Some people have been blessed with a healthy portion of tact, an innate ability to always say the right thing at the right time. The rest of us, at least those sensitive enough to realize we are not among the naturally tactful, need occasional guidance on what is proper. Common sense can take us very far but only when we recognize the full situation into which we are entering.
The Gemara (Berakhos 6b) states that you are rewarded for silence at a house of mourning. Simply understood, this means your presence alone should serve as a comfort, with speech used only as needed (although see Torah Temimah, Lev. ch. 10 n. 3). Yet that is hardly the common experience of a shiva visit, where idle chatter is often the norm. In truth, and contrary to many exhortations you may hear, there is no single template. Everything depends on the mourner’s mindset. A visitor needs to be able to judge what the mourner needs and respond accordingly, rather than follow any single preset routine.
The same applies to visiting someone sick. You have to be able to read the situation and act according to the ill person’s state of mind. Paying such visits requires a little thinking on your feet. This is a daunting task for those of us with average, or even below average, social skills. For us, a preset routine is helpful as a baseline from which to deviate if we see the need.
R. Simeon Schreiber, a veteran hospital chaplain, has mined his years of experience and composed basic guidelines that fit most situations. His book, A Caring Presence: Bringing the Gift of Hope, Comfort and Courage — Guidelines for Visiting Hospital Patients, the Homebound Elderly and Shivah/Bereaved Family, is mostly based on the common sense that comes from years of experience. While proper behavior will vary from person to person, his guidelines serve as an excellent starting point, a default position until you can read the situation.
R. Schreiber begins his section on hospital visits by defining the goal of such a visit. It is not to help the patient but to be “of service,” to be there at a time when the patient may be feeling lonely. A hospital visit is not an opportunity to offer medical advice, change the situation or make the patient happy. It is to listen, to help the patient speak and pray.
Through a sample visit he describes, R. Schreiber lists 21 guidelines for hospital visits, some less obvious than others. Among them are: knock before entering; remind the patient of your name; don’t bring food without hospital authorization (could be dangerous to the patient); don’t say you know how the patient feels; limit your visit to fifteen minutes. These are aimed at visiting a stranger, so those visiting a family member or friend will have to modify. However, they are extremely helpful baseline tips to successfully visiting the sick.
R. Schreiber also provides overviews and guidelines for visiting the homebound elderly and the bereaved. Again, these are generally common sense attitudes that people ignore all the time. He adds a very important short section in which he points out that some deaths are more tragic than others. At such a house of mourning, expect and allow for grief and don’t try to theologically justify the loss.
This book is an easy read and a useful guide. It won’t provide any surprising insights but will make you more comfortable visiting the sick and bereaved. This is the kind of book that shuls and schools should give to members and student in order to inspire chesed.