What to Do (and Not Do) When a Family Member is Hospitalized

This is a situation familiar to most people; either a friend or family member has been hospitalized. What is unfamiliar to most people is the protocol.

With the exception of 5 days (or so), I have spent the entirety of August and September in the hospital. Extended hospital stays aren’t something new to me and my family, but an entire 2 months is new ground. This time has been enlightening in many ways, and although I’m really tempted to discuss each of them, I won’t. Yet.

One of the things I’ve noticed during this time is that many people either aren’t sure on how to show support or are very bad at it. I realize that support doesn’t look the same for everyone, so I turned to my IBD support group to ask them to tell me what they want their friends and family to know about how to help when they’re in the hospital.

So, below is a list (an incomplete list, so please feel free to comment below and add) of some of the most important rules of inpatient support.

1. DO NOT talk about how stressful their illness has been on you. There is a great amount of difficulty that comes with being chronically ill and/or hospitalized for an extended period of time. Do not tell your ill and hospitalized friend or family member that their illness has depressed, annoyed or frustrated you. Doing so will just make you another responsibility that your ill friend/family member now has to deal with when they need to be focused on healing. If you are finding their hospitalization so difficult, imagine how many times greater it is for them. This is in no way to invalidate your concerns through this. But, if talking about this is something that must be done, do it with the right person.

If you need guidance on how to not say the wrong thing, check out Susan Silk’s giving comfort theory: “Comfort IN, Dump OUT“.

2. Always check with your sick family member/friend before visiting. Sometimes, sick people have no energy for guests and just want to rest. Other times, they will be spending their days in procedures and testing. Don’t take it personally if visitation if rejected, just understand that being in the hospital can be humiliating and very emotionally and physically taxing. Surprising someone at the hospital is usually a bad move. Unless you’re very close to this person, it is usually an inconsiderate move. I’ve seen this executed smoothly only twice; once because it was my husband and he is close enough to me that I can be ask sick as I please around him and the other time was my sister in law who went out of her way to check with family that she knew was with me to gauge if a surprise visit is something I’d appreciate. Each other time was very difficult; not because I didn’t appreciate the visit but because timing was usually poor and forced me out of rest.

3. Keep visits brief. Staying the entire day can be rude. More often than not, those admitted into the hospital long term just want to rest and will not know how to communicate that politely. So rather than receive the rest that they want, they’ll force themselves to entertain.

4. Not sure how to help? Be forward and ask. Throwing out a general statement like “tell me if you need anything” is sure to not receive much positive response. Something so vague will usually not be collected on. If you really mean it and want to help out be ver specific with your availability and what you are willing to do. For example; “I’m available all Monday afternoon and would like to help you out. Please tell me how I can use this time to make things easier for you. Grocery shopping, mowing the lawn, bringing something over to you?” This will let your family member/friend know that you’re serious and will make them more comfortable in accepting since you’ve outlined the guidelines.

5. Flowers and food are nice gestures but are another thing that should be checked prior to. Sometimes hospitals will not allow flowers; other times a person is sensitive to scent and can find a flowers aroma too overwhelming. And while everyone loves food, sometimes people are on diet restrictions that won’t allow them to enjoy what you’ve brought. The best gifts for hospital stays are practical ones; deodorant, body wash, extra clothes, slippers, toothpaste, body moisturizer, etc. One of the best gifts I received during this hospital stay was a bag of cute pjs and puzzle books.

Most importantly, please recognize that every person is different. While I’ve found that this list is generally accurate, I’ve met a few rare people whose preferences are very different. The best way to be there for someone is to show an interest and find out what they need.

I’d greatly appreciate hearing what you guys think should be added to this list!

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