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Being Present with the Seriously Ill

As a follow-up to my Eight Euphemisms to Avoid Saying at Funerals and Hospitals article, I wanted to take the time to offer more about alternatives to well-intentioned (but not taken as such) euphemisms commonly said at funerals, when visiting the sick, and in sympathy notes. In general, being in the "here and now" and expressing affection without judgment is usually the best way of comforting the bereaved and the sick, but this way of being is so different from our every day and typical American family and cultural interaction styles. Many of us are uncomfortable or out of practice with expressing warmth, empathy, and support for others by our attentiveness, silence, empathetic statements, and affection. Instead, we tread awkwardly between euphemisms and distancing ourselves from the uncomfortable feelings surging in us and the reminders of our own mortality and the frailty of life.

I have learned more about ways of attending to others through my own personal experiences in caregiving, widowhood, and new parenthood, together with my counseling experiences and reading various counseling and bereavement-related books. I suggest that people start looking at visiting dying or mourning friends and family members as visiting friends and family with a newborn baby. This perspective will help you figure out how to be of practical and emotional help to the bereaved and sick.

In all the books and religions I have studied, as well as what I saw each day at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, I find that the rituals in Judaism offer the best insight into the ways of being to support the bereaved and sick through rallying around those in hospitals and those in mourning. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his wonderful book Why Bad Things Happened To Good People (a must read for any bereaved Christian or Jew), noted, for example that on returning from the cemetery, the mourner is not supposed to take food for himself or to serve others and is fed by his visitors. Kushner described this as symbolizing the way the community rallies around the mourner “to sustain him and to try to fill the emptiness in his world.” Kushner also explained that the mourner attends services to recite the Mourners’ Kaddish, the prayer recited for a year after a death. Kushner explained that in doing so the mourner “feels the context of a supportive, sympathetic congregation around him. He feels less singled out by adverse fate. He is comforted by their presence, by his being accepted and consoled by the community rather than being shunned as a victim whom God has seen fit to punish.” These two rituals offered by Judaism offer the mourner a sense of nonjudgment and a sense of community in his/her bereavement, which is ultimately the key to maintaining one's resilience in the face of tragedy.

Here are eight ways of being, listed in no particular order, to bereaved and ill family and friends.

1. Visit with and call your bereaved and ill family and friends beyond the immediate death or diagnosis. Surround them each day you are able with your comforting presence.

2. Ask your family and friends how you can practically help them. Offer to bring them food, help with laundry, help with phone calls to inform family and friends of the death or illness, helping them with the administrative paperwork, with watching their children, taking them out to a movie and lunch, and so forth.

3. Share and express your feelings of sadness.

4. Give plenty of hugs or hold your friend or family-members hand.

5. Focus on your concern and on the needs of the primary mourners and sick person and their caregivers, similar to Judaism's ritual of "sitting shiv'ah." As 16th century Rabbi Joseph Karo wrote in the The Shulchan Arukh, the classic code of Jewish law : "The consolers are not to speak until the mourner speaks. The mourner sits at the front of the room, and once he nods to indicate that the consolers should leave, they are not permitted to remain any longer (" It is ultimately not about your own needs, it is about the needs of those in mourning or sick. Please understand and do not take it personally when and if those in mourning or sick are not in the mood to receive visitors, go to your party or holiday gathering, etc. There is a time and place for mourning which needs to be respected and given space if needed and requested by those in mourning and who are sick.

6. Empathetic listening of your family and friends. Empathetic or reflective listening is different from passive listening. It is a form of active and nonjudgmental listening that communicates your desire to understand and appreciate someone else's perspective.

7. Unconditional positive regard. Unconditional positive regard, as defined and developed by Person-Centered therapist Carl Rogers, occurs when you offer an acceptance and value for your family member or friend without conveying disapproving feelings or judgment. In this way of being, you are demonstrating a willingness to attentively listen without interruption or advice giving.

8. Share your gratitude and respect for the deceased and sick friend or family member by donating your time or money to a related non-profit or start a 5K team to raise money and awareness for your cause. This is a wonderful way to honor your deceased and sick love one, while focusing on giving to others and gaining a sense of control and empowerment in the process of doing good.


Kushner, H.S. (1981). When Bad Things Happen To Good People. Schocken Books: New York, NY.

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