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To visit or not to visit: A vocabulary to better care for the sick

Students walk past McCosh Hall, home of the English department.
Natalia Maidique / The Daily Princetonian

It was a warm summer afternoon in Karachi. Our school bell had just signaled the beginning of the last period. By the time our Islamic Studies teacher walked into the classroom, my fourth-grade self was yawning and ready to go home. But a few minutes later, I was wide awake, absorbing a lesson that I have never forgotten:

Dear children, the prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, warned us that on the Day of Judgment, God Almighty will address us and ask: “I was sick. Why did you not visit me?” 
“Oh Allah,” we will respond, “How can you, who are bereft of all impurities, ever be sick?” 
“But my so-and-so servant was sick. Had you gone to visit them, you would have found Me with them.” So, dear children, we must try to visit friends when they are sick.

As it was for millions of children in Pakistan, the importance of visiting the sick was ingrained in me from a young age. The Urdu language, in fact, has a designated word for going to meet a sick person — ‘iyādat. Urdu is not the only language to signal a special emphasis on the care of the sick, just as Islam is also only one of numerous religions and ethical traditions across the world that have emphasized the importance of caring for the sick by visiting them. 

Over my four years at Princeton, however, I have experienced something of a rude shock: students often do not visit you when you’re ill. Although I am a Ph.D. student, I have also been heavily involved with undergraduate life for over a year: I was an RGS at a residential college, and for many years, my wife and I (and lately our baby daughter) have been integral parts of the Muslim community at Princeton. Invariably, there have been times when one of us is feeling unwell, just as there have been many times when we have checked in on our friends only to find out that they are sick.

Through my experiences, I have come to the following realization: at Princeton, when you tell someone you’re sick, the default assumption is that you are probably infectious — and even if you’re not, you certainly do not want company.

These assumptions are understandable, especially with the memory of one of the worst pandemics in recent human history still looming in our minds. COVID-19 was a difficult time. You could not visit your loved ones who were sick and needed you. Often, unwell relatives would forbid you from coming, or even make you promise that you would not touch them when giving them the ritual bath should the virus claim their lives. The last two years have therefore cemented the lesson in our minds: when it comes to visiting the sick, a lack of caution can be deadly. 


But the fact remains: so many of us who fall sick on campus are not infectious. My wife, for instance, suffers from psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. These autoimmune conditions affect her everyday functionality — she can no longer run or play basketball — but she can otherwise tolerate them. That is until she gets a flareup. These flareups are at times expected, sometimes unexpected, and always painful. During these times, she needs people close by to support her. To listen to her pain. To make her laugh. Bring her sushi, ice cream, or freshly cut fruit. And she’s not alone in wanting company when ill. 

So many of our friends on campus express how lonely they have felt when they have been physically weak. A “Feel better!” text simply feels insincere when it is not followed up, at the very least, by messages enquiring about the nature of the sickness, texts that indicate a genuine attempt at knowing what the other person is feeling — and, therefore, what you can do to help. Perhaps they don’t want a text. Perhaps they want a hot meal. Perhaps they want to be hugged. Perhaps they just want someone close by.

The question is, how do you know if a sick friend wants to be visited? People respond differently to illness, and the same person suffering from the same condition at one point might respond differently at another point. The easiest way, therefore, would be to simply ask them. Yet given the emphasis-verging-on-obsession in this campus on “intruding on private space,” some feel that even asking, “Do you mind if I come over?” might put more pressure on an already-suffering student because they may be too polite to say no (as if the alternative of not asking the question and not visiting a sick friend who wants company is any better!). 

I propose, then, that we normalize a vocabulary whereby we can better communicate about illness, so we can give friends who are feeling unwell the care they need without intruding on them. We can categorize illnesses into two types. Type 1 illnesses would be those where you would appreciate the company. Type 2 illnesses would be those where you would not appreciate the company.

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In practice, this means that next time someone tells us that they’re sick, we can ask them: is it Type 1 or Type 2? Even if they say Type 2, they would appreciate that they are cared about enough that someone is willing to take time out and visit them when they’re down. In fact, I believe that by adopting this vocabulary, the sick will feel empowered to better express their wishes. That is, next time I’m unwell, I could simply reply to the banal “How are you doing?” with “Just been having some stomach trouble lately. Type 1 tbh.” 

By making communication more meaningful, this vocabulary would help remove some of the veils that prevent us from connecting. This is especially important in a culture where human relationships are increasingly understood via metaphors of the market, where “friendships” are increasingly euphemisms for networking and socializing, and where being a good friend is rebranded as performing emotional “labor.” In such times, the emptiness of a “How’s it going?” texted or spoken at a chance encounter is not lost on those for whom it is not going so well. But what can you reply other than the meaningless “Good!” before feeling compelled to return the hollow gesture of care by remarking, in turn, “How about yourself?”

And, finally, if you do make the visit, what can you do? I find that we may benefit from the advice offered by a delightful book that my daughter was gifted recently, “How Do You Care for a Very Sick Bear?”

“You can call her, or visit, and tell her the news.

You can bring her cards, and books, and things to do.

Games are fun.

Snacks are fun, too.

Your friend Bear might look different; she might have less hair.

She might be too tired to play.

And that might feel scary.

Your friend Bear might feel scared, too.

But seeing you and having you near helps her feel better.

And it helps you, too.”

Hasan Hameed is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department. He can be reached at hhameed[at]

Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect [at]