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Laurie Loisel: My family’s decision to tell the truth about suicide



Last modified: Thursday, April 25, 2013
NORTHAMPTON — On Dec. 3, 2012, my father killed himself. He wasn’t sick. He wasn’t depressed. He wasn’t impulsive. He drove to a police station parking lot, got out of his car and shot himself in the head with a hunting rifle he’d purchased a month before. He left in his car identification, documents with instructions about cremation, a copy of the do-not-resuscitate order he’d long kept on his refrigerator and a note to his six children.

In the days following, my siblings and I found ourselves on an emotional battlefield battered by shock, sadness, fury, hurt, despair, confusion, anguish.

We had to make many decisions together. One we were in complete agreement about was to be open about what he did. And for that, I am grateful; we didn’t complicate an already horrible situation by pretending it was something it wasn’t.

Two days after his suicide, we ran an obituary in my hometown newspaper in Augusta, Maine, that started out like this: “Paul Reginald Loisel, 83, died the way he lived his life — on his own terms. Paul spent a joyful evening having a belated Thanksgiving dinner with his family, during which many stories were told and many laughs were shared. Later that night, Paul took his own life.”

I know it is shocking to think that someone would share a seemingly lovely evening with his children, then say goodbye, and hours later kill himself in such a violent way. Trying to make sense of what my father did — both the fact that he did it and the way he did it — has made grieving the loss immeasurably harder.

When my mother died in June of 2011, I was at her bedside holding her hand. It was the sort of death you hope for when hospice gets involved: peaceful, expected, natural. Sad, yes, but somehow acceptable. (My parents had been divorced for over 40 years, so her death had nothing to do with his decision.)

My father’s death felt unnatural, unacceptable, violent and, in my heart, avoidable. He had, over the previous six months in conversations with several of us, let on that he considered suicide an alternative to an old age he feared might involve diminishment of his mental faculties. We engaged in these conversations, offering different ways to look at this, but all thought he was talking about a time way in the future when he might be too ill to continue on.

The weekend before he killed himself, sensing an actual plan was being formed, several of my siblings and I flew and drove home, circling the wagons in an attempt to put things in place to make him feel better about aging. We spent time with him, over lunch, brunch, dinner and tea. We took him to see “Lincoln.” We had many pointed conversations about old age, infirmity, dependency, a family’s commitment to one another, and, yes, suicide.

He agreed there were many joyful things in his life. His children, for one, and our families. Books from the public library to rant and rave about (church scandals and atheism among his favorite topics), football games to watch and classes to take at the local community college. He was learning to use his new iPad.

But like a lawyer arguing a case, he said from his vantage point that old age seemed unbearable. He wanted to make his own bed, drive himself to the grocery store, make his own meals. He’d seen how others had suffered. The man across the hall had a stroke that left him debilitated. His sister-in-law hadn’t recognized him on his last visit.

He was not depressed, he insisted when I gently inquired. But when he looked into what might be in his future, he wanted nothing to do with it.

Over dinner the night he killed himself, we again explored many topics, among them aging, meaning of life and feelings about death. I told him I wanted to be with him when he died, as I was with my mother. After my father hugged us goodbye and left for his apartment, every one of us felt relieved, believing we’d had a successful intervention.

Several hours later, we were awakened by police banging on my sister’s front door with the news that my father’s body had been discovered in the police station parking lot.

We could not bring him around to our way of thinking. He preferred death over letting old age have its way with him.

It’s not a choice I agree with, or even understand, really. I don’t oppose this choice under all situations — I voted in favor of the physician-assisted suicide referendum that failed in our state last November. But in my view, my father still had vital years ahead of him.

It wasn’t my choice to make, though, and I’ve read enough about suicide to know that when someone has formed a plan, there may be little loved ones can do to stop it.

As we had in his obituary, we pulled no punches about the suicide at the memorial service. And then, something rather amazing happened.

Towards the end, when thanking everyone for coming, my sister declared an intention to not feel shame that our father had killed himself.

Within seconds, all six siblings had joined her in a group hug, and when we turned around, every person in the audience was standing and clapping.

Afterwards, my aunt pulled us into a private corner while others dined in the church hall.

My father’s brother, her husband, had died in 2010, also at age 83, at his home in New Hampshire.

It was a death we’d been told was illness-related, but my aunt and cousin, near tears, told us our uncle had killed himself. Like my father, he shot himself in the head. He did this in their backyard, and they’d never told anyone.

Never mind the common practice of keeping it out of the obituary, they hadn’t told any family members (including my father). Not co-workers, not friends. No one.

My sister’s comment about shame, she said, compelled her to disclose this to us. She had felt ashamed and followed what she now saw as a misguided desire to protect my uncle’s happy-go-lucky image. So she kept a secret.

“I wish I had the courage to handle it the way you did,” she told us. “Because one lie led to another.”

We sat in stunned silence. Two brothers, both gregarious men, had shot themselves. I try to understand their actions, but find I can’t.

I do know this: If I’d returned home and pretended my father died a natural, nontraumatic death, I would have felt not only bereft and unspeakably sad, but isolated and alone.

The truth is a hard, unmovable object. But without it, it’s impossible to get your bearings. Without the truth, there’s no true comfort from others.

The surest way through grief lies in connection — in knowing you are bereaved, but not alone. The plain truth, though it may not be simple, provides a foothold.

Laurie Loisel is the Gazette’s managing editor for print.