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Death Of Father And Friend Led To 'Honest Conversations' About End-Of-Life Choices

Laurie Loisel.
Joyce Skowyra
Laurie Loisel.

In 2012, Laurie Loisel’s father Paul took his own life in a violent act — he used a gun in a police station parking lot. Two years later, Loisel’s friend Lee Hawkins, at 89, planned a gentler end to her life: she stopped eating and drinking, surrounded by friends and family.

Loisel, a former reporter in Northampton, Massachusetts, pulls together the two stories in a new memoir, “On Their Own Terms.” (This story includes details about suicide that may be upsetting.)

Neither Paul Loisel nor Lee Hawkins was facing a terminal illness.

“Both preferred to fix problems rather than complain about them,” Loisel writes in her book. “Both were feisty, stubborn and independent. In their own ways, both loved nothing more than to challenge conventional thinking. And at the end of their lives, they refused to let aging take them on what they viewed as an inevitable journey of decline and dependence. Both made decisions and then took actions that ended their lives.”

As Loisel writes, their choice to die was not easy on the people who loved them.

But she told me recently she’s always been open about her father’s suicide, including in his obituary.

Laurie Loisel, author: I feel like when you keep things secret, it just automatically brings shame. And so I didn't want to feel any shame about this. The rest of my family didn't want to feel shame about it.

Karen Brown, NEPR: Now, this is not a book about assisted suicide. Neither Lee nor Paul, your father, got specific help at the moment of dying. Both of them chose to end their lives in a way that did not involve the actions of others. Lee had a lot of support around her, unlike your father. But it seemed like both of them chose a manner in which no one else was going to have to take on any liability or any specific guilt. Do you see that as somewhat of an act of kindness from either of them? Even if that meant ending their lives in a way that others felt was too soon?

I didn't think of my father's — what my father did — as an act of kindness, but Lee saw it that way. And that's how our friendship was kindled. She sent me a letter and she said, literally, "Your father is a hero to me." And I had a lot of strong feelings about the violent nature of it, and the impact on, particularly, my children and my nieces. And it did really impact them. So I wasn't thinking that it was an act of kindness at all. But Lee felt like it was his way of trying to take care of us. And I had to expand my mind and try to look at it from his viewpoint. And she helped me do that.

The fact that he ended his life with a gun was particularly upsetting to you. But also the fact that he chose to end his life at a point that you didn't quite understand why he needed to end it — was that also upsetting to you?

It seemed premature. I mean, I guess I wouldn't necessarily have been upset about that if we had had the chance to process it together. Like maybe there were things I didn't understand. I would have come to respect that. I mean, I totally respect that it's his choice.

I thought it was very interesting that you brought up in the book that in both cases, neither your father, Paul, nor Lee had clinical depression. And family members and medical staff felt it was very important to rule that out. Why do you think that was so critical? Isn't suffering suffering, whether it's depression or some other medical reason?

Well, I think it's important because suffering — sure, suffering is suffering. But depression is treatable. So if you're thinking you have to end your life because you're so depressed, and it will never change, and then you can take medication that will lift the depression, and make you feel like you can live again — that seems important. And I do think elderly people are — their depression can be untreated, or under-treated. To me, that's something worth looking at.

To make the decision to take our own life means that you have to go while you're still capable of making that decision. And by definition, that might be earlier than your loved ones might want, when you may also have the ability to still enjoy life, at least somewhat. That seems like a bit of a Catch-22.

That is such a Catch-22, and I don't know what the alternative is. And yes, that's exactly what they both, I think, were dealing with. And that's one thing that Lee helped me understand about my father. She felt like he wanted to do this while he was still able to kind of do it on his own terms.

How has your thinking evolved about the end of your father's life? When you look back at him, and at it, now?

I do feel sorrow about it. I just don't think that's — I mean, it was traumatic. It's a traumatic way to die. It was traumatic for the people that found him. But the rest of it, I just feel anguish for his process and doing it alone. And I think about my own aging with my own children. And I hope that we can have direct, honest conversations, and not have this barrier of secrecy. So I guess, I think — I feel committed to honest conversations, no matter how hard they are.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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