How to help a man die well

On June 4 of this year, northern Utah lost one of its finest residents—my paternal grandfather. He died in one of the best ways possible: in his sleep, surrounded by his family.

As much as we here like to focus on preventing male deaths, especially suicides, and as much evidence as there is to show that ideological feminism contributes to male illness and suffering, I’d like to take a bit of a different approach to my grandfather’s death. Despite our best efforts, the time always comes for Death to claim somebody, and when we sense that time coming, and it’s no longer preventable, we should do whatever we can to make the person’s passing easier. So, I wish to give all our readers a guide to helping a man to die well.

Understand his condition

My grandfather was diagnosed in March with Stage IV brain cancer that metastasized from a case of melanoma he’d been treated for fifteen years ago. He didn’t go in for regular screenings, and we discovered his condition when he got lost driving three blocks away from his home. At the doctor’s recommendation, he underwent radiation therapy in hope of prolonging his life. Unfortunately, the treatment made his passing a lot more agonizing than it needed to be. By the time he was gone, he looked like a skeleton. He literally couldn’t do anything on his own. Nobody could understand half the words he said. I helped him change his clothes, use the bathroom, and get to bed.

Despite what many may think, people suffering from memory loss know quite well what’s going on. My grandfather was no exception; the frustration in his voice was palpable whenever he was corrected on something. I asked my younger cousins not to correct him on his mistakes unless it was absolutely necessary. And it rarely was; I didn’t correct him when he confused me with my father, because I knew that he thought highly of him, and he was projecting both my father’s looks and personal traits onto me.

Don’t remind him constantly of his impending fate

My grandfather owned several acres of land outside of the city limits. A significant portion of this was devoted to his personal garden, from which he freely gave away potatoes, vegetables, and flowers to his many friends and relatives. My aunt and I would take him out by the field to watch as my cousins and I tilled the soil, planted seeds, bulbs, and sprouts, and covered them back up. When the days were right, I opened and closed the irrigation ditches. His garden was his second greatest joy in life (his greatest one being his grandchildren), and not being able to tend to it himself was a great frustration of his illness. Not having worked a blue collar job for over three years, I found the work exhausting. It was quite remarkable to consider that up until this year, he did absolutely everything all by himself.

Using a handicapped parking permit after getting a hip replacement was the greatest length he went to in admitting that his strength was deteriorating. Western culture today teaches men that their worth as human beings is measured by their utility, and my grandfather took that to heart at an almost depressing level. When he realized that his utility was all but gone, he was both jaded and frightened.

Reassure him of his worth

A property the size of my grandfather’s is no small task to maintain. To this end, many people from his congregation came to help. At first, he was embarrassed by this treatment. My aunt and I told him that this was his reward for all the people he’d touched in his life. I’m not sure if he ever accepted this, but I think that, at the very least, knowing how we felt brought him a degree of peace.

Help fulfill his spiritual needs

My grandfather was most likely named after Hyrum Smith, the brother of Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the LDS church. For a notable portion of his life, he had distanced himself from the church for personal reasons. Because of this, he missed out on performing the baptisms of all but the youngest of his children, which is the highlight of most LDS fathers’ lives. After he rejoined, he felt rather unfulfilled. As a compromise, I allowed him to baptize me when I was eight (the age of accountability in LDS theology). I can’t remember ever seeing him a happier man than that day. He went on to work in a Family History center, managing genealogy records going as far back as the Thirteenth Century, and organizing family reunions. His grandchildren were the greatest joy in his life, which was compounded by the PhD he held in Child Development. Family was everything to him.

For the past two years, though I still believe the theology and harbor no ill will towards the Church itself, I have not gone to church (for reasons I may go into in another article). Knowing that it would cause him unbearable emotional duress, I never told him about my inactivity. I also assisted in services when other Church members would give him Sacrament, knowing the prayers by heart.

Even if you’re not a believer, realize what a man’s faith means to him. Do not mock or belittle his self-actualization when he’s suffering.

Help meet his everyday needs

Ask anybody in an Oncology ward, and they’ll tell you that cancer in and of itself doesn’t cause actual pain—it’s an overall bad feeling, both of body and mind. During the final month of his life, my grandfather would barely eat or drink anything, aside from the occasional glass of milk or pickled herring. Those were the things that, in those days, he hated the least. He also got quite cold, even though he wore sweaters and the days averaged 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Making sure he had a blanket was essential to his comfort, and moving him whenever he requested was a priority.

Respect his wishes

The freedom of college life compelled me to grow out my hair, both on the top and bottom of my head. Though he rarely complained about it directly to me, my grandfather disliked my grooming choices. At his request, I shaved my face as close as I could and cut my hair down to CEO length. When a man is near the end of his life, he feels like he has very little control over anything happening in it. This is every bit as frightening as the idea that he’s losing his worth as a human being.

A man feels compelled, in his final days, to review the legacy he left behind. As a member of the Education faculty at Utah State, he always pushed the Department to make sure its undergraduate and graduate students were not only prepared for their work in the field, but to produce the best results possible. He was one of the first child development experts to doubt the validity of ADHD as a true psychological disorder, and history has borne him out. I read him that article as he lay in his bed, along with a few selected works of Coleridge, his favorite poet.

Respect his dignity

Though he constantly needed my help fulfilling his daily needs, my grandfather didn’t want me by him every second of the day. I would help him get into the bathroom and shut the door behind him. Here was a man who had all the ravages of a high-stress, high-activity life catching up to him, and to add insult to injury, he couldn’t even answer the call of nature alone. Keeping that fact out of a dying man’s mind won’t get rid of his maladies, but will help ease his mind.

My grandfather rarely took care of his hygiene in his last month, mainly because he lacked the physical strength to bathe himself. At his insistence, we never enlisted a home care nurse to look after his needs, preferring to do the bulk of it ourselves. Also, though it might have saved him much of the pain that arose in the aftermath of his radiation therapy, he refused any sort of narcotics. Had we force-fed him or given them intravenously, he would have felt no control over his life, and would doubtlessly have resented us all for it.

When he passes on, be there for his family

Those men who choose to build families are tremendously brave. They deserve all the help they can get, even if they’re too proud to ask for it. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, honor a man’s memory by providing emotional support and/or a reasonable amount of financial support for his progeny. He wouldn’t want his work to be in vain.

Death is never an easy thing to deal with, especially when it happens to a loved one. Empathy works wonders for people, and it is something that we must all embrace, male or female. As a great man once said, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”

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