What to Wear for a Hospital Vigil

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what to wear for a hospital vigil by wardrobe oxygen

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 wear for a hospital vigil and what to pack when spending time in a hospital waiting room

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.

Snacks

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.

Entertainment

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.

Basic Toiletries

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.

Tech Tools

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.

Calendar

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.

Cash

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!

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49 Comments

  1. What a comprehensive and helpful guide. I have logged many hours doing hospital vigils, first for my son, who was born at 25 weeks gestation and spent three and a half months in the NICU, followed by many stays for various and sundry issues and now for my elderly parents, both of whom have been in and out of the hospital multiple times in the past year.

    My suggestion, especially if you are acting as a parent/guardian for a child or as a medical surrogate for a parent, is to have a file in your Notes app on your smartphone with ALL the relevant information, including insurance, doctors’ names/specialties/phone numbers; patient’s medication list; known/ongoing health issues; allergies; previous hospital stays/surgeries and anything you might find relevant. DO NOT BE AFRAID TO ASK QUESTIONS on behalf of your loved one. Open a note for the hospital visit and log doctors’ names and other information to have handy — never expect to rely on your memory as anything hospital-related can get lost or confused as you too are under some stress!

    I second the dressing presentably but comfortably. Your initial visit, especially if it’s unexpected or to the ER, might be a little haphazard, attire-wise — and that’s understandable. But doctors, nurses and other medical personnel will take you, the parent/advocate more seriously if you’re put together. Again — don’t be afraid to ask question and advocate for your loved one.

    Hanging in a hospital is usually not pleasant or easy. But Alison has put together a great primer to make things a little easier for all of us.

  2. A lovely post and thoughtful suggestions! I would also add bringing a “thinking of you” type notecard that you could leave on the patient’s bedside table. Sometimes you have to leave before they are awake, or they may have been so heavily medicated/memory issues they don’t recall you were there to visit. A card can serve as a reminder that they are being thought of even when no one is there. It can also brighten up a sterile hospital space.

  3. Googling this topic in January 2021 was actually how I found this space – I was feeling overwhelmed at my dad’s upcoming heart surgery and couldn’t seem to come up with logical ideas about what to wear in the waiting room. Sadly, it also came in handy last year when he was unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer and spent months in and out of the hospital before passing away. As an internet introvert, I don’t comment often but appreciate and enjoy all the work you do here and on your instagram! Thank you!

  4. It’s a good list if you are a patient too. If you’re ER is anything like ours, you may have to wait hours to be seen. The last time I had to go to the ER, I had to wait about 10 hours, all night, before I was seen. I was miserable, in pain, tired. But because I wasn’t actively bleeding on the floor they thought I could wait.

  5. All great suggestions!! I would also add to throw it all in a small wheeled bag, like a carry on. And stuff a pillow in there if you can. Walking around a hospital/medical center trying to shoulder a big bag is not easy.

  6. Wanted to add a comment about the cash suggestion. When my daughter was in the hospital in 2021, almost everything was cashless at the large university hospital she was at. I would make sure to have both cash and cards, just in case.

  7. Thank you for posting this again. It is so thoughtful, and valuable.
    I agree with what others have already said.
    I’d add that having a paper and pen is good for writing down what medical personnel tell you. Sometimes it will be intense news, and it’s hard to remember what was said. And when I have been the patient myself anesthesia recovery wiped away a lot of memories. I relied on my family to relay what was said to me in recovery.
    My only 2023 suggestion is compression socks.They are comfortable for sitting for long periods.

  8. Wow. #4 — wear your heart — made me tear up. Such a thoughtful gesture and one I’d never thought of. I”m so sad at all the opportunities I missed over the years to wear my heart.

  9. This is a fabulous resource! Both of my parents battled extended illnesses. I kept my “hospital bag” in my car at all times. I included a list of my parents’ meds, diagnoses, previous surgeries, multiple doctors/specialists, as well as health care proxy, and signed/witnessed medical orders for life sustaining treatments that they did or did not want. Even though much of this info was stored in the system, it sometimes changed and staff always reviewed it with me. I’m fortunate that I don’t take any prescription meds at this time, but I included OTC pain relief and antacids as well!

