Chances are good that you know someone who has been hospitalized. While the reasons for a hospitalization may vary from the joyous (like the healthy birth of a new baby) to the scary and unexpected (a surgery, illness, or trauma), one thing is almost always true: we don’t heal in a vacuum. Visiting the sick is one of the corporal works of mercy, and a visit to see your loved one in the hospital can bring them a great deal of comfort and relief.
As a hospital social worker, I’ve witnessed both the amazing power of a patient being surrounded by loved ones and the “hiccups” and complications it can cause when visitors aren’t thoughtful about their time with a patient. Here, I humbly offer — based on my own experiences and those of patients I’ve sat with — a few tips for anyone who might be considering going to the hospital to visit a friend or family member.
1) Know the nuts and bolts
It may sound obvious, but it’s important to check hospital policy around visits before you go. Some hospitals have specific visiting hours (which may differ by floor or area) or policies around what can be carried into a unit (in the hospital where I work, no flowers can be brought up to the ICUs, for example).
You absolutely shouldn’t go for a visit if you’re feeling at all under the weather, as any germs you might bring into the hospital could really jeopardize the health of your loved one and other patients there. If you aren’t sure about the policies of the hospital where your loved one is staying, it’s a good idea to call and ask before you go.
And, finally, when you get there, make sure you check in at the information desk or nurse’s station on the floor to make sure it’s an okay time to enter the patient’s room. Sometimes, your loved one might be out for a test or procedure, sleeping, or meeting with their medical team. Their healing is paramount, so make sure you heed the guidance of the staff as you time your visit.
2) Consider what your hospitalized friend or family member might most need
Before you get too far in planning a visit, it’s a good idea to check in with your loved one or a close family member to make sure they’d welcome a visit at all. Remember that being hospitalized can feel like a very vulnerable time — if your loved one says they need privacy or space, you should respect that.
On the flip side, many patients I work with feel bored and lonely while at the hospital, especially if their stay is a long one. If that’s the case and a visit is welcomed, consider what your loved one might most want or need from you. Would it be to watch their favorite show with them? To bring them a favorite comfort food from home (if it’s okayed by their medical team and they don’t have any dietary restrictions)? To just sit quietly with them while they rest? To update them on the latest goings-on at work and make them laugh?
After the births of both of my daughters, my favorite visitors were the ones who brought me my favorite coffee drinks. And this time around, after being on a low-carb diet for the final weeks of my pregnancy, I’m already dreaming about my first postpartum bagel from my favorite local bagel shop.
One more note on considering your loved one’s needs: be sensitive to the length of your visit. While some patients might truly be happy to have company for hours on end, others might need time to rest or might feel more comfortable with you stepping out when their medical team comes in to change a dressing, take vitals, or do a procedure. Be sensitive that you don’t overstay your welcome, and remember that your loved one may feel quite physically vulnerable and want privacy, too.
3) Comfort in; dump out
I’ve written before about the “ring theory” developed by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman — it’s a tool that can help us avoid saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. The idea is simple: when someone is ill, having a hard time, or in a crisis, you comfort the person closest to that particular struggle or trauma (in this case, your friend who is hospitalized). And you seek support from those who are more distant from the crisis than you are. Comfort IN; dump OUT.
Practically speaking, this means you should avoid burdening the hospitalized person with your own feelings or reactions related to their illness. (It’s understandable if you’re having a hard time and need support, but you should “dump” that out to people who are further from the crisis than you are.) It also means that you should respect the needs of those whose “rings” are closer to the center than your own. For example, if a coworker of mine is hospitalized and I’m vying to visit her on the same day as, say, her sister, I should probably defer to whatever her sister needs — since she’s presumably in a more “inner ring” than I am.
4) Be a “builder,” if you can
In a powerful article about living in the aftermath of trauma, Catherine Woodiwiss distinguishes between “firefighters” and “builders.” The “firefighters,” she writes, are the crisis team — those who drop everything to attend to the immediate needs of the person who is sick or in danger. And while that’s a crucial role to play, equally important are the “builders” or the “reconstruction crew” — those who continue to show up long after the immediate crisis has passed, who help “nudge you out the door into regaining your footing in the world.”
The point is this: consider how you can continue to “show up” for your friend or family member after discharge or after the heart of the crisis has passed. Do they need help getting to follow-up appointments? Someone to watch their kids for a couple hours so they can rest or pick up prescriptions? Would they benefit from a home-cooked meal once they’re home? Or just a quick check-in over text reminding them you haven’t forgotten about them?
While the “firefighters” might show up while the person is in the hospital, equally important are the “builders” who help care for everything that happens next. Consider which role you might play, and get curious about how you might incorporate some “builder-like behavior” into your ongoing support of your friend.
Hospitalizations can be scary and overwhelming, but the support of a community of care can not only help someone feel loved, but can also actually improve health outcomes. By being thoughtful about when and how you “show up” for your friend or family member, you can make a meaningful impact on their healing trajectory.