I originally wrote this post about what to wear for a hospital vigil back in 2012 when my sister was having a procedure. Recently, it received some traffic and I received a comment and a few emails thanking me for writing it. I decided to update it so it remains a useful resource for those who may be in a similar situation. And if you are, I am sending you love and strength and a reminder that self-care is NOT selfish.
This morning I stood in front of my closet, feeling like a superficial, self-absorbed jerk. I was trying to figure out what to wear, and in a few hours, my sister was going to have brain surgery. How could I be even THINKING about fashion at a time like this?
Then I remembered all the other times I have spent all day (and all night and sometimes the next day) in a hospital waiting room, anxious for an update on a loved one. Times when my poor sartorial choices distracted me from the situation at hand. Shivering in too lightweight of a sweater, sweltering in a wool turtleneck, gas pains from too-tight jeans, aching feet in heels, constantly adjusting a wrinkled-beyond-belief button-front shirt.
Remembering that no matter how somber or stressful the situation, taking a moment to think before you dress can make you far more comfortable, as well as helpful to others.
I decided on a black and ivory striped long-sleeve tee, a red cashmere pashmina looped around my throat (Christmas gift from my sister), a longer black sweater blazer, and stretchy comfortable jeans with flat boots. I made my hair straight, knowing that when it’s that way it holds up better after napping, or if I can’t leave in the next day or so to take a shower.
I chose red, because it is a power color and a cheery color. I chose a larger pair of jeans for the added comfort level (and possible bloating from salty snack bar meals and caffeinated sodas to keep me awake long hours). Boots that are as comfortable as sneakers, but make me feel more confident and look more pulled together. Every piece with spandex so I won’t be a crumpled mess by the time my sister is in Recovery.
Clothing is armor, a way to feel strong and confident in uncomfortable or strange situations.
Clothing is a form of armor. Caring about yourself doesn’t mean you are a selfish person, but a prepared individual. By taking those few moments in front of the closet for myself, it made me far more ready to care for my sister and family for the rest of the day. A half-hour of self-care results in hours of care for others without a single thought about how I may look or feel.
What to Wear for a Hospital Vigil
This is not a subject I like to be an expert in, but over the past couple of decades, I have become quite the pro at waiting at hospitals for loved ones. I have learned that proper preparation in regard to my fashion has ensured I am helpful, quick to respond, comfortable, and not a burden. I feel comfortable seeing friends and family who come to visit, having consultations with doctors, and staying for long periods of time away from home. Here are my tips for how to have a comfortable experience as a hospital visitor:
1. Wear Layers.
Hospitals are either freezing cold or suffocatingly hot. It doesn’t matter if it’s January or July, it’s smart to wear layers. Start with a lightweight knit layer – a refined tee shirt that looks smart when worn by itself. Over that, I recommend a stretchy jacket or cardigan – something that can be balled up into a makeshift pillow or stuffed into a tote but can then be put on without looking like a crumpled paper bag. Finally, I am a huge fan of pashminas – a large scarf that can be looped around the throat for a pop of color or warmth, can be wrapped around the shoulders as a shawl or can be a makeshift blanket.
2. Wear Stretch.
Not only will stretch keep your clothes from looking crumpled over the hours, but it will also keep you comfortable after hours of sitting in an uncomfortable waiting room chair. Ponte de Roma trousers are as comfy as yoga pants but more refined and polished; a pair of dark denim with 3-5% Lycra will look great but also hold up throughout the day or night.
Pieces like button-front shirts and structured jackets will prove uncomfortable and awkward in a waiting room setting. Weirdly shaped chairs that force you to slouch, constantly taking off and putting on layers for fluctuating temperatures, and the random catnap sitting up will leave you with your bra peeking through buttonholes, strong creases in cotton, and you looking as bedraggled as you feel. While the idea of a crisp white shirt may make you feel strong at 8am, you will regret it by noon.
3. Wear Color.
Red and pink me feel happy, feminine, confident so I wear them when I feel sad or stressed. If you are to be strong or cheerful, it’s far easier to do it when wearing a strong or cheerful color. While I don’t expect you to dress like a box of crayons, adding at least a pop of color to your ensemble will show you have a positive outlook on the situation.
