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Note from Michelle: This practical advice could be very helpful for the people in your church who minister to members who are ill or disabled. I would encourage you to ask your pastor about printing it out and distributing it, posting it on the church bulletin board, using it as a bulletin insert, re-printing it in the newsletter, etc. Just make sure you include the author’s name: Melissa Morris.
Ministering to the Sick: More than a Checklist
by: Melissa Morris
Someone gets sick. Someone has surgery. Someone is going through cancer treatments. Until ten years ago when I had my own life threatening/life changing illness, I was guilty (unintentionally) of treating these opportunities as a checklist to be done and not really considering the person. Make a meal, give them a call, drop them off at the doctor – I mean, what’s wrong with that? People should be thankful that we care enough to be involved, right?
As the body of Christ, we have a huge responsibility to help out when illnesses occur. In the midst of all of the chaos, there is a person who has had his or her world turned upside down by a diagnosis or a surgery. People are individuals and so are diagnoses and treatment plans. There’s not only the physical side of sickness, there are also the emotional, mental and spiritual aspects to consider. It shouldn’t be a “fill in the blank” approach, it should be based on the individual.
Instead of treating our ministry as “one size fits all”, what are some things we need to consider to effectively and practically minister to someone experiencing an illness?
Cancer treatments and doctor’s appointments
It’s more than giving someone a ride.
When my mom found out she had cancer, we needed help getting her to and from the cancer center. We live 45 minutes from the hospital where she would be receiving her treatments. She had radiation treatments five days a week for six weeks.
We had several people volunteer to take her, and it soon became evident that not everyone fully comprehends that it’s more than a ride.
When providing cancer patients with a ride to treatments, it’s important to understand several things. They are weak, before and after the treatments. Whatever the extent of the disease they are fighting, it is wreaking havoc on their bodies. They may be experiencing pain, nausea, vomiting, bathroom issues, and more. Therefore, they may need physical assistance walking, going to the bathroom, carrying their things and staying hydrated. When you offer to give someone a ride to treatments and you are the only one with them, they are expecting some things from you. Please understand that it’s more than dropping them off at the door of the hospital, coming back to pick them up, and dropping them off at the door when you get them home, especially if you are leaving them alone.
What can you do?
- Remember that it’s not about you. You may be tempted to take the opportunity, especially if you are making a long trip, to do some shopping or errands while you wait. While this is not entirely wrong, there are some things you need to consider.
- Walk with them to the office where they are receiving their treatments. Make sure they don’t need a wheelchair or some sort of assistive device to get them there.
- Check with them and see if they would be more comfortable if you waited for them in the waiting room before you go off to run errands. Sometimes it makes a patient feel better if they know someone is close by. The staff there might also need you to be available if there is an emergency or the patient needs something.
- If you do leave the patient, make sure you arrive back in a timely manner so that they don’t have to wait for you when they are done.
- When you arrive back at their home, make sure they get inside safely and have everything they need before you leave them. Help them get comfortable, get something to eat or drink, go to the bathroom, etc. It might be awhile before someone gets home to be with them.
- Don’t plan anything else that day – there will be times when the person receiving the treatments might need extra care. For example, there were times when my mom went for radiation and she was dehydrated. This required her to go to the medication oncology lab and receive fluids before they would send her home. This could take a couple of hours.
Taking Food/Other Items
I live in the South, and I’m a Baptist. We treat any and every illness with food. There’s a special joy in preparing someone a dish and delivering it to them. There’s also the comfort you feel in receiving a meal from someone and you know that they prepared it with love. You sure don’t feel like cooking when you’re going through an illness.
It seems like an easy thing to do, but when I experienced surgery and a colostomy, my diet completely changed. We received so many wonderful, heartfelt meals, but to my dismay, there were many things that I wasn’t allowed to eat anymore. Some people come home with a new diagnosis of diabetes. Some have food allergies. Cancer patients might be experiencing nausea and vomiting/diarrhea. So, what can we do to make our meal ministry more effective?
- I know we like the element of surprise, but to make it easier on everyone, it would be best to call and ask if the person has any dietary restrictions. It doesn’t do much good to take someone a meal they can’t eat, no matter how good it might taste.
- If they can’t have certain things, consider taking prepackaged food items that they can easily put together themselves, but still ask for preferences and restrictions. Some examples:
Canned meat/soups/fruits/vegetables (I know that fresh fruits and vegetables are ideal, however, when someone is recovering from an illness, they may not feel like eating a lot at one time. The fresh food might spoil before they can eat it. Prepackaged and canned allows for the person to use the food when it benefits them).