  10. At first I thought, “wow, I must be so vain trying to figure out what to wear ..”
    My “sister” has cancer surgery in two days, and as I was making a list for when I stay with her during recovery, I suddenly couldn’t string two thoughts together on what to wear to the hospital while she was in the operating room. I’ve had so many surgeries, but I’ve never been the one waiting. Thank you for this simple, practical, and thoughtful list. I am beside myself with worry and simply couldn’t figure it out.

  11. Catching up on my blog reading. I’m glad that your sister’s surgery was a success and hope that her recovery is full and speedy! 

    I think this post is awesome! I work in a hospital and though I realize dress is not necessarily something many people concern themselves with as they wait for a surgery to conclude or while they’re visiting, you’ve provided a great number of tips that are right on! 

    I actually keep a “just in case” outfit ironed and hanging in my closet and it consists of what you’ve detailed here – a forgiving but nice looking pair of jeans, a tshirt with stretch, a long cardigan, a wrap, and socks. 

  12. What a wonderful, practical post.  I just wanted to emphasize that dressing so you feel confident and pulled-together isn’t just good for self-esteem.  I have found that hospital vigils of many varieties require negotiating with staff, asking for extra help from nurses, orderlies, and getting down to brass tacks with sometimes-arrogant doctors or surgeons.  Looking like you know what you are talking about, yet are approachable, I think, helps.  One other:  always always bring purell or other anti-bacti gel and use it multiple times daily, after touching any hospital surfaces, before embracing the patient, etc… and when you ask for entering visitors to please wash their hands, offering the gel helps.
    Again, what a great post.

    1. Yes – this is SUPER valid. When my kid had open-heart surgery (… twice), I made it a point to pack stuff that let me look ‘Presentable’ to doctors and surgeons, and having them start interactions with the basline expectation that I was competent and knew what I was doing really did help get my kid the resources and care and referrals and accomodations he needed.

      It’s unfair, and it’s an absolutely unfair thing to ask of a parent who is worried sick, disassociating like whoa, and has had 5 sleepless nights on a hospital couch (and don’t get me started on the class issues here, but anyway), but also in those circumstances, you do what you gotta do to get it done and get your kid taken care of, and break down later, right. I’ll spend an extra 5 minutes on clothing that feels frivolous if it saves me 20 minutes of arguing to get my kid what he needs.

  13. Allie, thankfully I cannot relate to this post (only having to be hospital to birth my babies) so I can only sympathise with you and your family.  The love you have for your sister is so clear to anyone who follows your blog.  It saddens me that this has happened to her and your family, but I’m sure with all of your support she will recover – she has a close, loving and supportive family, she is blessed in no small way.
    Nicolle in Australia

  14. Right on. These are perfect suggestions. Countless vigils in hospitals in the last two years, and yes, it helps to focus on our lived ones if we’re prepared. Thank you! All the best to you family…and I appreciated reading the comments.

  15. My husband had a long surgery in October, I was so glad that I took my laptop with a season of a funny TV show and earphones to the hospital.  I love to read but couldn’t concentrate on it, the TV show was entertaining and I was able to zone out a little and watch it during the wait.

  16. Allie, love your advice that clothing is armor.  I am having a rough week at work and putting together a nice outfit has made the difficulties bearable.  Thank you.  And a speedy recovery for your sis.  I am praying for her.

  17. I’m so glad to hear everything is all right.

    You are truly an example in the power of organization and preparedness in everyday life! As well as a sartorial heroine of course. 🙂

  18. Allie, I’m so glad to see the recent post that your sister is in Recovery.  My thoughts and prayers are with her and with your whole family.  I hope she has a very easy and speedy recovery!  

  19. Glad all went well.
    It is a good post too, Ali, because it really isn’t something people think about. I know I have been over dressed (went to the hospital straight from work) and under dressed (ER visit in sweats). I know it cant always be controlled, but when it can, it does make sense to think long-term. Good post as always!

