Visiting the sick and dealing with grief

By Rabbi Michael Tevya Cohen
Parashat Vayera

At the very end of last week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, Abraham, Ishmael and his whole household are circumcised. This week, Vayera opens with Abraham, recovering from that ritual act, sitting at the entrance of his tent. And God appears to him. This is the template for the mitzvah of visiting the sick (bikkur cholim). Doing as God does, we take care to make our loved ones — and as best we can, others we meet — feel remembered in their time of pain and healing.

Some of us don’t have an easy time making such visits. Going into a hospital is something that many dread, perhaps even more in this time of COVID-19, when at times hospitals have not even been able to permit visitation. To be alone, cut off from one’s sense of vigor and connections with loved ones, and place of safety and comfort at home, can throw us back upon other times in our lives when we have similarly felt cut off. For many, a stay in a hospital touches us in a way that elicits grief: grief that may be anticipatory as we try to prepare for the worst; or grief that comes from the loss of mobility, the ability to do what we’ve enjoyed and taken for granted our whole lives, or in some cases virtually all of our independence. Not only that, but when we’re touched by grief, it tends to evoke our earlier life experiences of loss and grief. Those experiences live on in our bodies. The body has a memory not only of our physical experiences, but of our emotional and psychic wounds.

The encounter with someone going through illness can mean that we, as the visitor, walk into a situation fraught with these emotions. And this can be overwhelming to us, especially if we are not at peace with our own experiences of grief. So to walk in God’s way and to visit the sick may mean to challenge ourselves to be with these difficult feelings of the other, which we ourselves also carry inside us. The true gift we can bring is not simply to be of good cheer (which can be helpful in itself), but to be ready to ask and to listen to the other’s feelings as they sit in the hospital. That act of listening is truly being with another in their pain.

Rabbi Michael Tevya Cohen is an ACPE certified educator and director of rabbinical services and pastoral care at The Legacy Senior Communities in Dallas.

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