Sandwich meats and bread
If you live in an area that provides meal delivery from restaurants, offer to pay for their orders for a specified amount of time.
Offer to grocery shop for them and help put items away when you deliver the groceries.
Offer to prepare and refrigerate simple items that can be microwaved or warmed up easily.
There are other items that might be needed that we might not think about.
- Cleaning supplies.
- Toilet paper, napkins, paper towels.
- Hygiene items (deodorant, soap, feminine products, etc.)
- Medications (over the counter and prescription)
They also might need you to run errands for them, to the post office or to pick up prescriptions. Whatever the need may be, communicate with the person so that your efforts can be beneficial to them.
I love to talk. In fact, after I had major surgery, the nurses told my mom that I would sleep all night from the anesthesia. I woke up at midnight and talked all night long!
But as much as I love to talk, when I was recovering, I wanted to rest. I had been in the hospital for ten days, not knowing if I was going to make it back home or not. I was discharged home with IV antibiotics around the clock for seven more days. I had nurses coming in daily for wound care and colostomy training. I didn’t get much sleep in the hospital, and, for a while, I wasn’t getting much sleep at home.
Before visiting, call the person and see what a good time might be to show up. As I was talking with Michelle about this article, we discussed that the old theory is to “just show up”. I had people show up to see me that I would have enjoyed visiting with, but I was either sleeping or having a visit from the nurse. If the person recovering has a caregiver, that caregiver might be taking an opportunity to rest while the patient is resting.
What do I say? (or NOT say)
Some people said some crazy things to me and to my mom while we were dealing with recovery/cancer treatments.
- My mom had a pastor who she thought a lot of visit her the day after she found out her initial diagnosis but before we found out the extent of the disease process. He seemed in a bad mood when he got there, preoccupied and distracted. My mom shared with him that she wasn’t afraid, that she had lived 67 years (at the time) and if the diagnosis was not good, she’d had a wonderful life and she was ready to meet Jesus. He looked up at her and rudely said, “Well, you might only have 67 more days, have you ever thought about that?”
- A friend of my mom’s from church came to see her and pray with her. As they talked, this “friend” said, “Well, Pat, you know you have this cancer because you have sin in your life.”.
- I woke up extremely depressed one day, so I actually reached out to someone I thought was a close friend via text and said I needed someone to talk to. Five days later, I got a text back that said, “Hope you found someone to talk to.”.
Don’t be that person – if you’re in a bad mood, visit another day, and as I was taught, if you can’t say something nice (or encouraging), don’t say anything at all. When I worked in healthcare, we were taught to leave our personal lives outside the door when we came to work, because they would be there for us to pick up when we went home.
I never realized until I became disabled how many things there are around the house that need to be done.
- Yard work/mowing
- Taking care of the kids
There might be adaptations that need to be made to the home, or adaptive equipment put in place (grab bars, a handicap toilet, etc.)
The person might need help with bathing and dressing for a while, and this might not be something insurance covers. I needed daily wound care and my insurance only covered three days a week. I was blessed to have nurses in my life that covered the other four days. If you are a nurse or a C.N.A., you could offer your time and services. Even if you’re not, you can be trained in some instances to help with certain medical issues.
One of the biggest issues many deal with is the financial strain not working can put on a person. If the illness ends up being a permanent disability, it can take years (it took 3½ for me) to receive benefits through Social Security. I would hate to think where I would have been had the Lord not given me a wonderful mother and a few anonymous donors to make it through. Even with those things, I had to sell my car, and some of my instruments and sound equipment just to get medication and colostomy supplies. People may also need help filling out applications for assistance, disability, or in-home services.
Some of the things from our previous lists can carry over if the illness becomes a permanent disability.
Whatever the situation, keep this one thing in mind: be available. If you can’t meet the need of the person, help seek out someone who can.
It is my prayer that this will assist you in more effectively serving those in your community. And remember, somebody can’t do everything, but everybody can do something.
Melissa is a retired long term care/hospice social worker/bereavement counselor. Compelled to give up her career due to illness, she now spends her time raising her two cousins, singing and writing songs, and traveling to different churches and organizations sharing music and laughter. Check out Melissa’s website, I Got Sidetracked where she shares her music and her blog.