I grew up watching family and friends die. In a weird, meta-level way I suppose everyone does. But I was watching a grandfather die in his house across the street, his body riddled with cancer. I would watch grandmothers die of cancer. Some of my friends would die of leukemia before I was even out of junior high. My father is chronically ill, as am I. Illness has suffused my daily life for as long as I can remember.
So, I have a lot of thoughts about the mitzvah bikur cholim. Visiting the ill among us,¬† that’s something that’s meaningful if it’s done right. And as much as wading through regulations sometimes makes me want to pull my hair out, I appreciate the guidelines that are set out around the mitzvah. Giving people a template makes it no less hard to embark on the mitzvah, but those guidelines keep us from being lost in the moment. If you visit the sick, you are helping relieve them of some small portion of the misery of being ill. By waiting to visit the ill by a few days, you avoid being part of the initial system-shock of being sick, and all the procedures surrounding an illness. By not being a burden on their caretakers, you don’t add to the stress being experienced by someone who is ill, or that of their family.
I’m not affiliated with a synagogue right now, so my experiences with bikur cholim are centered on family and friends, and those who are ill in their lives who I may not know myself. And I think that it’s important to consider how to integrate this mitzvot into your life when you’re not in a community with a bikur cholim committee. Same goes for congregations where the Rabbi is expected to shoulder much of the energy and thought of the mitzvot for the community at large.
When I was younger, I had a friend named Kirstin. Kirstin was a few years older than me, and died of leukemia when I was 12. My friend Jessica would die when her leukemia made an aggressive return when I was 14. They each took laptops to the hospital with them, and our bikur cholim visits were made virtually. I couldn’t be in New York or Boston for them, but that virtual visit every day was our lifeline to each other. If they were online, I would talk with them. I’m 29 now, and those ‘virtual visits’ are a permanent part of my…I’m not sure how to phrase it. Mitzvot vocabularly? Resources? Sometimes an electronic visit is what you can manage. Chat, text, G+ hangout, Skype, e-mail, a phone call. I feel like the value of these forms of bikur cholim are lower than they should be. When they’re appropriate, we should seize them as an opportunity to perform the mitzvot, though in an unconventional manner.
You’re supposed to wish someone healing when you leave them at the end of your visit, and I think that religiously or otherwise, that’s true. That brief moment to close the circle emotionally on that visit, to wish someone recovery and alleviation of misery, it is right to offer that wish at the end. And I think to neglect doing so makes the visit hollow and incomplete. The wish of refuah shlema is not an admonition to them to get better, or an order. It’s a caring wish for their recovery. And it tells someone that you are carrying them close to you when you leave, that though the visit may be over, your thoughts of them remain.
We’re supposed to visit the sick outside fellow Jews, and I think the guidelines for bikur cholim port to visiting anyone who’s sick. Giving them space, not being a burden, offering a sincere wish for their health. But there are other forms of illness that I don’t think we give the same priority for bikur cholim. There was a Larry Lake piece over at Slate, where he talked about his family’s different experiences with illness. When his wife had cancer, the fridge overflowed with food. People volunteered as drivers for her doctor appointments. There was always someone offering their time and energy to help them. People always asked how they were.
But when his daughter struggled with mental illness and addiction, that font of love and support was absent. It would stay absent till his daughter was in a car accident, one that left her injured and in the hospital. We can’t just say cancer and car accidents are the two acceptable categories of illness that merit bikur cholim. And end of life periods when people are elderly are a pretty mixed bag. I’ve seen more people abandon bikur cholim for the elderly than I see them perform it for the seniors among us. What about genetic diseases, AIDS, miscarriages? Bikur cholim doesn’t just need new vectors to be performed by, it needs more widening in our minds. And we all have to think of what we can offer to perform the mitzvot. Maybe you’re in Seattle and a friend’s in Phily. You can’t drive a casserole over, but you can call in delivery food for them. We could be colluding with friends and family in different places to aid and abet our commission of these caring acts, of performing something G-d put into our hands. I think of bikur cholim not only as a commandment, but a gift.
Before I peace out, I want to drop in some additional links. Susan Silk and Barry Goldman had a neat article+illustration this spring¬†(Wes Bausmith did the illustration) on how not to say the worst things to someone who’s ill. The awesome take-away in the end: you dump comfort into the people around the ill. But the person who’s ill, their loved, friends, coworkers, Facebook friends, don’t dump their troubles inward towards the ill. My mother was treated for cancer a few years ago. I’d talk to a good friend about it. If she was feeling bummed about those conversations, she’d talk to a different friend about that. You send comfort towards the ill, you dump your rough feelings out. Makes sense!
Deborah Orr had a great piece in the guardian a few years back, about stuff to not say to someone who’s ill. They’re all fabulous points, and some of what she writes about is how to take the stock reactions we have (“Whatever I can do to help”) and turn them into something actionable for the person you’re offering it to. Totally worth the read.
At the end of 5773, I said I wanted to be more committed to bikur cholim, particularly for the mentally ill, in part because I am. In 5774, may we all find new ways to care for the ill among us, whatever their ailment may be.