There are two wonderful books by Christie Watson about the values which underlie nursing: The Language of Kindness and The Courage to Care.Both are about the joys and challenges, the humanity and compassion, central to nursing.
In The Courage to Care Christie considers the many settings in which nurses operate, from hospitals to the military. ‘These,’ she writes about Learning Disability Nurses, ‘are the nurses working in the field of human essence.’ Maybe all medical staff work there too. In fact, in one way or another the focus of all our work, indeed of our lives, is this ‘field of human essence.’
It’s for that essence, for her sister Miriam’s very survival, that Moses pleads in those five words which to this day form the core of all our prayers for those who are ill: ‘God, please, heal her, please.’ ‘No one ever prayed more briefly,’ the Talmud notes. There was no need for more; those five heartfelt words say it all.
The daily morning service reminds us that visiting people who are ill is a mitzvah, a commandment which has no limit. But prayer is only one aspect of it. Practical help is at least as important: ‘I’ve dropped round some soup;’ ‘I’ll take you to your hospital appointment.’ It’s best to be specific. Generalities like, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ usually elicit a polite, slightly bewildered, ‘I can’t think of anything, thank you.’
Probably the most important thing we have to offer is our presence. The Talmud advises visitors not to sit on a chair or stool. This is because in those times the person who’s ill would probably be lying on the floor. Since ‘God’s presence rests above the pillow of the sick,’ we shouldn’t place ourselves higher than God. I understand this as a way of telling us not to hover above the bed when we go to see someone who is ill, but to sit next to them, on the level, and be truly present. Such companionship, notes the Talmud, tales away a sixtieth of the illness. In other words, it makes a difference.
There’s another meaning to ‘being on the level’: we open ourselves, if only briefly, to the truth that we too are mortal, that we’re not immune, that not just breaks and bruises but cancer, a stroke, heart problems or dementia may one day become our portion. It’s humbling. It may be why we sometimes find it difficult to visit. I’ve heard relatives say, ‘Some people have been amazing; others, once firm friends, have disappeared.’ This hurts. We must aspire to being faithful friends, in all situations. Part of the art of being human is to let the awareness of our mortality deepen not our fear but our chesed, our compassion.
Being ill is often a lonely experience. Even if not physically, we’re mentally and spiritually alone, in the sometimes bleak and anxious domain of our thoughts. Carers, too, may often feel quite isolated, especially if the responsibility falls overwhelmingly on just one family member. Carers can’t simply go out; neither their space nor their time is at their disposal. I’ll never forget the words of a woman who’d been married for sixty years: ‘For half a century I was his wife; now that he’s got Alzheimer’s, I’ve had to become his mother.’
An especially kind member of our community recently spoke to me about why people sometimes fail to visit when an old friend develops some horrible illness. ‘It’s not that they don’t care,’ he said, ‘It’s that they’re afraid.’ We may fear we’ll be expected to stay for a long time, that we won’t know what to say, that the person we’re visiting is no longer as we once knew them, that if we visited once we’ll be expected to come again and it’ll be a commitment…
In truth, visits, whether in hospital or at home, needn’t be long. Fifteen minutes can be good; long stays may in fact be inconvenient. We don’t need great things to say; such words probably don’t exist anyway. We have to be there, listen, give companionship, share memories… Our visit may be important mainly because it gives moral support to the partner and carer, some moments of solidarity and respite.
It’s true, visiting may become a commitment. We may not be able to go often, but coming when we can really matters. And what greater commitment can we have in life than to the humanity of others and, ultimately, ourselves.