A matter of life and death: Writer Laurie Loisel addresses suicide and end-of-life decisions in new book

  • Lee Hawkins at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence in late July 2014. She was a member of the society for more than 20 years and this was the last time she attended. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Becky Hawkins with her mom after a hospice team meeting is winding up. The meeting was to make sure Lee was of sound mind to make the decision to end her life and that everything was in order for her to stop eating and drinking. In the background Jerry and Sue Hawkins chat with Andree LeBlanc-Ross, Lee's hospice nurse. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hospice nurse Andree LeBlanc-Ross talks with Lee Hawkins at a hospice team meeting Aug. 13, 2014. Looking on are Lee's children, Jerry Hawkins and Sue Hawkins. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • As she was getting closer to the time she would stop eating and drinking, Lee Hawkins, left, spent more time with her children, including Becky, at right. The two went through Lee’s rolodex desk deciding who they would the children would want to stay in contact with and what contacts would no longer be needed. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • This photo and others here appeared with Laurie Loisel’s Daily Hampshire Gazette series on the death of Lee Hawkins, who died Sept. 2, 2014. Loisel’s book on reporting Hawkins’ story and how it helped her understand her father’s death, is being launched on Sunday, Nov. 17.

  • After Lee died, her children washed and dressed her, and then sat with her in quiet. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lee Hawkins chats with her minister, The Rev. Janet Bush, of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lee Hawkins with her son Jerry Hawkins. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lee Hawkins and Sue Hawkins Aug. 27, 2014, when Lee had entered her second week of not eating and drinking. Photo by Carol Lollis. Inset photos from top to bottom: Paul Loisel, cover of “On their own terms” and Laurie Loisel with her father Paul.

  • Laurie Loisel, right, with Lee Hawkins. COURTESY PHOTO

  • Author Laurie Loisel stands with her father, Paul Loisel, who ended his life in 2012. COURTESY PHOTO

  • Laurie Loisel

  • Paul Loisel COURTESY PHOTO

  • A Loisel family picture with Laurie Loisel, seated in the center, and her father Paul, second from right. COURTESY PHOTO

Hampshire Life Editor
Published: 11/14/2019 4:52:45 PM

“I think this summer is the time to end my life — probably in August.”

Those words spoken to longtime Daily Hampshire Gazette writer and editor Laurie Loisel by friend Lee Hawkins in June 2014 set in motion a rare opportunity for a journalist: the chance to report on the process of someone ending her life. Loisel, with the permission of Hawkins and her family, spent the final days of Hawkins’ 90-year life witnessing her go without food or drink until she died.

The three-day series appeared in the Gazette in September 2014, and was called “Life, Death & Lee.”

Loisel has expanded this series into a book both about her experience with Hawkins and the suicide death of her father, Paul Loisel, which took place less than two years earlier on Dec. 3, 2012, when he was 83. “On Their Own Terms: How one woman’s choice to die helped me understand my father’s suicide” will be officially launched at an event at on Sunday, Nov. 17, at 1:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence at 220 Main St. Loisel will read from the book and said she hopes there will also be a discussion of end of life options and decisions.

Death is a topic we all must face — our own, and that of the ones we love. Yet the taboo of discussing death openly, especially in the case when someone is considering ending their own life, often makes conversations on the subject rare.

Forthright and inquisitive, Loisel is not one to shy away from asking difficult questions or making truthful observations, and the book follows her personal journey of learning about and coming to understand the decision to die, both for Hawkins and her father. The book, and the Gazette series it is based on, provide a service to all of us struggling to comprehend such a weighty decision and a look at what the end of our own lives might bring.

And for Loisel, what comes through is her yearning to understand what brought her father to his decision, her struggle with anger at him for ending his life, and how her decision to be open about the way he died led her to connect intimately with Hawkins and observe her end-of-life journey.

“It wasn’t just the experience of watching, but the experience of writing about it,” Loisel said in a recent interview. “I was just able to forgive my father for making the decision that he made. He made the decision that was right for him.”

As Loisel notes in her introduction, her father and Hawkins had little in common, but what they did share were some important personality traits: stubbornness, feistiness, a preference for fixing problems rather than complaining and a love of challenging conventional thinking. From the first moments of her book, Loisel paints a lively picture of both individuals who would go on to end their lives — including her father’s sales schemes and love of dancing, and Hawkins’ commitment to social justice and her outspoken nature.

As I expect will be the case for many who read Loisel’s book, the passages led me to think of those close to me who have died. The book especially brought to mind my grandmother, Herta Eisenstadter, whom I called Oma — German for “grandmother.”

