According to the doctor, the man’s widowed father is dying. Probably six months. Though it could be eight. Or three.
The man loves his father. He speaks of him with admiration, gratitude and good memories. He’s a lucky son. A son who knows his father’s blessing. He carries his father’s pride with … well, great pride.
And all he wants now is to be a good son. A blessing to his father in a time of need. To serve his father faithfully in this time of great vulnerability. To wait on the father. To dote upon him. To squeeze every conceivable drop out of these last weeks, days, hours.
But, his direct questions and direct suggestions are all thwarted. The father is withdrawn. Recalcitrant. Absent ambition or initiative. Conversations are like pulling teeth. Efforts, ideas, suggestions are shrugged off or rejected outright. Above all, the abiding rule seems to be, We Don’t Talk About Dying.
Finally the son asks, point blank, “Is there anything I can do for you?” And the answer is no.
It’s likely the father isn’t hearing the plea behind the question. The son has been a good son, and he has even more reason now to want to be a good son. If he has to grieve his father’s death, he wants to grieve knowing he contributed meaningfully to his father’s peaceful passage. He wants to give back something of the lifetime of blessings he has received. Not to mention he wants to remain close to his father until the end.
But he doesn’t feel close. He feels pushed away. It doesn’t seem logical, likely, or even accurate, but still, the son feels somehow rejected.
I tell the man I have two questions for him. First I ask, “Do you agree that it is very painful to be disappointed in someone you love?” The man says yes, he agrees. “So, here, then, is the thornier of the two questions,” I say. “Are you disappointed in the way your father is deciding to handle his death?”
The man’s eyes blaze. He nods his head and exhales a long breath.
It was my honor to spend several important years working in the hospice industry. Part of my job was training hospice volunteers. And, one component of the training is reminding people, over and over again, that people have individual ways in which they arrange the context and circumstances of the last days of their lives. Some of the patients want to talk about dying. Some of them never once talk about dying. Some of them prefer to talk about the National Football League playoffs. Or flowers. Or items in the news. And some of them don’t talk much at all.
The rule in hospice was that our patients are free to face mortality — theologically, existentially, socially, interpersonally, psychologically, legally — in pretty much whatever way they prefer. It’s their death. The experience belongs to them.
In our culture, mortality isn’t something we’re very good at. Dying people, and perhaps especially dying men, often struggle with a very human pride. I admit I’ve never heard a patient say this. I’m observing the struggle as argued backward from the withdrawing, taciturn, sometimes even antagonistic mood and behavior. Dying is embarrassing. A kind of humiliation. It’s not easy to be waited upon. Emotionally, it’s very hard for some men to see the anticipatory grief in the eyes of their mates, their children and grandchildren. It’s not easy to see how profoundly you are loved, especially when the cost of that love for your loved ones is a ravaged heart.
No wonder these men say, “Now don’t cry,” or sometimes even, “I don’t want there to be a funeral!” Easier to withdraw than to gape in these vulnerabilities.
But the withdrawal feels like rejection.
I urge the man not to personalize what’s happening. I push the man to consider some indirect strategies for connecting, relating and talking. Ask curious, conversational questions about the past. Ask about your father’s life work. His greatest joy. His greatest adventure. Pretend you stumbled across some photographs and, in passing, you had some questions.
When a man’s pride barricades the front door, have some fun sneaking in the back door.
Some folks’ last words are profound, deeply spiritual, reconciling, moving. Other folks’ last words are, “Could someone please turn down the thermostat.” Both are perfectly fine ways to die.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or email@example.com.