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.
I try to understand their actions, but find it difficult.
Recently, I called my father’s doctor at the VA hoping to find answers. Had he been given a diagnosis that might explain his choice? His doctor was kind. She said he was in good physical health, had no signs of dementia and to her knowledge was not suicidal. “Your father was an interesting character,” she said. “Every time I saw him, he said he was ready to go.”
But being ready to go and moving forward with a plan are miles apart. My siblings and I have tried to make sense of what our father did.
The note he left helps. “Tonight, I didn’t mean to deceive you because I love you all much more than you realize. You will heal from this I know because the human mind mends fast and well. It hurts me to leave you,” he wrote. “Try to understand it’s a must for me to avoid future pain. With all my love I leave you. Please find happiness together.”
I’ve been surprised at the comfort I feel when people tell me stories about my father. “He was a very funny and engaging person who never shied away from controversial topics or books,” a University of Maine at Augusta librarian wrote us. “Just the kind of patron every librarian dreams of having. We delighted to see him walk through the front doors — and always felt enlightened after his departure. He will be missed, and remembered very, very fondly.”
A dear high school friend told me her husband loved to run into my father when he stopped for coffee at McDonald’s. One day in January, he texted her: “Stopped for coffee. Was sad not to see Paul in his usual booth.”
Those stories are a solace. I think of my father — a short, sprightly, bald-headed man, always in a hurry, walking into the library, and imagine his easy laugh as he chatted with the librarians.
I picture him sipping black coffee at McDonald’s, and know he would be delighted to see my friend, no doubt joking with him in greeting.
These are life-affirming images. They remind me that he was, after all, so much more than a man who chose to end his life by suicide.
Laurie Loisel is managing editor for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton Massachusetts.