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When visiting those who are sick or dying, the important thing is how you listen, rather than what you say. If we are truly to be Christ’s presence, then it is important for you to make the needs and suffering of the hospitalized person your focus, rather than your own needs and agendas. Therefore, it is crucial to allow those who are sick to establish the tone and theme of any visit. If a person is not yet ready to struggle with his or her illness and what it may mean to that individual and his or her family, probing questions will alienate rather than comfort.

However, you will discover that more often you will be far less ready to struggle with issues of illness, dying, and death than the person you have gone to visit. It is easier to ignore tough questions or to try to comfort people with spiritual platitudes or a quick prayer. What people who lie in hospital beds want is what all of us need: not easy answers to difficult questions but someone willing to share the pain of the struggle.

There are simple ways to help you listen to and love those who are sick. Long before you enter a hospital room, remember in prayer those who are sick, both in the public prayers of the church and your personal prayers. Before you enter a hospital room, try to pause for a moment to clear your mind and spirit so you can be as open as possible to the mood and concerns of the one who is sick. Try to sit with, rather than stand over, the person, and remember that the warmth of a held hand often speaks far more eloquently of our love and caring presence than our feeble attempts to answer impossible questions.

Finally, work hard at listening closely to what is being said. Often the big questions regarding dying and death are glimpsed through comments or questions that seem almost innocuous, like, “The pain seems a little worse today” or, “I wonder what I’ll be doing at this time next year.” A perceptive visitor will encourage the one who is sick to open up these comments to the questions and struggles that may lie hidden within them. It is a listening ear and a loving heart, rather than a nimble tongue, that can turn a hospital visit into a pastoral call