Film Explores Elders' Life-End Issues through Father's Suicide

By Stern, Susan | Aging Today, July/August 2005 | Go to article overview

Film Explores Elders' Life-End Issues through Father's Suicide


Stern, Susan, Aging Today


Few subjects in the field of aging are as provocative as that of suicide, and few moments in a family's life can be as shattering as when a beloved elder ends his life. Award-winning documentary filmmaker Susan Stern not only endured this most personal experience but spent more than three years trying to make sense of what had happened. The result, The SelfMade Man, is being aired nationally in July on POV, the PBS forum for independent productions. Also, the hour-long film is available on VHS or DVD from New Day Films at www.newday.com.

An adviser on The Self-Made Man , Patrick Arbore, director of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and GriefRelated Services at the Institute on Aging in San Francisco, observed, 'The issues of suicide, euthanasia, aging and growing older, of quality of life, of choice in dying are all powerful concerns, controversial and important discussion points as we move forward in life. I think Susan's film opens the door to difficult but necessary and meaningful conversations. Aging Today asked Susan Stern to reflect on her own process in creating The Self-Made Man; what follows is her response.

When I studied screenwriting, someone I read said that the climax of the movie must always be a complete surprise, which turns out, upon reflection, to be the very thing that happened. That is how I felt when my Dad shot himself, on Independence Day 2001. He was 77.

I want to say right away that my family and I do not think that my father, Bob Stern, was depressed or mentally ill. Bob Stern was a successful businessman, husband and father-an exemplar of the Greatest Generation, which built postwar America. His mother died just after World War II of cancer at a time when the level of pain medication must have been minimal at best. That made Bob a longtime supporter of the Hemlock Society. He repeatedly vowed to take his own life "when the time came." But the tricky thing about death is that people today rarely know when its time has come. Modern technology and expectations have made knowing harder than ever, and-as happened in the Terri Schiavo case-this uncertainty causes anguish and all sorts of politics.

ZEST FOR LIVING

My film, The Self-Made Man, begins on July 2, 2001, when Bob felt severe lower back pain as he walked on his central California ranch to check his solar pump. He was diagnosed with an aortal aneurysm about to explode, but the doctors said his pain might be his untreated prostate cancer, which might have metastasized. His aneurysm surgery was scheduled for July 5. The prostate procedures would come later.

I should say here that though my sister, brother, mother and I are all strong individuals, all professionals, my dad was definitely the head of our family. And there never was much difference between the businessman and the family man. Dad ran the family with the same creative zest for living, tempered by an unsentimental balance-sheet mindset, as he ran his businesses. As I note in the film, you had to produce something to gain Dad's respect, and whether or not he respected us was always an open question, an account yet to be reconciled.

So it was in character when Dad sat down to make a home video on the afternoon of July 4, 2001. My mother, Adèle, and brother, Mike, were with him-but my sister Laura and I were home with our own children. Untroubled and even jocular, Dad told the video camera that he was "seriously considering ending this very nice life" before his first surgery at dawn. He wasn't depressed, he said, but was simply the businessman he had always been-calculating the "costbenefit ratio" of his future prospects as a heart disease and cancer patient against the alternative of suicide.

What seemed to bother Dad most was not that he might die on the operating table, but that he might be rendered an invalid, like my brother Michael's fatherin-law, who, in a stranger-than-fiction co-incidence, had just had a stroke, and was declining on life support in a hospital. …

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