The following comment was so thought provoking that I thought I’d turn it into a post:
There's one topic that always makes me nervous when I'm visiting friends who are sick at home or in the hospital. How do you address how they look? I don’t mean how they look superficially. I mean how do you address the fact that they look like death warmed over? Do you lie and say, “Hey, you look great?” Or do you just not say anything about that at all?
I ran into this recently. A friend of mine had surgery over the summer. I called her to see if she wanted a visitor at the hospital and she said she did. Now, I knew she wouldn’t look her best but she looked worst that I had mentally planned for. I tried to keep a neutral face (tried not to look like “OMG!”) and just didn’t talk about how awful she looked.
What would you say is the best way to address a situation like that? I’m sure there were days during your treatment when you looked more like death-warmed-over than the beautiful woman you are. What were things that your friends said that you appreciated, and what were the things they said that you could have done without?
When you’re fighting an illness, you know that you’re not at your peak. Medications, surgeries and treatment can alter your skin tone, your weight, your sleep schedule, your energy level and your hair. Most of the time, you won’t care. But, that doesn’t mean that you don’t realize what has transpired.
I think that some people feel as though they need to comment about the patient’s appearance. If you say that a person who has been dealing with a health issue looks great, then maybe he or she will feel better or forget how he or she looks.
Is that well intentioned? Of course.
Is that necessary? No.
Whether or not we’re battling an illness, we all have days in which we look and feel our best and days in which we don’t. The overwhelming majority of adults know not to throw salt in the wound. We don’t want to be told that we don’t look our best so why would we tell anyone else that they’re having a bad hair day or that they’ve gained a few pounds?
I’m of the mindset that there’s no need to state the obvious. Likewise, there’s no need to sugarcoat it or fake it.
Hearing that I look good or look beautiful when I’m sick makes me cringe. I know that my friends are saying that: 1) because they care; and 2) to make themselves feel better. But, it takes a lot of effort to just reply with a “Thank you.”
If you feel like you need to say something positive to a patient, is there something else that you can focus on? Maybe you could compliment something in his or her room (flowers, stuffed animal, blanket, etc.), the care that a nurse or loved one is providing, a piece of jewelry or nail polish color (for a female), his or her glasses, or his or her sense of humor? Or, you could give him or her credit for even being awake during a visit?
Your comment also brings up a second issue:
How do you keep your poker face when a loved one doesn’t look good?
I think it helps to have as much information as possible before you visit a loved one battling or recouping from an illness. Will he or she have a lot of tubes or drains in? Is he or she conscious? How serious is the illness? The more background that you have beforehand, the easier it might be to process. If you know others who have already visited the patient, check with them to see how he or she is doing. Try to prepare yourself as much as you can.
I also always recommend checking with the patient before you visit him or her. Just because there are visiting hours or the person is recuperating at home doesn’t mean that he or she is up for visitors – physically or emotionally.
The goal during a visit is to provide comfort for the patient, not to make yourself feel more comfortable. Can you bring the patient something (food, drink, card, flowers, etc.) that he or she wants or would like? Does the patient need a ride to treatment or help with a child or pet?
If you’re too emotional to visit, then wait for a time when you won’t be. If you feel emotional during the visit, try to control your tears and fears until after you leave. Then take the time that you need to process the fact that someone you care about isn’t doing well. Talk to a loved one, journal, attend a support group for caregivers, or do anything else that you might need to prioritize your own self-care.
What have your experiences been as either the patient or the loved one? What recommendations would you have for the reader?