I’ve lost two people to suicide recently Their deaths are making me re-evaluate the concept of dying by your own hand


CONTENT WARNING: This essay describes suicide and its impact on survivors. 

By Paul Karrer

In the last two months I’ve had a very close friend and a close neighbor take their own lives. Each took a very different path to their end.

The friend (let’s call him Jurgen) I’ve known since forever. I met him in the 1980s in South Korea, where I taught English and he taught German. Jurgen had traveled on a great adventure from his home in Bavaria on the Trans-Siberian Railway ending up in Korea. It was a good time to teach in Korea. English, German, French, it didn’t matter. Korea was thirsty for the outside world. Jurgen met his Korean-American wife there. She taught English. I met my Korean wife there too. 

Jurgen was always looking to go somewhere different. Somewhere with lots of space. Eventually he and his wife ended up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they scratched out an exceedingly rich but financially challenging existence.

My wife and I planted our roots in California, but every summer we drove 1,100 miles each way to visit Jurgen and his wife in New Mexico. And each summer, Jurgen surprised us with a new interest he’d honed to sharpness. One summer, trout fishing. One year, Navajo weavings. Another year, he’d bought wild mustangs from a prisoner-horse project in Colorado. Yet another year he worked as an outfitter for the uber wealthy who hunted caribou, elk and deer in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. He took me along with one of those horses and his then-8-year-old son. Jurgen named the horses Perestroika and Gorbachev. A pretty funny guy, that Jurgen.

After a decade, he tired of the USA and its politics and Jurgen and family scampered off to New Zealand. There, once again, he led a super rich life, but toiled to make a go of it. He briefly became a realtor, a cooper (barrel restorer), a ship’s carpenter, started a distillery producing gin (and learned Kiwis really prefer beer). Basically he was a jack of all trades. His wife worked multiple jobs as an accountant, apartment manager, executive secretary. They both worked a lot.

Good friends that my wife and I were, we visited them in New Zealand. Nearly every year. Then, many years later, Jurgen developed a limp and, a long story made horribly short, he developed brain cancer. It was operated on but, as Jurgen explained to me, “I used to think of cancer as a tumor, like a walnut. Doctors remove it and all is fine. But that’s not how it works, it’s more like mold – spreads everywhere.”

My friend Jurgen deteriorated rapidly from a limp, to limited walking, to no walking, to being stuck in a chair, and then confined to a bed. He could not sleep. But he was a guy who controlled his destiny. New Zealand allows euthanasia in terminal cases with many restrictions and checks and balances. So in June, with his family and a doctor on his side, he cheated death as best as he could, on his own terms. He decided the time and place. Not many of us can do that.

As for my neighbor in the USA. Every day, this elderly couple walked by with their Australian sheep dog at 7:30 a.m.  The couple eventually outlived the sheep dog. Still, they hobbled by at 7:30 a.m. They’d stop in front of my home and we’d exchange gossip. I’d always start the conversation with, “So how ya doing?”

The husband always replied, with a chuckle, “Still vertical. Still vertical.”

He was 92. She was 89. Once upon a time he had worked for a power company. She had been a sweet, gentle kindergarten teacher. They were married for 65 years.

I hadn’t seen them for a bit and I found a notice on my door notifying me of a memorial service for the both of them. Both of them! What?

One of them had fallen and injured their head. They went to the hospital, asked not to have unnecessary treatment and they passed away. A few years previously the husband had mentioned that he was a hunter. This led to that and he gave me some antlers for a chess set I made. So, they had guns in their home. The surviving spouse decided they did not want to be without the other. So they decided to take the gun option. It was the wife. The sweet, gentle kindergarten teacher. Unbelievable.

A few months later, I still avoid walking my dog by my former neighbors’ home. It’s too painful. It’s also hard to do, as it’s only five houses away. But they are present whichever way I go. When I walk the dog in the other direction, I see a bench at Hilltop school has both their names on a plaque. Previously, they sat on the bench and BS-ed with me while petting my dog. 

Jurgen’s son, in a one-in-a-million shot, was just hired from New Zealand to work at an aquatic research center nearby. So he’s around a lot. Seems like I can’t escape the ghosts of the dead, but it’s really nice to have the son around. He’s full of spunk, bright and vibrant. A very positive  living reminder of his dad. I need that.

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About Paul Karrer

A retired elementary school teacher, Paul Karrer’s writing has appeared in San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Monterey Herald. His podcast, “Teacher Tails,”  can be found at www.buzzsprout.com/2062370/episodes/13272401.