Emotional Support for the Patient and Their Families
The Sages stressed the importance of visiting the sick (“bikur cholim” in Hebrew) and asserted that it is a mitzvah with endless opportunities and possibilities.
There are number of benefits to accompanying the sick, including:
- Ensuring that they are receiving essentials (e.g., food, medicine) and have helpful amenities (like toothbrushes, phone chargers, favorite drinks).
- Bringing some comforting or familiar objects – such as family photos, flowers, a clock, or religious items – to help them transcend the limitations of the hospital environment.
- Understanding their situation so you can appropriately pray for their healing.
- Helping them interact with their healthcare providers or other caretakers, including serving as an advocate for them.
- Just being present for them. Sometimes being a listening ear, or being in their presence, gives them strength and comfort.
Contemporary medical research further points to the therapeutic benefits of social support for sick patients. A decline in health or an acute health crisis can lead to tremendous amounts of stress. The experience of being in a strange setting, feeling helpless, and in pain can cause great anxiety and depression. Beyond the negative impact on one’s mental health, such feelings can also lead to physical deterioration. Stress may lead to exhaustion, high blood pressure, and generally impact one’s immune system and recovery process. Similarly, the experience of hospitalization may also cause delirium or post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Social support, as such, plays a critical role in helping a patient’s physical and mental health.
Awareness of this important role has a number of ramifications:
- Ritual Obligations: Caretakers may be exempt from fulfilling some rituals when taking care of the needs of the ill. This might include prayer in synagogue, sitting in a Sukkah, and other cherished rituals. Caretakers should rest assured that they are acting appropriately to prioritize the needs of the patient.
- Shabbat: At times, a very ill patient might urgently request to speak with someone on Shabbat or have them present in their room. Jewish law is sensitive to the emotional needs of such patients and is concerned that their sensitive health condition will deteriorate from the absence of their companion. Additionally, patients may need advocates or intermediaries to help them make medical decisions or speak with healthcare professionals.
As such, it is permissible for someone to answer the phone or even travel to the hospital if that is the need of the patient. When possible, it is best for a person to minimize the severity of the Shabbat violations (e.g., asking a non-Jew to perform the work, doing the act in an unusual manner), but priority should be given to reaching and supporting the patient.
Accompaniment at Last Moments of Life:
A person should not leave this world alone. When there is concern that a patient is approaching the last hours of life, a companion should always be with him or her, if possible. Family members and friends may take shifts in order to provide constant presence with their loved one.
Supporting the Support Team:
Being a caretaker for someone in frail condition or with a terminal illness is a great privilege and mitzvah. It can also be extremely difficult, both physically and emotionally. We can encourage caretakers to take steps to ensure their own physical and mental health. (See here for some tips.)
It is critical for communities to provide support to their friends caring for loved ones. Jewish communities have always taken pride in showing support during times of acute illness and mourning. Ematai encourages communities to expand their assistance to help families who are dealing with extended hospitalizations and long-term illnesses.