spilling water and flowers in the vehicle. Instead, have flowers delivered to celebrate your friend’s homecoming! The arrangements can be spread throughout the house, brightening all the rooms they enter.
~ If you do decide on flowers, choose an orchid plant with a few flowers already blooming and lots of buds. When watered just once a week, a quality orchid will bloom for a month or more.
~ Boredom constantly nips at the heels of every hospital patient. Gifts that help fight boredom but don’t tax the brain are usually the most welcomed. Fill a cute container, tote bag, or basket with several magazines, a novel, an inspirational book, quality hand lotion, flavored lip balm (it’s like a tiny taste of dessert!), fun socks (feet often get cold when you’re ill), notecards, a journal, colorful pens, and such. Check out Pinterest boards for inspiration, and walk the aisles of Target or your favorite store. You’ll find lots of things to fill your friend’s basket. Some little 3″ by 4″ framed photos of their loved ones don’t take up much room, but they’ll make an extra special gift.
Gifts of Food
~ Find out what the hospital diet regimens are for the patients you’re visiting. If they’re free to eat anything, offer to bring a favorite dish from their most-liked restaurant. Bring a snack they’re craving, flavored waters, and, of course, anything you’ve made for them: cookies, banana bread, slices of pound cake; things that are easy to eat with fingers are best, but it’s still good to add some paper plates, napkins, and plastic utensils along with the food. Whether you’re bringing food to patients while they’re in the hospital or once they’re home, Ten Savvy Tips for Bringing Meals to Your Friends shares need-to-know info!
~ Unless you’re visiting daily, bring something every time you come, even if it’s small like a tin of mints. Something new in the room helps make the monotony of a hospital stay more bearable.
Gift-giving Points to Remember
~ Usually, no gifts are given to people in ICU. Wait until they’re in a regular room, and then bring your gift.
~ If you know what electronic media your friend has there (ask a relative or the patient), you can purchase gift certificates for books, music, or movies, App store gift cards for, well, apps, and Amazon gift cards for e-books or something else the friend would enjoy. (Most hospitals are Wi-Fi enabled, but if the hospital is older, you might want to make sure Wi-Fi is available.)
~ If the patients have a relative or dear friend staying with them, think of bringing them some gifts, too. Their days are extra long. Being well and staying in a hospital room day-and-night is hard. Anything that makes an excellent gift for the patient is probably appreciated by the caregiver, too.
What Should You Say, and What Should You Keep to Yourself?
~ What you should and shouldn’t say will, of course, vary considerably depending on the severity of your friend’s illness and the long-term outlook for the recovery. Visiting those who will be home in three days and back to work in ten days is a lot different than visiting those who have received a diagnosis of inoperable cancer. The conversations will be different, except that in both cases, your job as friend will focus on: being a listening ear, comforting the person, and sharing the warmth of friendship. That’s usually best done by doing only a little talking and a lot of listening.
~ Share news (not gossip) about people you both know. Talk about TV, movies, books or current events. Trade stories about your children. If you attend the same church, fill them in on sermons they’ve missed.
~ Come to the hospital with a mental list of three or four topics to help keep the conversation ball bouncing.
How Often Should You Visit?
~ Try to arrange to visit every third day. If you’re best friends, then you’re like family, and daily visits are beautiful. Here are more things you want to know When You or Someone You Know is Sick.
~ Make plans for an activity the two of you will enjoy when the patient is released from the hospital. That way, the patient will have something to look forward to.
~ Even if the diagnosis is dire, make plans — even if those plans are just setting a firm date for your next visit.
The Last Gift — The Hardest One to Give
When I was twenty-two, during the week of my first wedding anniversary, Chuck, my late husband, was diagnosed with cancer, and we received the devastating news that he had only 12 months to live. He lived four-and-a-half more years, amazing everyone.
Near the end of his life, cancer attacked his brain and liver simultaneously. The doctors said he had only weeks to live.
When I called his best friend, who lives in Georgia (we live in Florida), and shared the sad news about being given just weeks, he immediately drove all night from Georgia to visit Chuck.
Chuck owned a Harley Davidson. Yes, I used to ride it! I loved it! We went to Bike Week in Daytona Beach. I had leather chaps, a jacket, gloves, and a custom helmet. I’m not shy to say that I looked good riding behind my husband on our “classic” (a nice way to say ridden long and hard by the time we got it) 1986 Special Edition Electra Glide.