  20. Thinking of you and your sister–I just saw your update that she is in recovery, and that’s fabulous.

    I haven’t had to spend much time in hospitals, thankfully, but just judging from the little time I HAVE spent there, these are great tips! The temperature/comfort thing is a big one…I’ve often worn something uncomfortable, or not appropriately layered, or forgotten to bring snacks…and that just makes the whole situation even suckier.

  21. Allie,
     
    Sorry that you’ve needed to know this.  I hope all goes well for your sister, and that the waiting time during surgery passes quickly for you and your Mom.  Sending a big virtual hug from England.

  22. Allie,

    I too have spent endless hours in hospitals, on both sides of the fence. Your advice is perfect! Thinking of you and your sister. Please let us know how the surgery went as soon as you are able to.

    Gentle Hugs,

    Chris

  23. What a great post.  My husband was in a bad accident a few years ago and I spent more than a week going  from long days at the hospital to running after my toddler.  My clothes had to work hard for me, especially because I had so little time to think about them. All your tips would have been very helpful to me at the time.  I hope I never have to use them again. 

    I hope your sister’s surgery goes well and that she has a speedy recovery. 

  24. Oh my goodness, sending lots of good thoughts and prayers your way.  I’m amazed you could put together such a lucid and helpful post given what you’re dealing wtih, but that is probably another way of coping – filling up those long waiting hours with productive activities.  I had to do a stint of hospital waiting this past summer and I would just add one thing:  deodorant. I had to rush in a couple of times unprepared, and there was lots of reassuring hugging to do and … well.. let’s just say I wish I’d had some deodorant handy!

  25. My sincerest wishes for good health for your sister!

    And if it’s not inappropriate, if you have Netflix, a funny/gets-ya-away-mentally show to watch is The IT Crowd (season one streams.)  Give it two episodes before you decide.  I love seeing actors who look like real people.

    I hope today is everything it needs to be.

    1. Great ideas! My hospital go bag includes a down puffer coat that packs into a mini-duffel. I was a frequent flier to the ED with kidneystones last year, and often froze on the gurney. Packed, the coat is a great pillow, and unpacked, not stylish, but much warmer than those so-called blankets.

  26. My thoughts and prayers are with your sister and you.

    All of your suggestions are excellent.  The only thing I would add to the list is a pair of ear plugs.  You won’t always need them, but you’ll be thankful if you’re sitting near a group of loud people, TV’s, alarms, etc.  Good just to calm the nerves, concentrate on your reading, or to take that cat nap.

  27. I hope your sister recovers completely and easily.  My husband had surgery on Tuesday this week and one of the first things I planned was what to wear.  I wore my “good” yoga pants, t-shirt and cardigan with a bright orange scarf – the volunteer lady giving updates said she appreciated the bright color as it helped her remember and find me.  Comfy shoes that included socks – so my feet would not freeze.  The second thing I planned what what to put in my bag – phone charger (!) is so important, new book, new magizines, snacks – so that I avoided the vending machinge for M&M’s.  I tend to over-plan things – but it is awful to be so very worried about your loved one and be missing something – important to the patient – or to the family member!

  28. Best wishes to your sister. This is great advice – I would add what NOT to bring: extended family, unruly kids, loud talkers.

  29. Sending good thoughts for your sister, you, and your family. Hope all goes well and that she’s soon on the mend.

  30. Thoughts to your sister and family – I hope that the operation goes smoothly!

    I’ve also spent a fair amount of time in the hospital waiting room and I have to say that these suggestions are spot on.  When you feel good, it’s easier to help others and if that means having a few moments in the morning to gather your thoughts and outfit, then so be it!  

    I’m also digging the old school Allie format you did with this post – would love to see some more posts like this!

    Once again, good luck to your sister and family!

  31. Well I am sending my prayers, love and good energy to your sister. I also know what it’s like to not be prepared while in a waiting room. The Georgetown waiting room is FREEZING! I hope you’re toasty and warm and that your sister comes out of this okay.

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