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J.M. Sorrell: End-of-life talks important, though difficult

— I am writing in response to Laurie Loisel’s column on the suicide of her father. In my work, I advocate for older adults who are nearing the end of their lives. Over the course of nine years, I have met a few people who are ready to die and who do not show up with a mental health diagnosis of depression or anxiety disorder. Many health-care practitioners do not accept that someone wants to die when s/he is not terminally ill or depressed. I see it as a choice.

It is a choice that makes people uncomfortable.

Statistically, older adults are far more likely to be “successful” in committing suicide than teens. Teens and younger people with difficulty are often crying out for help. Some seniors are simply expressing a choice because of being ready to die rather than to deteriorate towards death. Other seniors accept the challenges of aging, health complications and loss.

It is essential that we continue to have suicide prevention programs for people of all ages who are well-served by intervention. I am a QPR suicide prevention gatekeeper trainer myself. QPR is an acronym for the “Question, Persuade, Refer” suicide prevention program. It is possible to support all ends of the spectrum.

My own father committed what I call Catholic suicide (with hospice to facilitate his choices). He had seen the decline in my mom’s health and her difficult death, and he knew what he wanted and did not want. He endured various health issues, and then he was told he would aspirate if he ate, so he had to have a feeding tube. Many people live full lives with a feeding tube. My dad did not want it. He was clear, and we checked him into the hospice facility where he happily sucked on popsicles for a week, always wanted to know what was on the menu although he did not eat, and my cousin smuggled in a perfect Manhattan, which he sipped from a straw with no problem. He eventually needed morphine and died.

I knew my dad could possibly live for years, and it was heartbreaking as his daughter to support his choice. It would have been worse to force him to live life on my or someone else’s terms. In those final days, I protected his space, my pug was in bed with him most of the time, I organized visitors in a measured way, and my partner was holding his hand as he let go. It seems that Laurie Loisel’s father had a similar gathering in brevity before dying.

There is no right or wrong way to approach one’s own life. Just a year or so before my dad died, he told us that his own father had killed himself. I always thought he died in a car accident on I-75 on “death hill” in northern Kentucky. What I did not know as a small child was that he was diagnosed with brain cancer and did not want to suffer. He created his own car accident. Many coroners rule things accidental because of stigma and so family members can be protected by insurance policies.

Thank you, Ms. Loisel, for your bravery and honesty. There should not be shame when profound grieving is more than sufficient.

J.M. Sorrell is ombudsman program director at Highland Valley Elder Services in Northampton.

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