And no, Kent and our boys can’t conceive of me riding the Harley, let alone enjoying it. In fact, I can’t believe I was an avid rider for a season! But love shapes people in ways that nothing else can.
One Last Ride — My Husband’s Last Smile
Anyway, when Chuck’s friend Bob arrived, he took Chuck, who was so weak I didn’t think he was going to be able to sit up, on a 30-minute ride. He wasn’t in the driver’s seat, but he was on his Harley. When he came back in the door of our home, he looked like a man free of cancer. There was joy in his glassy eyes and a slight stride to his weak walk. It was the last time he left the house, and the last strength, joy, or smile he experienced until he entered the gates of Heaven four weeks to the day at 12:58 PM.
I pray that when I’m called on (We’ll all receive a call eventually), I’ll be the kind of friend Bob Gainey was to my husband.
Keep It Positive But Genuine.
~ In your conversations with patients in crisis, you don’t need to pretend all is well, but you also don’t want to be Don or Debbie Downer. Keep it light, but if they bring up the hard stuff, listen, pray with them, and talk about what they want to talk about. Let them lead the discussion. Don’t bring up anything they don’t, and don’t side-step any difficult subjects if they want to talk about them.
~ Let them know you’ll be available for them throughout their recovery or illness, whether that’s days, weeks, or months.
Another Survivor’s Perspective
Michelle Cushatt, author of the beautiful and hope-inspiring memoir Undone: A Story of Making Peace With An Unexpected Life, knows first-hand from recent experience what it’s like to walk the shores of profound illness. She has gone through two battles with cancer involving major surgeries, chemotherapy, and long weeks/months of frailness while fighting to move forward in health. As a wife, mother of young children, and busy professional, Michelle knows the demands are unfathomable to anyone who hasn’t experienced them.
Here from her blog is her sensible, loving, practical guide to 60 Creative Ways to Help a Friend in Crisis. Michele’s list will turn any feelings of self-doubt or awkwardness you feel about helping anyone in crisis to feelings of confidence and joy!
A Difficult Grace Note
This might sound hard, but when you’re a mentor, sometimes you have to come out of your comfort zone to let people know the truth. Even a hard truth. It’s not like me to speak bluntly, but on this subject, I must. I watched a good man die young whose friends, old and young, didn’t come to see him. He would ask about them. I would make excuses for them, but of course, he saw through the excuses, and his friends’ absence hurt him.
I’ve heard many people say that they can’t go to visit others in hospitals, or to the bedsides of the sick at home, or attend funerals, because they’re uncomfortable. Some people say that it brings back bad memories of other people in their lives who were seriously ill or died, or they want to remember the people when they were well instead of how they are now.
But It’s Not About You at All
To that I say, “You’ve got to get over it.”
You’re making this about YOU.
It has nothing to do with you.
You’re not the one who’s sick, dying, or dead.
Be by your loved one. Yes, it’s hard. But it’s the right thing to do.
Deserting someone who is sick or dying, or not going to a funeral to pay your respects to the other grieving members of the family, is selfish, rude, weak, and allowing your fears to rule you. That’s not who you want to be. That’s not who you are!
You control your emotions. If you concentrate on the good times, those are what you’ll remember in the future. If this is truly a problem for you, go to a counseling session or two, because there are going to be a lot of people you love who will die before you. You need to be able to deal with this.
“Friends to the end” means friends to the very end (even funerals), not just until you’re not comfortable any longer.
Knowledge is great at knocking fear a wallop. This post on Funeral and Visitation Etiquette will help you prepare for anything you might encounter.
What Now? How About a Lighter Note?!
I’m excited to announce that I’m an aunt again! Everly Rose joined our family two months early! She weighs just 3 pounds and 15 ounces. Mother and daughter are fine, despite an emergency C-section. I’ve seen photos of Everly, and she’s perfection! She joins her Mommy and Daddy, and her 19-month-old big sister, Ava Grace. The happy family lives in Virginia. I can’t wait to meet her and see her big sister and parents again! New babies are love notes from Heaven!
Until next week, be blessed, and give the world the gift only you can give: you at your best!