Visiting the Comatose – A Handy Guide
Over the last eight months, after painful illnesses which affected them physically and neurologically, both my parents have passed away. While there is so much to process and reflect over when it comes to their lives and their deaths, there is something specific I feel compelled to address.
My father and mother had the privilege of dying in the comfort of their home but before their deaths, they each experienced a deep coma for extended periods of time. Naturally, we had our share of visitors. Close family, extended family, friends, acquaintances, staff old and new, neighbors, and veritable strangers off the street trooped through our doors to pay their respects and we felt blessed to be surrounded with so much love and support.
MashaAllah, there are countless narrations and articles written about the importance of visiting the sick. My personal favorite is the narration by Jaabir (may Allah be pleased with him) who said: The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “Whoever visits a sick person is plunged into mercy until he sits down, and when he sits down, he is submerged in it.” The visual of being awash in Allah’s mercy is a beautiful one!
Within the realm of visiting the sick, there is a special subset that exists – that is the people of coma, those who are so sick that they are there but not there, physically with us but mentally/neurologically in a place beyond our understanding. Visiting the people of coma is a special challenge and inshaAllah carries special reward because it is truly difficult to attempt what will almost certainly be an emotionally-laden, one-way communication.
Because I have a ticker tape of observations and opinions on everything always running through my head, I had many thoughts while watching people visit my parents and I would like to share some below.
Please know that the ideas expressed here are not as a result of me being judgmental of people, ungrateful for those who tried or behaving holier than thou. I don’t think I know better or that even when the need comes, that I will necessarily do better. I’m as shy and awkward as they come. Nevertheless, I like to put these notes down, not as corrective prescriptions, but as initiators of thought and discussion. I love that our generation discusses everything and we try to be “politically correct”. We might fail miserably and often do, but at least the desire to improve is there. I write things down and then you guys give your thoughts and then we agree or disagree with each other and someone, somewhere decides that they will be more aware, more sensitive, more appropriate and in the end, it’s a win for humankind. <she said grandly>
So without further ado, here is your handy guide for when visiting a person in a coma:
1. Approach the coma patient calmly but purposefully
You don’t need to tiptoe. Seriously, they’re not going to wake up. Their family has tried that already. A LOT. I mean, they WANT them to wake up. So, stomp up to them if you want. (ok, jk, don’t.) Walking gingerly or fearfully suggests that the patient is a thing to be scared of. But honestly, comas aren’t contagious. (except, maybe, between my parents…I really think they caught stuff from each other lolz). Walking with a calm but purposeful demeanor demonstrates a relaxed strength which the stressed-out caregiver will definitely appreciate.
2. Say salaams upon reaching the bedside
Just like you would greet a person who was awake, so must you greet the people of the coma. Our sense of hearing is the last to go, apparently, so chances are quite high that the coma patient you’re visiting can still hear you. Experts recommend you speak in a slightly louder than normal volume and a slightly higher than normal pitch. The key word here is ‘slightly‘. If I told you the number of people that would practically yell at my mother and father, it would fill a book! Suffice to say, it is cringe-worthy and unnecessary to scream.
It’s also worth noting here that just because someone is in a coma, it doesn’t mean that they are suddenly dumber than normal. So, you don’t need to treat them like a child and coo your greetings or tell them they are being “naughty” by being unresponsive.
3. Express words of encouragement
Encouraging, supportive words are an important part of the psycho-therapy experience that both patient and caregiver require. Your positivity will have a ripple effect! The Prophet’s favorite utterance to the sick was similarly upbeat and you should try it: “La ba’s, tuhoor in sha Allaah” (No worries, it is a purification, if Allah wills).” Some variations of all of the following are also acceptable:
- I am praying for you.
- You are constantly in my thoughts.
- Every day I recite xyz especially for you.
- So and so asks about you regularly.
- Don’t worry, you are getting better.
- You are so strong, I know you are fighting this.
- Remember us in your prayers.
Things not to say include (and these are all from real-life examples, trust you me): yelling the patient’s name repeatedly, because honestly, they aren’t comatose from lack of being personally addressed; asking question after question and then pausing hopefully for an answer (spoiler alert: unless you are in rehearsals for a B-grade Bollywood production, they won’t suddenly flicker their eyes open and beatifically answer); speaking about them super-anxiously while 3 inches from their face, “Why is her lip blistered? Why is his hand doing that? Will she pull through this or DIE??!!!!!”.
In general, you want to aim for a monologue approach where you say your piece and then hold your peace.
4. Say a prayer
Prayer, even for the most secular, is oddly comforting, especially in times of stress and sorrow, so do go through the motions as you stand beside the sick. Also, it gives you something concrete to do as opposed to blankly staring at someone in a coma.
For Muslims, it is ideal to raise your hands in dua, say bismillah and recite:
If you aren’t religious, raise your hands and mutter some kind thoughts or healing woo-woo stuff anyways. You can also ask your host if there is anything specific you can read (most people have some sort of printed booklet of prayers handy). After praying, follow the sunnah and blow on the sick person. Not on their face because, germs. Somewhere in the direction of their mid-torso should be fine, making sure to keep a halal distance.
I recognize that the sunnah practice also involves placing your right hand on the sick person’s forehead while reciting duas but given all the unknown variables (What is the patient’s immunity level like? How germaphobic are the caregivers? What is the mehram situation?), a more generic approach has been suggested here.
5. Say a proper goodbye
It is proper etiquette to conclude your visit with the patient and not just with your host. Tell the sick person things like:
Do not just turn away silently and sadly because it looks a bit unthoughtful. I mean, yes, the person is practically vegetative but to the hosts, (who you can be sure have been watching everything with an eagle eye) the sick person remains an important and dear member of their family and someone who they would like to be respected.
– – –
Of course, your visit need not be an exact replica of the above suggestions (though if it were, that would be rather marvelous). Broadly speaking though,
It is not okay to:
– Beg for reassurance from the caregiver who doesn’t actually have any answers. Asking them constantly whether their patient will recover is tension they don’t need.
– Cry hysterically as not only is that inelegant and unrecommended, it would also mean now someone feels obliged to comfort you.
– Speak about the sick in earshot (remembering that sense of hearing often remains till the end).
– Criticize the care being given. Saying how you would’ve done things differently or offering insight that is only possible in hindsight is painful to the listener who is already struggling with self-doubt.
– Share stories of death and doom. Trust me, death is on everyone’s mind when it comes to loved ones in a coma. The last thing you should do (again, true story) is spend the entirety of your visit telling story after horrific story of random folks’ untimely demise.
– Offer too much along the lines of vague miracle cures. “I’ve heard raw onion paste rubbed on the chest does wonders for stimulating the hippocampus!”, “Reciting Surah Rahman 11 times after Fajr every day for 41 days is a sure-shot coma blaster,” and things like that puts the caregiver in the awkward position of either agreeing with you (and subsequently lying through their teeth that they will surely try this wonderful idea) or disagreeing with you (and potentially upsetting you).
Apart from all of this, be neat and tidy in appearance (no one likes a smelly visitor), bring a little something for the hosts (my personal favorites are things high in sugar) and for the love of all that is good, keep your visit short – aiming at the sweet spot where everything meaningful has been said, no awkward silences have ensued, no one felt required to serve you tea and patient routines aren’t disturbed – roughly between 15 to 20 minutes is ideal.
And that’s it! Go forth in goodness and be submerged in His Mercy. May the force be with you and Allah’s shifa be all around you.
– – –