Visiting The Sick – A Guide To The Perplexed

I spent six years of my life bedridden. From 1988-1994, I spent more than 20 hours a day, on average, in bed because of my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. These were the loneliest years of my life. Prior to getting sick, I was never much for visiting the sick and after being sick, I’ve made more of an effort though I’ve hardly been a saint. It does not come naturally to me to hang out with those below me. My drive is to connect with those above me. The sick, the old and the feeble frighten me for, among other reasons, they remind me of myself and of how close to the precipice I feel. There’s nothing I can add to the numerous prescriptions given (by Judaism and others) for visiting the sick. But just as religion gives great attention to the sin of gossiping and little attention to developing the fortitude of overcoming the pain of being gossiped about, so too there’s little attention paid to the moral responsibilities of the sick. Being sick is no excuse for being a jerk. I’ve been around a lot of sick people and I’ve noticed no correlation between their suffering and their treatment of others. Many people with trivial complaints are horrendous to be around and many people who are dying are saintly. For instance, Rabbi Israel Salanter said on his deathbed to the man guarding him, "You should not be afraid of spending the night with a dead body." With her no-nonsense dedication to meeting her responsibilities (to her family, friends, work and self), Cathy Seipp sets a good example of an adult approach to illness. Because of the way she’s led her life, she has no lack of people wanting to rally around her in her time of need. I believe there’s no group of persons who’s exempt from moral demands including the sick. Illness is no excuse for treating other people badly and piling demands upon them. There’s no disease that renders one ungrateful and unkind. The sick have a moral responsibility (according to their ability) of conveying genuine gratitude to those who visit them. Just as visitors should keep in mind the comfort of the sick, the sick, according to the best of their ability, should keep in mind the comfort (physical and emotional) of those who visit them. It’s often awkward visiting the sick and young men in particular are not predisposed towards doing it well. I’m not arguing for the sick to wait hand and foot on the visitors. I’m arguing that nobody is off the hook when it comes to decency. Cathy Seipp emails:

For Gods Sake, that visiting the sick thing is kind of silly You don’t need to do anything special. Just don’t raid the fridge, bring food at least for yourself if you’re going to be hungry, clean up your dishes, and don’t expect to be entertained like a normal visitor. Help out, like lifting Amy’s chair etc. Otherwise, forget it. I’m not mad at you, but i do lose patience with excuses that such things don’t come naturally to young men, especially from one who is no longer that young.

I reply: I did not touch anything in your fridge and only ate the biscuits you said were fine to eat. Nor did I use any dishes nor leave any in your sink. I ate the pudding that Kate Coe gave me in its container. I am sure Amy is stronger than I am, given the tendonitis in my elbows, and is perfectly capable of lifting her own chair. Not all my posts are about you. I visit a lot of sick people.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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