May 04, 2023

Tips for Visiting Someone Who’s Sick?

In the midst of radiation treatment my home was like grand central station with visitors coming and going all day long. I needed the help and the company, and was grateful to have people stopping by.

But for some patients, having visitors isn’t as easy or welcomed. Many folks don’t want anyone around when they look and feel like crap. Others want privacy and alone time. And lots of guests just don’t know how to behave in the best interest of the sickie.  So, I’ve come up with  a list of  tips for both patients and visitors:

For Patients

- Nobody is a mind reader. Email friends and family about your wishes.
- Think about who you are willing to have see you at your worst.
- Let people know if it is not okay to visit at the hospital or at home.
- Clearly broadcast your energy level and the length of visit you’d like.
- Demand people stay away if they have germs.
- If you’ve got a roommate or partner get clear with each other so if you have different desires you don’t send mixed messages to guests.

For Visitors

- Have awareness. The goal is to be helpful, even it means staying away.
- While visiting, ask what you can do to help out around the house.
- Sometimes help without asking. If the trash is full just take it out.
- Never stop by unannounced.
- Don’t overstay your welcome.
- Silence can be comforting. Offer to sit together without talking.
- Think about visiting with the sick person’s kids, partner, or caregiver allowing the sick person time to just rest

What are some of the best and worst stories you have about people who visited you when you were sick? Do you have any tips to add to the list?

Check out more about the dynamics of family and friend visits in Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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  1. Tweets that mention Tips for Visiting Someone Who’s Sick. Ever wanted to kick a visitor out of your home or hospital room? #cancer -- Says:
    May 4th, 2010 at 11:40 AM

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kairol Rosenthal and Ellen Tupman, Ellen Tupman. Ellen Tupman said: RT @Kairol: Tips for Visiting Someone Who’s Sick. Ever wanted to kick a visitor out of your home or hospital room? #cancer [...]

  2. Alli Says:
    May 4th, 2010 at 11:52 AM

    Three days after I got home from the hospital I had 8 people descend on my little condo to clean. Originally it was supposed to be just two, but more people from my church wanted to help. They cleaned out my fridge without telling me and threw out almost all my food. The fridge looked like I had just moved in. I know they were trying to help, but it was very overwhelming. After my second surgery I told my friends I did not want any visitors at the hospital and none while I was staying at my parents the first week. I really wanted time to recover and did not want people to see me at my worst. Unfortunately a few close friends did not heed this request and came to visit anyway.

    I do have a great group of friends and came to rely on their help with laundry, meals, changing the bed etc. I became very good at “kicking” people out when their visit ran too long and I needed to rest. One thing I learned is people really want to help and it is best to tell them exactly what you need them to do. Otherwise they will do what they think you need and it is not always helpful.

    After a while I came of a list of guideline for my visitors of what was helpful for them to do and say and told them what type of things they might say that was hurtful. For example, I asked people not to tell me how good I looked, that they were praying for a miracle, that everything would be ok and that I should keep fighting. While these things were meant to cheer me up, they ended of hurting my feelings.

  3. Heather Says:
    May 4th, 2010 at 1:04 PM

    I found that I had to specifically ask people to talk about what was going on “in real life.” And that they didn’t have to qualify everything with “It’s not as bad as what you’re going through, but…” I really just wanted normal conversations. Sometimes that included talking about what was going on with me, and sometimes it didn’t. You got a flat tire on the way to work? That stinks! Would you tell me about it if I wasn’t in a hospital bed? Then tell me about.

    I’m guessing that there were no offers for cleaning or errands or anything since I was married. I don’t know if my husband got offers for help or not…

  4. Rabbi Heather Says:
    May 4th, 2010 at 3:01 PM

    I think visitors should be advised to ask and not assume.

    Ask me if I want to hear about your life, I may need a diversion from my pain but I may not want to be exposed to your drama.

    Ask if I would like for you to stay longer, don’t excuse yourself with “I know you need to rest.” maybe I need company right now.

    Ask if you can help, only when you are prepared to follow through. If you offer and I accept, I am counting on you.

