Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 836 Taking One's Own Life

This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery.

My aunt was in her early seventies when she climbed into the chest freezer and pulled the door shut. They found her two days later. No one had thought to look in the freezer. Family, friends, and law officers had searched the farm and scoured the area with no success. She had deceived everyone. No one suspected suicide. This was a few decades ago. People weren’t as attuned to depression as we are today. In retrospect, one might guess that she could have been severely depressed. Her husband was morose and withdraw. They lived on a farm, children were grown and gone. She had little social contact. She was running on empty.

This topic popped up a few days ago. One friend asked if we knew; “What group of people in the US commit the most suicides” The correct answer: white males over eighty.

“Why do people think that is a negative thing?” responded another friend – a white male, over eighty. "It only makes sense that many people when they get that old, and perhaps have severe health problems take their own life." There was no argument. However, no one had guessed that age group. My first guess had been the eighteen to twenty-three year olds. Now that I think about it – that seems like a pretty poor guess. The correct answer was my second guess.

‘Death with Dignity’ signs were popular in our state a few years ago. There was a movement to make it legal to take one’s own life with medical assistance if one chooses. Of course, there are specific safeguards attached to the initiative. The bill passed.

Suicide is a tough topic. We don’t like to accept death, let alone rush it. The idea of taking our own life is so very complicated. It is especially difficult for those close and yet left behind. I can’t imagine what it must be like.

I had a friend in college, who eventually became a pretty famous writer in America, whose son committed suicide when just a teen. My friend went into deep depression for two years. No one ever saw him. He just hid out. The unbearable pain is understandable.

A teacher with whom I taught in Alaska walked off into a snow storm one day. She was a romantic. She taught poetry. She read books. She was polite, kind and unmarried. One summer we saw her walking down a narrow country road in Wales. We were riding a bus in the other direction to descend into a deep coal mine. We had been biking in Ireland and Wales. She had told me she would also be in Wales that summer; visiting famous welsh writers homes. “Little chance our paths would cross, but…”; there she was serenely strolling along a country road in that mountainous region.

She developed some sort of arthritic condition.  One fall day she came to school in a wheelchair. I went to her room and she came out into the hall to tell me about it and weep just a bit. A few days later she failed to come to work. Understandable. Then a few more days passed and the police were called to check her condo. Everything was in its place. The condo was immaculate. The bills were all paid. The utilities had been stopped. There was no note. There was no car in the garage and no sign of violence. A search began.

They found her up in Hatcher Pass about sixty miles north of Anchorage. She had driven up a narrow dirt road into this gorgeous, rugged, remote area of mountains and tundra. She had intentionally driven off the road into a falling snow. Leaving her coat in the car, she got out and walked off across the tundra into the early winter storm. She left a trail of clothing as she walked. I’m told that as one gets colder a feeling of warmth envelopes the body. They found her unclothed. She had evidently laid down in the snowy silence and died. Her life ended as one could imagine happening in a novel. Sad, but in a way, very fitting. 

Another friend in Alaska ended his life with information provided by the Hemlock Society. At age 81 he developed a tumor on the brain that was inoperable. Doctor’s gave him a very limited time to live. He called his children and they came to Alaska for a final goodbye.

They gathered for a few days and talked. He explained his condition and his decision to end his own life. He visited the hardware store and obtained a piece of plastic, duct tape, a bottle of – I think – nitrous oxide – and a short hose. He then set up two video cameras in his bedroom to record the entire procedure. He did this to protect his children and wife from the law. He wanted a record of the fact that he was doing this on his own. He bid everyone goodbye and asked them to leave and not to return for a half hour or so. The grown children went to the car; sat for a while; then went to a bookstore/coffee shop. When they returned he was dead and the video cameras had shut down. The police filed no charges. His ashes were spread in the Chugach Mountains that rise above Anchorage, It was his favorite place to ramble.

As John Donne expressed in his famous line; “all man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.”  Perhaps it isn’t the taking of one's own life we find offensive but death itself. My experience is limited. I’m sure when a member of one's own family or a close friend takes their own life it must be especially difficult and deliver a unique understanding. 

This is Retirement Talk.





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