'Til Murder Do Us Part: A Familial Tale of Death, Dementia, and Drama

Growing old without dignity: Uncle Paul killed Aunt Helen and then tried to kill himself. They were already dead to most of us.

Once the family moved away from the city and Julie started college, Paul dropped the U.N. approach and started siding with his wife on everything. Late one evening, at around nine or ten, Julie wanted to go out, challenging her mother's laundry schedule. "I married Ma, not you—so if I have to choose, it will be her, not you," Paul told his daughter. "Now, as an adult, I don't feel a parent should ever have to choose between a spouse and a child," Julie says. Their relationship was never the same after that.

The problems continued nonstop with her mother, with the briefest of breaks when Julie became pregnant with her first child. "[It's] the only time I recall my mother being happy." Over the next seven years, Julie's relationship with her parents ebbed and flowed. She never talked to them again after writing that letter 17 years ago.

The night of September 23, as Julie left the gym, she listened to a message from her husband telling her to come home. "It's important," was all he said. After a second message, she thought something had happened to her kids or her ailing dog. Ten minutes later, as she pulled up to her house, she noticed two police cars in the driveway. She stepped into the kitchen, where the officers told her that her mother had passed away. "I took it well because I was detached. I really didn't feel anything because we had such a bad relationship. I know it sounds terrible. I could tell by the way everyone was looking at me that they were waiting for the other shoe to drop."

Smoldering Helen and dweeb Paul: A match celebrated by Paul’s mother, Gerta (left), and her oldest sister, Evelyn (right).
Smoldering Helen and dweeb Paul: A match celebrated by Paul’s mother, Gerta (left), and her oldest sister, Evelyn (right).

The police told her that her father had been arrested for murder, which, she admits, was "startling": "I assumed he had just given her some pills and done the Kevorkian thing."

After they left, Julie searched the Internet for news and learned about the gun. "Holy shit," she remembers thinking.

At least, however, she would be saved the burden of identifying her mother's corpse. The superintendent of her parents' housing complex in New Rochelle had taken care of it.

Julie attended her father's arraignment the next day. When she walked into the room, the first thing he said was that she'd put on weight.

"I sat there crying, staring at his hands. I couldn't look at his face since he didn't look like the person I used to know," Julie says. She could not speak, and let her father do most of the talking. "He told me he loved my mother, and it wasn't about the sex because that ended after she had a hysterectomy: 'They took out the baby factory and left the playpen,' he said, with the detective standing in the room."

Family dysfunction aside, it's my uncle's desperate method for ending his wife's suffering that many find the most baffling. The question plaguing my family is why Paul, a semi-retired pharmacist, didn't stir up a cocktail laced with sedatives and join his wife in bed for a final peaceful slumber.

Jacob Appell, the bioethicist, says Weinstein's decision to use a gun is not all that unusual: "We already have strong evidence that elderly Caucasian men who commit suicide choose to do so with firearms at a much higher rate than others, even when these individuals are physicians with easy access to pills. Though the issue has not been formally studied, I strongly surmise that the same applies to mercy killing. Yes, some critics claim that using a gun reflects underlying anger; however, doing so might as easily reflect compassion and a concern that death occur quickly without suffering."

Just a few days before my uncle ended my aunt's life, James Fish, a 90-year-old California physician, shot and killed his 88-year-old wife, Phyllis, who was suffering from dementia and terminal pancreatic cancer.

It has yet to be determined whether Weinstein—currently at Westchester Correctional Facility in Valhalla, awaiting an evidence hearing set for February 24—was mentally lucid at the time of the incident. (He pleaded not guilty to felony murder and gun possession charges.) What about getting outside help? According to his boss, Rama, Weinstein did hire a nurse to come in, but Helen didn't like that. And a hospice? Weinstein claims he wasn't aware of it. Julie dismisses that statement, given her father's medical background.

"She didn't want anybody in the house with her," Rama says. "She was kind of picky about it. The biggest problem was the fact that she was deathly afraid of going back into that hospital. That was the biggest problem."

Or was it a failure to diagnose and successfully treat Helen's mental disorders? Plagued by depression, mood swings, violent outbursts, and obsessive-compulsive behavior, Helen no doubt contributed to her husband's downfall. So, too, did the couple's social isolation. Lacking a support network of close friends and family, Paul may well have believed he was out of options.

Says Rama: "It's a sad state of affairs when you're a senior citizen in this day and age and the only outlet that you see in front of you is to put a bullet in your wife's head and your head and end it. That's a terrible scenario. Let me tell you, I still didn't get over it. I'm still upset about it, because I think they were very good people as far as I could see. And they loved each other."

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