4. Wear Your Heart.
When my father was in the hospital just before he passed away, I went to visit him wearing my favorite sweater of his. It is a cobalt and magenta marled turtleneck that looked cool on him in the ‘70s and looked pretty cool on me with vintage jeans in the ‘90s. My dad was in and out of consciousness as I went into his room, I caught him at a lucid moment. He looked at me, winked and said, “Nice sweater, kid.” Did your grandmother give you her strand of wedding pearls? Does your mother like you best in blue? Did your partner buy you an amber bracelet in Bermuda?
If you even think of that accessory, color or garment when planning the day see that as life giving you a sartorial suggestion. Not only will it make you feel closer to that person during a difficult time, it will bring a smile to your loved one’s face when they get a chance to see you in Recovery.
5. Wear Comfortable Shoes.
You will be standing a lot, sitting a lot, and depending on the size of the hospital campus you may be walking a lot. A sturdy shoe with a low heel and a roomy toebox will stay comfortable as your feet swell during the day or if you have to wear your shoes for an extended amount of time.
What to Pack for a Hospital Vigil
When you are sitting vigil in a hospital waiting room, it's better to overpack than underpack. What you don't need you can share with another individual waiting. And variety makes time pass more quickly.
A Reusable Water Bottle
Fill up your bottle with water at home for you may not have access to anything other than $5 8 oz. bottles and the public bathroom sink once you get to the hospital. Staying hydrated will keep you from feeling sluggish and will help with circulation during long hours of sitting or pacing.
Some hospitals have wonderful snack bars and restaurants, others notsomuch. Even if you have access to food, it may not be the quality desire or the price you want to pay. Today I brought two protein bars, two apples, a bag of microwave popcorn, and a bag of baby carrots. My mom also brought her own bag of snacks. Most hospitals will have at least coffee and microwave available, but you cannot rely on filtered water or refrigeration. Find that comfortable balance between yummy comfort food and healthy choices – if you lean too far in either direction you may end up feeling miserable.
I brought my laptop, earbuds, a journal, the latest issue of Harper's Bazaar, and a paperback novel. It’s good to have a variety because you may be too distracted to be able to focus on your book, or find the Internet overwhelming. I really encourage all to have a way to write down their feelings – when you are in a position where you need to be strong but don’t feel that way, writing or typing your feeling can help alleviate the stress and keep you strong for loved ones.
It’s also a good way to journal the situation if you have a bad or wonderful hospital situation or want to let the patient know what happened while they were in surgery.
Even successful procedures can go longer than expected; having basic beauty products on hand can make your stay more comfortable. Toothpaste and toothbrush, and some face and body wipes can do a lot to help you feel refreshed after hours of waiting.
I love a face mist for for rehydrating skin after a trying day or to help reset makeup if you had a bit of a cryfest. I also bring makeup for a touch-up after a snooze or some tears; a lip/cheek stain (or a lip gloss you can rub into cheeks for color) and waterproof or tubing mascara can be transformative.
If you take medications, bring them. You don’t want to have to rush home for your pills at a time like this. Same with contacts; if you wear them bring rewetting drops as well as your case and saline solution and backup glasses for you may be there longer than expected.
Nothing is worse than having your phone die when you need it. All day I have been using my phone to keep friends and family posted on my sister’s progress and when I’m not texting or emailing, I have it plugged into a USB charger cord connected to my laptop. A wall charger is the best choice – every waiting room has an outlet or two available even if it doesn’t have WiFi. Get one of the plugs with two USB ports so you and a loved one can both use it.
If you have a laptop, bring the cord. If you have a Kindle, bring the cord. If your earbuds need to be charged, bring that cord too. And if you have a battery bank, bring it, even if you have to charge it up while waiting. Better safe than sorry.
Whether it’s on your phone, or your paper agenda book, have your calendar ready to help the patient schedule post-op appointments or plan out family get-togethers in the upcoming days.
Depending on the hospital, you may still need cash for parking meters, vending machines, and grabbing other snacks. It's worth it to pack a few dollar bills in case the wing you're on doesn't have a credit card coffee machine.
I hope you never have to use this information, but if you do please know that caring for yourself and your personal style at such a time is not selfish. If you care for yourself, you can do a far better job at caring for others. Take the time to nurture and prepare yourself so you can dedicate yourself to the health of your loved one.
Note: Thank you to all who have shared this post with those who need this information. My thoughts go out to you and I wish you strength during this difficult time. My sister made it out of surgery great. I wish the same to your loved ones. Much love to all of you!