They wanted to leave this world together, on their own terms, and so on Oct. 27, Carl and Susan Chase held hands in their favorite spot at home overlooking Horseshoe Cove in Brooksville until death came.

Carl, an accomplished sailor and musician, was 77.

Susan, a renowned sculptor and art teacher, was 75.

The Chases died by suicide, but they wrote in a letter published this month along with their joint obituary in The Ellsworth American and Bangor Daily News that their decision was neither irrational nor desperate, but reasoned.

“We have enjoyed generally good health until the last few years, when it has started to become clear that the body is wearing out,” they wrote. “Where most people these days tackle every medical issue as it arises, we’ve chosen not to spend our last years in an escalating battle against our body’s failures, take more and more pills, signing up for exhausting operations, waiting for the next issue to show up.

“Dying is natural, and inescapable. We see nothing good about stretching the process out over as many years as possible.”

The Chases wanted their reasons known to the world, but by doing so they have provoked an intense and uncomfortable conversation about death and choice. Suicide experts also said there is real risk that their deaths could be framed as normal and could inspire others to choose suicide.

Greg Marley, clinical director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine and an expert in suicide prevention, said he’s always mindful about suicides that become public because of the risk of contagion or copycat behavior.

“We want to be careful that we do not sensationalize a suicide or glamorize suicide as a way to deal with a crisis,” he said. “The published obituary for Carl and Susan Chase paints a compelling and idealized picture of a couple dying together lovingly holding hands. The mental image is one of peaceful connection in death and may seem inviting to someone struggling with the complexity of living with a chronic and/or debilitating illness.”

Suicide rates have risen slightly but steadily over the last two decades and Maine’s rate – 18.9 per 100,000 in 2017 – is higher than the national rate of 14 per 100,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 274 suicides in Maine in 2017, up from 226 in 2016. The highest rate is among males 75 and older.

It was only a few months ago that Maine passed the Death With Dignity Act, which allows physicians to administer lethal medication to terminally ill patients. Debates over such laws, both here and elsewhere, have been emotionally wrought. Supporters say choice should be paramount. Critics say such actions are anathema to a doctor’s fundamental principle of do no harm. Opinions are still evenly split – Maine’s law passed the 151-member Maine House by a single vote – but the conversations have become more common.

The Chases’ situation, though, is more complicated because neither appeared to have a terminal illness.

“My initial thought is this is two people who made a very deliberate decision,” said Dr. Linda Durst, chief medical officer at Maine Behavioral Healthcare and chairwoman of the psychiatry department at Maine Medical Center. “They wanted some autonomy and control and they took action.”

Durst said she, too, sees the risk in normalizing suicide among the elderly, but she’s not worried about this becoming a trend.

“The drive to live is very strong,” she said.

The Chases’ deaths surprised family members, including siblings and the couple’s two grown children, Jennifer and Nigel, as well as friends and townspeople. Alison Chase, Susan’s sister and a well-known dance choreographer, said the family was still working through its grief and was not ready to talk publicly.

Carl and Susan seemed to sense that their decision might not be well received by everyone. They even apologized for keeping it a secret.

“There was no good way to schedule it without having to involve others. That was unthinkable,” they wrote. “Although we are blessed with wonderful family and friends this was too personal to share with anyone.”

***

Carl was born and raised in Connecticut; Susan in New York and then St. Louis.

He found his two life’s passions – sailing and music – early on. At Phillips Exeter Academy, he played flute in the school orchestra and guitar on the side. He took a year off between his junior and senior years to work as a deckhand on a Norwegian freighter. He returned and enrolled at Harvard, majoring in music.

Susan had built a foundation in art and sculpting by high school and carried that with her to Newcomb College in Louisiana.

The two met in Maine in 1964 as counselors at Alamoosook Island Camp in Orland, about a half-hour north of Brooksville, where they would later settle.

They married two years later and celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 2016, a milestone only 6 percent of marriages reach.

Their daughter was born in March 1967, and two months later, the family set sail around the world in a 60-foot schooner and made it as far as Guyana on the northern edge of South America. They returned and settled in Camden. A year later, their son, Nigel, was born.

Coastal Maine suited them and within a couple of years, they had moved up the coast slightly to the town of Brooksville. They built their home there in 1974.

That same year, Carl started his first steel band, after discovering the music style while sailing in the Caribbean. He also opened a boat shop with his brother Peter, who died in 2015, and captained a series of sailboats.

Susan apprenticed with a local goldsmith for five years before opening her own Harbor Studio.

Carl and Susan left Maine in 1981 for Cape Cod, where Carl taught nautical science at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole and captained the Westward, a research vessel, and Susan developed art programs at two different schools and got her master’s degree in sculpture.

He gave up sailing professionally in 1986 and focused on music. He booked gigs, launched programs at schools and made and sold his own pans, or steel drums, a skill he learned in Trinidad, where the instrument originated.

They returned to the home they built in Brooksville in 1991 and stayed until their deaths.

Susan’s sculptures would be featured in galleries throughout Hancock County. Many were large, outdoor pieces made of stabilized adobe. She also taught art at several area schools. In 2013, she opened Sculpture Woods in the couple’s backyard to display some of her work and showcase others as well.

