“Would you be able to donate blood this week?” a lady asked over the phone. “We’re trying to prepare for any potential accidents over Fourth of July weekend.”
I was impressed with the blood center’s pragmatic preparations, but I also found it amusing that while everyone else—myself included—was ready for reunions, fireworks, and hotdogs, people were gearing up for the plans that go wrong. It was an opportune call because I had been trying to perform the corporal work of mercy to visit the sick. I had cared for those sick around me before, but recently, what had I intentionally done to help others?
Donating blood was a sure way to do that. While my blood was collected, the assistant and I talked about our plans, college, and eventually about how we know many people in our family who had or have cancer. We both helped family without hesitation and agreed that donating to good causes is more beneficial than keeping the money for otherwise unimportant things.
On a regular basis, the assistant “visits the sick” by collecting healthy blood for patients; she is not only helping those who will need the blood but also provides companionship to those donating. The call to visit the sick is about healing through community. Visiting the sick literally is the most obvious way to do this, but we can uphold the dignity of those who are sick with other less predictable ways, too.
There are more chances than you might think to perform the corporal work of mercy to visit the sick. Every day someone is sick—your family, your roommate, your friend, your neighbor, a stranger in your community, or you. Those with disabilities are right next to you, whether you know it or not. In a way, everyone has some sort of imperfection, but Pope Francis said in his homily for the Jubilee for the Sick and Disabled on June 12, “The world does not become better because only apparently ‘perfect’ people live there – I say ‘perfect’ rather than ‘false’ – but when human solidarity, mutual acceptance, and respect increase.”
During the Jubilee, people gathered in St. Peter’s Square from all around the world with smiles on their faces. It is a misconception that the sick or physically challenged can’t be happy, which Pope Francis addresses in his homily. He calls it an illusion to shut your eyes at sickness and disability, so what should you do?
Be the sick one with a smile on your face.
If you are sick, it is a phenomenal witness when you have a smile on your face. Your attitude tells others that life isn’t defined by a physical ailment. I have known cancer patients who have only cared for those around them or tried to make their family smile. Those who are ill also can have the most unpredictable humor, so why not be true to who you are on the inside even when your body is under the weather? Why not accept your own disability and turn it into something positive?
In his homily, Pope Francis reminded us, “How true are the words of the Apostle: ‘God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong’!” (1 Corinthians 1:27) If you are the one suffering, in pain, or fighting an illness, the attitude you have changes those around you. It may even change their heart by causing them to reflect on their attitude or view of life. Everyone has their crosses to bear, and if you can bear yours with a smile, it’s time for them to step up and handle their cross with joy, too.
In reality, the worst sickness is not physical; it is spiritual. Pope Francis spoke of a “suffering of heart” when there is a lack of love in any situation, “The temptation to become self-absorbed grows stronger, and we risk losing life’s greatest opportunity: to love in spite of everything!”
You are not alone. Someone can sympathize with you having had a similar illness or disability—maybe you could even find a support group, depending on what you are suffering. Saints were in similar positions, too, when they suffered sickness and disability. Cancer, tuberculosis, depression, seizures—you name it, there’s a saint who has had it or is the patron of it. If not, that position of sainthood may be yours to fill.
Just because you are sick doesn’t mean you are less of a person or less able to be a saint! So pray that you can spread cheer to those around you in spite of your situation.
Visit the sick, whether you know them or not.
You know the story of the Good Samaritan, but are you one? Do you happen to be there once in a blue moon to help, but do you go out and seek those who need a friend? Do you find those who are hiding because they are ashamed of their condition or are left neglected without a companion?
I know visits to nursing homes brighten patients’ days. My parents would bring in our Golden Retriever dog to visit family in nursing homes. Of course, the family member we were then seeking to visit was happy to see us, but also those who were otherwise not expecting our dog or us were given a surprise! Our dog was friendly, so he would let everyone pet him and there was a domino effect of smiles down the hallway!
“How much love can well up in a heart simply with a smile! The therapy of smiling. Then our frailness itself can become a source of consolation and support in our solitude,” Pope Francis reminds us of this power. If you’re nervous about visiting someone you know or participating in a ministry to visit ill strangers, remember Pope Francis’ words about the smile. Try to bring along a friend—furry, if allowed—or something to do with the sick one you visit.
It can be difficult to visit sick loved ones, especially if they are suffering from a devastating illness and may not look or speak the same as before. Remember, the one you love is still there. I recommend reading Final Gifts if you have a dying loved one. It was recommended to me by a former hospice nurse when my grandmother was very ill.
An infection was spreading in my grandma’s body, so sometimes she was her normal self and other times she was sleepy or mentally in another place. Her caregivers were more like long-time friends and could understand her when she was mumbling better than I could. I occasionally helped aunts or caregivers prepare my grandmother for bed, which was done with great compassion. When my grandmother avoided her pills, those caring for her knew just how to convince her to take them. It took tough love sometimes, but it was for her best. My role was mostly to hold her hand.
