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Pondering the Pasuk: On the Ways of Visiting the Sick, and the Laws of Consoling the Mourner – Part 1

The ways of “Visiting the Sick” and the laws of “Visiting and Comforting Mourners” are very similar. Both require great sensitivity on the part of the visitor to the very fragile state of either the Sick person or the Mourner.


Why are laws so similar?

In the case of the Sick person, we hope and pray for his recovery from his malady.

In the case of the Mourner, we hope and pray for his recovery from his loss.

To the Mourner, we say:

HaMakom yenacheim es’chem b’soch shar avay’lay Tzion vee’Yerushalayim –

May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

To the sick person, the Halacha is that we say:

HaMakom yeracheim alecha b’soch kol cholei Yisroel –

May the Omnipresent have mercy upon you among all the sick of Israel.

I don’t believe the prayer or wish said to the Sick person is commonly known. Quite frankly, I, personally, would hesitate to say that prayer or wish to a sick person for fear that as soon as he hears the words “HaMakon yeracheim” come out of my mouth, he might think he is already dead, since it is so similar to the formula we say as we leave a mourner’s house, “HaMakom yenacheim”, and anything that might upset a sick person might make his illness worse, or even, God Forbid, hasten his death.

What doe s a person think and feel when he or she get sick?

I am not referring to the common cold or the flu, even though these can bring on many of the feelings listed below. For the purpose of this article, I am referring to chronic illness – i.e. any illness that last more than 3 weeks, and sometimes, for a lifetime.

Of course every person is different, but there are studies that talk about the Grief Response.

Psychology and Medical textbooks talk about the Grief Response as if there is a formula that every person follows. It is described as the five stages of grief:

· Shock

· Denial

· Anger

· Sadness

· Acceptance

In my experience treating patients, and, unfortunately, having made many shiva calls, and having sat shiva three times, there is no formula for grief. It is a unique experience, different for each person. There are some common experiences, but they may occur in any order, or permutation, and not everyone may experience all the emotional or physical symptoms on “the list.”

It seems to me that the common denominator is between both situations, is multifaceted.

What is it like to be sick?

What is it like to lose a loved one?

May the Merciful One protect us.

While being sick and losing a loved one are not exactly the same, nonetheless, there are many similarities. In both cases, there is a sense of loss.

A few examples:

· Loss of a loved one,

· Loss of one’s health,

· Loss of a body part,

· Loss of dignity,

· Loss of self image or self esteem,

· Loss of the freedom to move around,

· Loss of control over events,

· Loss of security,

· Loss of faith in God,

· And the list goes on and on.

The person may feel like his world has fallen apart, changed forever, life will never be the same again, how will I ever move forward from here, and not infrequently, “Why me?”

I remember, on 9-11, watching the first of the Twin Towers collapse on itself. I was in horrified, in shock and frozen in place. I started crying uncontrollably and heard myself saying repeatedly, “Oh, my God!” Oh, my God! Oh my God!”

My view of the world suddenly changed. Life suddenly became unpredictable. Teva, Nature, the Natural Order of Events, as we know it, suddenly, in one instant, changed forever. People running for their lives, total and utter chaos and confusion, disorientation, the fears, the tears, the shock on people‘s faces – things I will never forget. . . . and the World sat shiva.

That’s how devastating a loss can be to a sick person or to a mourner.

Visiting such a person can be a very uncomfortable.

What do I say? What do I do?

Rabbi Simcha Weinberg, shilt’a, teaches that when the Ribono Shel Olam was in mourning over the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, the Malachim (Angels) tried to console Him. The Midrash says, Lo ratzah ’kabeil tanchumim – He did not want to receive any consolation. God said to the angels, “I don’t even want to hear it! Leave Me alone; There’s nothing you can say!”

So the first thing to say when visiting a sick person or a mourner is . . . nothing. Just be with that person and do not speak first. Sometimes, just your presence is comforting. We wait for the mourner to open the conversation. And we follow his lead. And we listen . . . and we listen . . . and we listen.

Then, when it’s appropriate, we may offer a comment related to what the mourner or sick person is speaking about. And anything we say or any gesture we make must be done with the utmost sensitivity to that person’s situation and to his or her feelings.

When we speak, it should be connected to what the sick person’s or the mourner’s concerns are about as we discern from listening carefully to what he is saying and to the feelings beneath the words.

We do not offer advice and we do not say platitudes such as:

“How are you doing?” (They’re not doing so well.)

“I know how you feel” (You don’t.), or

“At least she lived to a ripe old age.” (Not long enough.)

“This was the will of God”(Not a good time to preach Religion.)

“You’ll be better in no time!”(How do you know? You’re not God.)

We stay focused on the person we are visiting and try to avoid side conversations, unless it pertains to the needs of that person.

For both the sick person and the mourner, only close relatives visit during the first three days.

May the Omnipresent have mercy upon all the sick of Israel, and may He comfort all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

End of Part 1

Copyright © 2011 by Harvey (Heshie) Klein, MD

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