  5. The Carcinista Says:
    May 4th, 2010 at 4:34 PM

    Ugh! Too right. While I was in the hospital recovering from my rad. hysterectomy and debulking surgery (and just getting to the really sexy part where the nurses come in to check every thirty minutes whether you’ve passed gas yet), the CFO of my husband’s (very supportive and concerned) company showed up with a potted plant. No makeup, hadn’t showered in days, EW! She was totally sweet, but only stayed for about five minutes, thank goodness. I hadn’t realized I needed to specify NO VISITORS, but I did immediately afterwards. Sheesh! can’t they just send an expensive flower arrangement? ;-)


  6. frank Says:
    May 4th, 2010 at 5:30 PM

    Thank you so much for writing this! I’ve found so many who want to visit when I’m in the hospital and not up for visitors and then nobody who really wants to help when I’m home. It’s been difficult to communicate, but there are a few close friends who have always been there when I want them but cool enough to understand when I kick them out.

    I also love what Heather said. I definitely want the friendship to be mutual. Sure, what’s going on with you may not seem to be as bad as cancer, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t care and/or want to know.
    It’s a hard balance to find, at times, both for me and for friends. It can be different every day, so it never hurts to call and double-check any plans just before it happens and not be offended if I cancel.

    What I’ve appreciated most are the friends who aren’t afraid to let things be silent and be just a loving presence there for me to know I’m not alone as well as those who are on top of things enough to know when I’m tired, when I need something to eat, when chores need to be done, etc and just take care of it.

  7. Lori Hope Says:
    May 5th, 2010 at 9:56 AM

    I tell a great story in my book about a woman who’d just undergone cancer surgery to remove a small part of her jaw when a friend came in and flew around the room, opening the blinds, chirping cheerfully, and just generally causing commotion. What she most needed was calm, cool, and quiet company. When she told me the story we were practically howling (she did a superb job of imitating her friend) - but I remember from a similar experience how deeply violated I felt. Here’s what happened to me:

    My epidural line had come loose and for the first time since my surgeon split my ribs to remove a lobe of my lung, I was in severe pain, waiting in my hospital bed for assistance. Just then, an acquaintance (not even a friend) popped in unannounced and uninvited. She was the girlfriend of a client so I didn’t feel comfortable asking her to leave.

    That experience was part of what compelled me to write “Help Me Live: 20 things people with cancer want you to know.” One of the statements within is “Asking my permission can spare me pain,” and that applies to asking permission to visit.

    GREAT post, Kairol, and fabulous tips, especially for patients! Thank you!

  8. Melinda Says:
    May 7th, 2010 at 11:21 PM

    Hi Kairol… on the subject of visitors…

    From Grace:

    Shortly after I arrived home, I received a visit from my Gramma, Poppy, Great-Aunt Ruth, and Great-Uncle Wen. I could see a strange look on their faces, as they rounded the sharp corner into the room. I almost felt embarrassed for being in the state that I was and thought that a “You Get What You See” sign would be appropriate. Watching them come closer, I pictured one of those cheesy soap operas. You know, one where the sick person lies in the bed, practically dead, while people come to see them one last time. It all seemed like a soap opera, depressing, and way too dramatic for my comedic flair. I was afraid I would not be treated like “Melinda” anymore, that things would be different between me and those who I knew. But I realized, quickly, that it was the same people I love dearly, and that they had come to share their love with me.

  9. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    May 7th, 2010 at 11:36 PM

    I’ve recently connected online with Melinda who left the comment above. She is in high school, a cancer survivor, ballet dancer and writer with a new book out. Even though we are more than 20 years apart in age - I kinda feel like she is my twin!

    I’ve heard from a lot of other people about the feeling of being in a movie or soap opera, where everyone comes to stand around your bed thinking their goodbyes in their head. I think that heightened dramatic moments like that in my own cancer experience have sometimes felt cathartic - like the over the topness of my condition was being matched by soap opera like scene around me.

    Thanks for your comment Melinda!


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