My family has always been a good example when it comes to caring for others. They were always honest when warning me how my grandmother was going to be different since the last time I saw her. They even took turns spending the night with my grandmother, even though they knew they might not be able to sleep. They loved her just the same and treated her with the same respect.
A testament to faith during illness, my grandmother would often pray in her sleep or through the night. Anytime she was in pain, she would start praying Hail Marys. She always had a scapular and a rosary. EWTN—the Catholic television station—usually played mass or the rosary in her room, which had three different statues of Our Lady in it. She was surrounded physically and spiritually by her faith. People may forget names and dates, but faith stays strong and carries you home. Because of her faith, her suffering was not just pained, but it was full of love that made it redemptive. She united her pain with Christ, making it something beautiful.
It’s hard to see the people you love suffer an illness, especially when you remember them as spunkier or more energetic than they are during your visit. Please, don’t miss the opportunity to keep your loved ones company; it helps you both.
Imagine all the people suffering who don’t have family visiting them! You can be their support, too. Whether someone you know or someone you haven’t met before, I have gathered the following advice on what to do when visiting the sick:
When visiting the elderly that you know or just at visiting hours at a home, bring something that can connect you with them. Perhaps, you both know how to knit or crochet. You might also want to watch a classical movie together or read a book out loud. Bringing a pack of cards or other game would open up a chance for competitive fun. Also, music is therapeutic. Finding a song they remember gives you both a chance to sing together and tells them that they are still a part of the community.
If they would rather talk, it is just as important for you to listen. This is a chance for you to get to know them better, laugh with them, sympathize with them, and let them know that they are still valuable, even if they repeat the same story to you multiple times. It happens, and you’re there to make sure they know it’s okay—not to criticize or judge. Try to make them laugh and spread joy with your smile.
Don’t forget to offer to pray with them! Even if they opt not to pray with you, remember to pray for them later. Your offer may open up a door to evangelize, and you might be the one learning.
When visiting someone who experienced a tragic accident or sudden loss, try not to say “I understand” if you haven’t actually experienced their circumstance. If you have, it’s a great opportunity for the both of you to support each other. Otherwise, let them know that you care even though you can’t imagine what they are going through.
Look at your church bulletin for the lists of the sick or homebound parish members. Visit them, pray for them, or send flowers or a card. For something fun, put together a spiritual bouquet. Spiritual bouquets are cards or flowers you send to someone to let them know that you and others prayed for them, offered up a mile run for their health, or other such spiritually helpful things. I received one of these when my grandmother passed and can’t recommend them enough to help those in your community who are grieving, sick, or suffering a loss.
Don’t forget about those who are sick because of mental health. Physical health is easier to spot, but people also suffer mentally, which can be hidden and equally as painful. For example, if you know someone who suffers from a mental illness, don’t forget about them; visit them too. Even if it is currently not possible for you to visit them, there is always something you can do. You can always ask their family or close friends what you can do for them- sending them flowers, cards, calls, or prayer. Why not send them a care package filled with things you know they enjoy?
There is no one way to let the sick or physically challenged know that they are loved, but the surest way to make people feel like they aren’t loved is to not try anything at all.
Care for the sick and help them with your service.
How would you like to embrace a leper? Lepers are often outcast, even today, because they are seen as their skin disease, not as people. Jesus not only embraced the leper, but cured lepers without modern medicine. Those following in his footsteps have found ways to do the same in helping or visiting the sick—or literally embracing the leper-like St. Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis.
All Christians are called to embrace others who are sick or embrace their own suffering. Obviously, if someone suffers from a contagious disease, physically embracing them is unsafe. If they are in pain, a hug may hurt them. So be considerate. What you can do is call them or send a card, flowers, or a spiritual bouquet for them and their family.
Pray for the spirit of a servant, and consider these options to care for others: Become a nurse. Volunteer to donate blood. Help at the Special Olympics. Run a 5k for a good cause. Give your sibling chicken noodle soup. Make tea for someone’s sore throat. Host a fundraiser for someone in the hospital who needs help paying medical bills. Donate your time or money to charitable organizations. Go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes (and bring a friend who needs healing)! Take time to wheel a friend confined to a wheelchair outside on a nice day. What else can you do?
“It is thought that sick or disabled persons cannot be happy, since they cannot live the lifestyle held up by the culture of pleasure and entertainment. In an age when care for one’s body has become an obsession and a big business, anything imperfect has to be hidden away, since it threatens the happiness and serenity of the privileged few and endangers the dominant model,” Pope Francis reflected in his Jubilee homily.
Looking around, his sentiment is too often confirmed. For instance, some of us grew up watching A Walk to Remember, where the sickness in one of the main characters is beautiful and the movie is full of true love even in the end, but the new movie Me Before You disguises itself as a romance, only to promote suicide in the face of disability and a false love that supports suicide. Instead of filling life with love, society today is too often told to simply abandon imperfect life, without realizing that one can be happy in any situation.
As a Christian, be a testament of true love that supports life and love instead of despair and death. Other people may visit the sick out of duty or just because it’s what they think is right, but when you visit the sick, be sure to do it with a Christian intent—one that’s not just filling a duty but full of Christ’s love. Give of yourself.