ST. PETERSBURG — Suicide is the last act of a lonely mind, condemned in some religions as a severance of the self from family, friends and God. But Dawn Brown, believed to have killed her two young sons before hanging herself at her Clearwater home last week, will not be buried alone.
Her surviving family members — including the husband who found his slain sons tucked into their beds early Saturday and Dawn, 34, hanging from the ceiling fan — have decided that a joint funeral service will be held for the dead this weekend. Mother and sons will then be laid to rest in adjoining cemetery plots.
"I'm not angry at Dawn," said her husband, Murphy Brown, 36. "I'm definitely confused about why she did it, you know? I'm hurt that she did it. . . . They're lost. They're gone. I have no need to hold onto anger."
Murphy came home from a free poker game at Stroker's Sports Bar & Grill in Palm Harbor just after 2 a.m. Saturday to find his family dead. Later that day, Pinellas County sheriff's deputies said that Dawn had killed 9-year-old Zander and 5-year-old Zayden before taking her own life.
Autopsies on the boys have been completed, but the medical examiner is awaiting the results of toxicology tests before announcing their cause of death.
The family is not disclosing the location of the funeral or burial services, which will be closed to media and the public.
"A lot of people wonder why we'd have the funeral for all of them together," said Byron Brown, the dead boys' paternal grandfather. "But from the beginning, that's how we wanted to do it."
Family members said Dawn was a caring mother, but had withdrawn into a dark depression in recent months. A felony charge of welfare fraud, filed against her for misrepresenting the family's income to obtain food stamps, had dashed her hopes of becoming a schoolteacher, relatives said.
Dawn began spending most of her time at home, immersed in her laptop computer or reading the romance novels of Janet Evanovich. Murphy talked openly of leaving her. Electricity to the family's home on Sidney Street was cut last week for failure to pay the bill.
"My daughter snapped," said her mother, Sandra Barylski. "She got in a corner and didn't know what to do. She didn't mean to hurt those children. I know she didn't."
Barylski stood on the front porch of Byron's house this week, sunglasses pushed up on her head, hair pulled back in a purple clip she said belonged to her daughter. Smoking a cigarette in the morning heat, she acknowledged feeling anger toward her daughter, fueled by a sense of needless loss.
"My electricity's been cut off, but it's not the end of the world," she said. "You don't die over it."
She said her ex-husband, Dawn's father, killed himself in 1995. Dawn was 17.
Barylski said she last spoke to her daughter on Friday night, while visiting relatives in Michigan. Barylski had been sick on the plane ride from Florida. Dawn didn't say anything was wrong in Clearwater, but asked her mom how she was feeling.
"I just want to make sure you're okay," she said, according to Barylski.
The conversation could not have taken place long before Dawn and the boys were dead.
Dawn's motivation for killing her sons, tucking them into bed, and then killing herself exists in a blind spot for her family members, an opaque section of the past their minds can't penetrate.
Sometimes, talking to them, it is as if the crime never happened.
"She was a very loving mother. She didn't mean in any way to hurt those boys," said Tammy Wenzel, a family member from Dawn's side who has come to Florida from Michigan to attend the funeral.
She, too, said it was a matter of course that there would be a joint service for all three.
"They loved their mom, and she loved them, and it all needs to be done together," Wenzel said.
"Love and desperation," Byron Brown said. "Some people kill for different reasons."
Byron's house is in south St. Petersburg, in a neighborhood of overgrown lawns and crumbling sidewalks that is dotted with tall, slender palm trees. The sun began to sink Thursday as he and Murphy talked outside, leaving a furnace-orange fringe around the clouds.
Byron sat in a chair on his porch. Murphy stood in the front yard, smoking and staring at the grass.
The sounds of a living neighborhood at dusk tuned up around them: shouts, laughter, barking dogs, the cries of small children.
"We'll never know what she felt," Byron said.
Murphy looked back.
"I want to know what she felt," he said quietly.
Byron, who is soft-spoken like his son, raised his voice. It did not express anger, but something like helplessness.
"But we'll never know, Murph."
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.