Friday, April 18, 2014
Six days after my father killed himself on Main Street in Hallowell, my siblings and I found the note he'd left us in an envelope addressed "To the children I love so dearly."
He'd intended us to get the note immediately, by leaving it in the car where he presumed police would discover and pass it along to us. A few things went awry that night, though nothing that would thwart his plan to end his life.
On Dec. 3 my father -- who was not sick, depressed or impulsive -- shot himself in the parking lot of the Hallowell police station. That he had considered suicide was not news to his children, though we did not think it imminent. He was 83, and he'd let us know he saw suicide as an alternative to an old age he feared would diminish his mind.
The weekend before he killed himself, sensing a plan being formed, several of my siblings and I circled the wagons hoping to put things in place that would make him feel better about aging. We had bold conversations about old age, infirmity, dependency, a family's commitment to one another, and, yes, suicide.
We told him we valued him. We learned our father saw the indignities of old age as unbearable. He'd seen friends and relatives suffer. He valued independence above all else. Over dinner with five of his children the night he killed himself, we talked again, about aging and feelings about death. We made plans for Christmas and summer. He agreed to see a therapist. We believed we'd had a successful intervention.
We couldn't have been more wrong. Three hours later, we were awakened by police banging on my sister's door with very bad news. Our father had shot himself in the head with a hunting rifle we didn't know he owned.
In the days following, my siblings and I made a somewhat unusual decision that this was one suicide that would not be spoken of in hushed tones. We couldn't see adding to our burden by hiding the truth of what happened, so two days after his death, we ran an obituary in this newspaper that started out "Paul Reginald Loisel, 83, died Dec. 3 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."
Planning a funeral after a suicide provokes deeply conflicting emotions. Without the benefit of the suicide note that we would later find, some of us were angry and felt betrayed. At the memorial service, we didn't hide our anguish or our anger. But we also told funny and happy stories about our father. Near the end of the service, my sister declared an intention that she would not feel shame about the suicide.
Within seconds, all six siblings joined her in a group hug, and when we turned around, every person in the church was standing and clapping.
Afterwards, our aunt told us that our father's brother, her husband, who died in 2010 in a death we all thought was illness related, had actually killed himself. She'd never told anyone. Never mind the common practice of keeping it out of the obituary: she hadn't told family, including my father. Not co-workers, not friends. No one. She finally told us because she realized that shame had provoked what she now saw as a misguided desire to protect my uncle's image.
"I wish I had the courage to handle it the way you did, because one lie led to another," she told us. We sat in stunned silence. Two brothers, both 83, both gregarious men, had shot themselves.
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