As a grown-up, I traveled to a hospital once to visit a friend who’d had surgery. A mutual friend accompanied me. I watched his anxiety with amusement. He was anxious about how to find the elevators, anxious about reading the hospital map, anxious about the visit itself. I discovered that this otherwise rational, intelligent adult was uneasy and uncomfortable in hospitals. Meanwhile, I felt relaxed and confident.
It took a while to understand why. Finally, I blurted to him, “but I’ve been doing this since I was a kid!”
And it was true.
My regularly ill grandparents had been hospitalized locally from time to time and my Mom would take me to see them for brief visits.
Later, when she entered pastoral ministry, she occasionally took me with her on hospital visits. I wasn’t completely conscious at the time of all that I was learning.
And in the past year, my young son has put on his beloved fedora and accompanied me to the hospital – twice. Once when he was three, once when he was four.
I can hear the gasps. “You’re a pastor and you took a three year old on a hospital visit? You’re brave!” Or even, “but that’s unprofessional!” Or “I’d never have the nerve to take my kids on hospital calls, what if they act up?”
So here’s why I think it’s valuable to take kids with you to hospitals, and a few tips on how to have a good visit.
When you take a child to visit someone who’s ill, it teaches them to think of people other than themselves. It inherently widens their perspective and begins to instill compassion. You can frame it something like this: “So-and-so is sick. We want to let them know we love them and are sad that they don’t feel well. Let’s pray for them, and let’s thank God that today we feel good.” After I took my four year old son to visit an elderly church member, I wasn’t sure what he would take away from it. I found out a couple nights later. “Jack, who do you especially want to pray for tonight?” “For Bobbie who we saw in the hoppitall.” I was surprised but pleased. So we prayed for Bobbie.
When you take a child to visit someone who’s ill, it provides your kid with an opportunity to ask about sickness, bodies, and death. I know – not conversations any parent relishes having. But kids learn about these concepts either through deliberate chats or through osmosis – and when they learn through osmosis, you don’t know what misunderstandings or fears they may be developing. These don’t have to be conversations that breed neuroses (either for kid or parent!), but rather are opportunities to talk about faith, pain, hurt, loss, death, resurrection, and hope. And, dear ones, if you have unsettled emotions about some of these topics, you’ll likely be avoiding them whether you realize it or not. I find one of the most helpful things to keep in mind is the simple phrase “age appropriate.” How can I answer the questions my kid has both honestly and age appropriately? If you feel ill-prepared, take advantage of some great resources out there; you and your kids can grow and process together.
When you take a child to visit someone who’s ill, it gives them a great foundation for future hospital visits of a more personal nature. If you take kids to a hospital, then when it’s their grandparent or even parent or themselves, they have some frame of reference for the experience. And it has introduced not only the sensory world of elevators and hospital beds and IV racks, but also some concepts that may help guide them through grief and pain. Which is easier, to talk about how sometimes bodies don’t work right before a beloved grandparent is in the hospital, or in the midst of a crisis when you as a parent are likely upset as well?
And when you take a child to visit someone who’s ill, you brighten the day of a lot of people. When my four year old accompanies me in his jaunty fedora and rain boots, I see a wave of grins spread over the faces of nurses and aides, of doctors and family members, and of the patients themselves. Hospitals are difficult environments. A large percentage of doctors are burned out. Nurses encounter difficult or rude or racist patients. Dealing with the loss of a patient can be hard on physicians. Those in the medical field work long hours away from their own kids. Children can be – they are not always, but they can be – a ray of sunshine on a difficult day.
So what are some steps you can take to guide the experience into “ray of sunshine” territory and not “hurricane of disaster”?
1.) Describe what kids will likely see and prepare them in advance for what will be said and done. The first time I took Jack – a three year old obsessed with vehicles and machinery – I emphasized that sensory world of motion. We will park in a parking garage with lots of cars. We’ll walk across a street with lots of traffic. We’ll go into a building and visit the potty. We’ll ride an elevator way up high and would take a break to look out the window at all the cars far below. We’ll spray foam hand sanitizer on our hands. We‘ll go to her room where she is lying in a bed that bends up with lots of buttons. Important buttons. Buttons we’re not allowed to touch. She might have a tube in her arm that puts medicine in her body. When we go in, he should say he hopes she feels better soon. Mama will ask her how she’s feeling and will listen while she talks. Mama will pray. We won’t stay long because she’s sick and doesn’t feel good. We’ll leave the room and spray more hand sanitizer on our hands. Then we get to ride the elevator again. And if Jack follows hospital rules, he will get a prize from the prize bucket when he gets home.
He got the prize.
2.) Choose visits that you know aren’t end-of-life or requiring special visit gear. There are many hospital visits you can make appropriately with kids. But use common sense: if a person is in the last days of his life, likely there will be a lot of family in the room; you may be able to take a 12 year old into that environment, but not a four year old. Often, surgeries don’t start when they are supposed to or end at the estimated time – not a good environment for attempting to care for the needs of a small child while connecting with family members. If someone has an infectious disease or compromised immune system for which you have to wear a mask or gown and gloves, you’re looking at a solo visit. In this context, spiritual care for the patient is primary and the gravity of the situation will dictate the appropriate availability of the spiritual caregiver.
3.) Keep it short. Usually, those in the hospital don’t feel well – something so obvious it can easily be forgotten. And most patients aren’t willing to tell friends or extended family that the three hour visit is tiring them out. If they’ve had testing or a procedure done that day, they’ll likely be particularly drained, and some medications will leave them woozy or nauseous or confused. So keep it short, but leave a token – kids particularly enjoy presenting flowers or a balloon or even a card. And when you keep the visit short, you’re able to curtail it before the small fry gets bored or distracted.
One of the side effects of the amazing specialized hospital care we have in modern life is individualization – most North American hospitals don’t have “wards” anymore, communal rooms. And with this individualization comes certain barriers. But the Body of Christ is called to be community – with. I believe physical presence matters; it is important. We must physically be with those in hospitals, in nursing homes, in Hospice care. If someone is sick or dying we act as if we must stay away. Instead, let’s act like we can’t stay away. And let’s teach our kids to feel comfortable in medical environments. What if physicians in every hospital knew Christians by their willingness to quietly, cheerfully, sensitively share their time with the ill, or knew them as the people who were always leaving snacks or flowers for the break room?
Now that could revolutionize health care.