Carl continued to lead steel bands. A 2001 feature in Boston Globe Magazine referred to him as the “undisputed pied piper of steel band music in northern New England.”

One of those bands, Flash in the Pans, was founded through the adult education program at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill and is well-known throughout Hancock County and beyond.

Sandy Baroody of Sedgwick, who played in steel bands with Carl, said his music will live on.

“There are any number of songs arranged by him that have the ability to make me smile, and I frequently stop and take the time to play them just for kicks,” she said. “Perhaps more so now than ever before.”

The Chases still sailed, on a former sardine carrier they bought and later, a small lobster boat.

***

In the letter explaining their decision to end their lives, the Chases said they loathed the thought of being a burden to loved ones as they continued to age.

“We dread becoming useless, using up more and more resources and attention, and contributing less and less in return,” they wrote.

Carl wrote of hearing loss and failing knees and “ongoing medical issues which I’ve chosen to ignore rather than fight because an old age spent fighting losing battles is not a life I want.”

Susan feared dementia “looming as a crouching demon.”

“I do not want to lose my mind,” she said.

But there was something else that fed their decision, something more existential.

“While it is always possible that things will turn around for the better for the human race here on earth, it is impossible to imagine that it could happen anytime soon – certainly not in any possible lifetime of ours,” they wrote. “The pressure of over-population is bringing about the destruction of civilization, and will eventually cause the extinction of our species as we make the planet unfit for ourselves. This process is already well underway. As a consequence, truth, decency and rule of law are disappearing daily right before our eyes, leaving no system or social structure capable of managing the mess.”

“It is hard to be cheerful when confronted by the daily news. We’ve seen more than enough of it already. We have no desire to be further witness to it.”

Linda Nelson, who co-founded Opera House Arts at the Stonington Opera House, knew the Chases through the arts community but was closer to Carl’s brother Eric and Susan’s sister, Alison, who happened to be husband and wife. Nelson is now deputy director of Portland Ovations.

“I think the family is not shocked by the means but maybe the timing,” she said.

Nelson said she read the Chases’ letter and found it at once depressing and uplifting.

“I think they meant for it to be a model,” she said. “They were strong proponents of choice.”

John Gray, a town selectman who knew the couple for years, said he was surprised by the news.

“I think most everyone in town was surprised,” he said. “I think people are giving the family some space, but it has provoked an interesting discussion.”

Gray said he thought their decision might have been premature. They weren’t that old, he said.

“I’m 77,” Gray said, the same age as Carl Chase. “That’s not anything I’m thinking about.”

Still, Gray said the couple’s decision doesn’t change his opinion of them.

“They were a fine couple, lovely people. The town is going to miss them,” he said.

***

Marley, the suicide prevention expert, said he’s conducted training sessions on suicide prevention and most people who participate fall somewhere in the middle of a continuum between preventing suicide at all costs and supporting people to choose whether they live or die.

“They say ‘it depends.’ Was the person healthy and this was a temporary crisis, or was this someone with a terminal illness that deeply impacts their quality of life? We all want to have choices at the end of life and there is concern that in a terminal illness, when does end-of-life planning take the place of suicide? We may not have enough of a vocabulary to address the range of end-of-life behaviors. It is paramount that we work with people to maintain the best quality of life as their health declines. Suicide becomes a viable option when a person sees no other alternatives for addressing their distress.”

One thing Marley found unclear from the Chases’ letter was whether they felt responsibility to the people they left behind.

“What is owed to their family and close friends to prepare them for this loss?” he said. “A rational decision made in a vacuum without the involvement of those who are left to pick up the pieces is little different than a suicide done in crisis.”

Family members declined to talk about the couple’s deaths. Several other people in Brooksville who knew the Chases did not return messages or emails from the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald.

Marley, though, said he has personal experience to draw from. In 1967, his grandfather died by suicide in a hospital bed as his quality of life was degraded by emphysema.

“He saw no alternatives to a downward spiral of medical bills and a life without the outdoor hunting, fishing and camping he loved,” he said. “He acted on his resolve to end his life without speaking with his wife, his children or his grandchildren. His passing was traumatic and violent and left a crater of despair in his family.

“For him it may have felt like a rational decision; for his family, who lived with suicide grief, it felt like anything but rational as they were left with the pain, the grief and the lasting guilt.”

Durst, the chief psychiatrist at Maine Medical Center, said she couldn’t assess the Chases’ mental health because she didn’t know them or treat them. But on a personal level, she said she understood where they were coming from. She even said she’s told her own children in passing that she and her husband would like to “go together” when their time is near.

“It’s very difficult for any of us to look at ending our lives,” she said.

Marley said the conversation is an important one, particularly because there is a large contingent of baby boomers entering their 70s and facing decisions about how they live the last chapter of their lives.

“The information the Chases shared in their letter to the community clearly lays out their rationalization for a decision to end their lives before things become unbearable,” he said. “Their story will ignite a more open discussion of life and death for aging Mainers. What impacts a person’s quality of life as they age and what is the difference between needing additional support and becoming a burden?

“They are not easy conversations, but necessary ones; in the end none of us will escape death.”

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