Dear Miriam | Dealing with a Non-Pandemic Illness

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Dear Miriam,

How can I best help a family dealing with illness during the pandemic that’s not actually related to the pandemic?


Want to Help

Dear Help,

So much about the past few months has led to feelings of helplessness: we can’t visit friends who are lonely, we can’t hug the people we love, we can’t force our fellow Americans into making responsible choices that would have helped curb the pandemic sooner. And on top of everything about this international disaster, life goes on, including babies being born, people dying of non-COVID causes and people getting sick for other reasons, too.

The ambiguities in Philly of “modified green phase” has further complicated matters at the moment because there’s a lack of clarity about what is permitted, and even less clarity about what is advisable. However, there is never a wrong time to reach out and tell someone you’re thinking of them.

Opt for email or text, and specify that you don’t need a response. Ask someone close to the family what they need, and see if you can tap into systems that are already in place. Don’t ask for updates, because this isn’t about you; rather, offer good wishes and a listening ear if the family ever needs it.

Meals are such a frequent go-to in the Jewish community, and it is one of the loveliest, most generous things I’ve experienced to have someone bring you dinner when your life is too overwhelming to cook. However, keep in mind that someone needs to be home in order to receive meals, and if a family is spending lots of time at the hospital, that kind of gift may not be practical.

Consider arranging a delivery to the hospital (if you’ve cleared it with the family), coordinating groceries to arrive at home through someone else who has a key, or even just sending an occasional text reminding immediate family members to eat and drink and take breaks during the day to help sustain themselves. If the family is at home, arranging socially distant, mask-wearing visits can be a huge help and comfort if the family says they’d like to see people in person.

Since hospitals are not allowing visitors right now, there are limited options of how to help directly. You can offer to be available for video chat, as it can be lonely and isolating at a hospital under the best of circumstances. You can ask if there are ways to help manage support for the family within the hospital system if you have an insider knowledge or time to make phone calls. You can make sure the family knows you’re available if something comes up, even if that need can’t be predicted in advance.

If there are children involved, volunteering to help with child care right now is extremely complicated. Only offer if you are truly available, and only if you are willing to compromise on some social distancing practices, or at least to suspend your judgement of others’ practices for the moment. Asking after the other members of the family and their needs is a sensitive way to look at the whole picture of what a family is experiencing and appropriately extends the circle of concern beyond the sick family member alone.

It is also just fine to admit to yourself that now is too challenging a time to know what to do, and to circle back to my first suggestion of an occasional text of support and good wishes. “I wish there was more I could do” is less helpful than, “I’m always just a text away,” or, “Who should I talk to if I want to send lunch to you at the hospital?” “This will all be over soon,” is less helpful than naming and acknowledging, “I’m sorry you’re going through something so difficult.”

Thoughts and prayers can be tricky if you don’t know how the family would respond, but asking for someone’s Hebrew name (for the purpose of offering prayers of healing) can be thoughtful and comforting.

We are all going through a difficult time in one way or another in 2020, but sometimes one family’s difficult time rises to the surface. If you’re able to be there for them, they’ll appreciate your presence, however virtual, and, if you’re not, it’s OK: Life goes on, even now, and there will always be a next time to help someone who needs it.

Be well,



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