Oma died at age 88 at the end of 2010. My family had all recently gotten together for our annual Jewish-Christmas celebration in New York City, where Oma lived most of her life after escaping Nazi-controlled Austria in the 1930s. A few days later and quite suddenly, she experienced a large tear in the inner lining of her aorta, and had to be rushed to the hospital. The only way to repair the damage would be surgery — the artery’s outer wall would not hold for long. But she refused the operation, deciding she had lived her life and that it was time to leave it. Instead, she spoke to a palliative care doctor for relief from pain and spent her final day with family.

Driving down from New Hampshire, where I lived at the time, I was the last of a series of relatives who came to see her. I participated in her final conversation and witnessed her final breath. I asked her whether she was afraid, and among the last things she said was that she was not.

In the months after she died, I spoke to my dad — her son — about it, and it became somewhat clearer why she felt that way. Her real fear was to lose the ability to live independently, lingering in a nursing home and becoming a burden to her family. She may have seen her sudden heart complication as an opportunity to avoid the fate of her own mother, who was in a nursing home for years before dying at age 99. While I was never aware that Oma made a specific plan to end her life, among the possessions in her home when we cleared it out were two end-of-life books detailing how to do so.

As Loisel makes clear, both her father and Lee Hawkins were relatively healthy, but wanted to leave this life before something bad happened, potentially leaving them unable to care for themselves. In Loisel’s father’s case, he had a fear of dementia and wanted to die before losing his mental abilities.

“There’s a lot of focus on ‘death with dignity’ and medical aid in dying when you have a terminal diagnosis … but there’s not as much focus on people like Lee and my father, that don’t have a diagnosis,” Loisel said in an interview, adding that it is a necessary part of the end-of-life conversation.

What is striking reading the book is the difference in the way the two of them go about ending their lives. In Paul Loisel’s case, he discusses the possibility that he will kill himself with some family members, but in the end shoots himself without telling anyone. In the book, the author is horrified by the violence of the act, as well as the secrecy with which he went through with it. Hawkins goes about it in a different way, involving her family not only in the discussion, but in the actual process of ending her life.

The original newspaper series about Hawkins’ death, printed Sept. 23-25, 2014, in the Gazette, is reprinted in the book, accompanied by photos taken by Gazette photographer Carol Lollis — some of which are included with this story. In the series, Loisel explains how Hawkins came to her decision — that she disagreed with spending vast sums on end of life medical care, that she refused to live in a nursing home and that she had decided she was physically ready to end things. Hawkins’ method of death, refusing food and drink, is not often discussed, and is also perfectly legal. She picked it because it felt natural and peaceful, Loisel reports.

Following along with Hawkins and her family as she goes through the months-long planning process is emotional as Loisel reports the moments of closeness between Hawkins and her family members, from a meeting with hospice and palliative care specialist Dr. Jeffrey Zesiger to an ice cream social the family throws for some of Hawkins friends to say farewell. The final installment of the series deals directly with Hawkins’ final days, in which family members looked after her, using a monitor to listen when they weren’t in the room with her, and read to her and offered her pain medication. Loisel chronicled the physical and mental changes Hawkins went through as her body deteriorated and eventually expired. The series ended with a description of harp music playing as Hawkins’ three children stood with her in the final moments of her life.

Interspersed with these pieces, Loisel includes a chapter about how Hawkins’ friends, including Loisel herself, reacted to her decision. After the reprinted stories, she talks a bit about the reaction to the publication of the series, then she concludes with a return to her own father’s death, seen in a new light after the experience of observing Hawkins.

Some objected to Loisel’s choice to report on such a personal matter as Hawkins’ death, and others will likely feel uncomfortable with the book as well. We have a powerful taboo in our culture of avoiding the topics of both death and grief, and such things can be difficult to overcome.

This is Loisel’s first book, and the project started when many of her friends and acquaintances asked she release a collected version of the series as a discussion prompt. She contacted Steve Strimer at Levellers Press, who agreed to publish it.

What Loisel has done is a real gift, not only offering us insight into two people’s decisions to end their lives, but also into her own grief and how she processed the death of her father over time. Included as addenda are her father’s and Hawkins’ obituaries, her father’s suicide note, and a letter Hawkins sent Loisel stating that she admired her father for his decision. There are also a couple of pages of discussion topics for people who have read the book to talk through.

We don’t talk nearly enough about end of life options, and Loisel’s well-written work is a step in the direction of openness and communication.

As for Loisel’s own end of life thoughts — the process of writing the book made her realize that she wants to be open about the decisions she makes with her family, whatever they wind up being.

“I want them to fully understand my feelings about end of life stuff so nothing is a surprise,” she said.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@gazettenet.com.

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