January 25th, 2011
Suicide can devastate a family, especially when the one who takes their life is a youth with great potential. Some of those left behind wonder what they could have done differently, what they contributed.
But it is not unusual for other family members to find peace by adopting a position of denial and looking for any other possible explanation, a scenario in which they can be absolved of their self-imposed guilt. This might be by finding another culprit to blame (“her bad-influence friends”) or by simply pretending that the suicide never happened (“that was an accidental overdose”).
So I did not find it surprising that Lance Lundsten’s father had declared that Lundsten had not ended his own life but rather had died due a coronary edema brought on by an enlarged heart. According to the coroner this was simply not true, but undoubtedly the discovery of this incidental medical condition allowed Lance’s father to concoct an alternate reality in which there was no blame or shame or regret.
But denial is not healthy, and there are times when it is appropriate to ask oneself, “Did I contribute to this, should I change?” And in the story of Lance Lundsten, I am finding more than a few, family and community alike, who are unwilling – or afraid – to look at themselves too closely to see what part they might have played in Lance’s death.
The coroner’s toxicology reports are not in and at this point we simply do not know the cause of Lance’s death. And even if suicide is determined to be the cause, it is not possible to identify which specific pressures were felt the greatest or what incidents contributed most to his state of mind. But we can readily identify some facts of Lance’s life that would be troublesome to most teens.
Lance’s family life was not without complication. Although his father has asserted his role as family spokesman, Lance actually lived with his grandparents and comments he made on his Facebook page suggest that his relationship with his parents was strained. Further, this tension appears to be due, at least in part, to religious differences, likely due to his sexual orientation.
We also know that the administration at Jefferson High School is not supportive of gay students. The school policies do not ban anti-gay discrimination or harassment, and fellow gay student Caleb Shafer reports that the school would not protect him from bullies. It is telling that District 206 Superintendent Terry Quist released a statement about Lance’s death that went out of its way to avoid any mention of Lundsten’s sexual orientation or bullying of any kind and suggested that the “respectful” way to “honor Lance’s memory” would be to ignore all of the concerns his friends have raised.
But the denial and refusal to consider Lance as who he was, rather than the person they wish he was, extends beyond his parents and his school. The community in Alexandria seems determined not to address whether their gay kids are being tormented and refuse to see Lance’s death as a means of introducing that discussion.
The local newspaper, aptly named the Echo, went so far as to run an editorial in which they repeated the father’s assertions, even though the coroner had disputed them, and chastised Lance’s classmates and the local TV news for suggesting otherwise. (Echo)
Before people started gossiping and drawing conclusions on the Internet, they should have stopped and considered the family. They should have asked themselves if they would have liked the same kind of unsubstantiated rumors swirling around about someone in their own family.
Unfortunately, whipped up by the Facebook frenzy, the distorted story of Lundsten’s death took on a life of its own. A TV station reported about the Facebook speculations and it snowballed quickly from there, getting reported by other media outlets as well – a sad case of media reporting what other media were reporting, even though it was untrue.
Some Jefferson High School students threatened a walk out, believing the school wasn’t taking the bullying issue seriously enough.
Anti-bullying groups were quick to pick up on the death, spreading the story further. U.S. Senator Al Franken called attention to the incident to drum up support for anti-bullying legislation. Images of Lundsten connected to headlines of bullying and suicide popped up all over the Internet – even on a website in France.
It shouldn’t have happened this way.
Although the editorial never once uses the word gay or mentions that Lance publicly identified as such, it isn’t too hard to figure out who the Echo means by “anti-bullying groups” that didn’t “consider the family.” And they clearly feel betrayed and angry at KSAX for daring to suggest that perhaps something is amiss in Alexandria. (CityPages)
It’s true that Lundsten’s death has not yet been ruled a suicide–toxicology test results aren’t expected back for more than a month. But the Echo Press has been insisting all week that Lundsten’s death wasn’t a suicide, without even bothering to pick up the phone and call the medical examiner. Isn’t that rush to judgment exactly what they’re accusing Lundsten’s classmates of doing on Facebook?
“Absolutely not,” Edenloff told City Pages today. “I’d much rather report what a family member said than a bunch of kids who didn’t even know what he was all about.”
Edenloff says the coverage by KSAX and the internet response to the story have painted Jefferson High School and the city of Alexandria unfairly.
“The school and the city have been portrayed as really backwards on this,” Edenloff says. “The idea that we’re a backwoods little punkwood town that doesn’t know how to deal with these issues is totally false.”
Suicide can devastate a community, especially when the one who takes their life is a youth with great potential. Some of those left behind wonder what they could have done differently, what they contributed.
Others, like Lance’s father, the administration of Lance’s school, and the local newspaper have adopted a position of denial. They don’t want to know whether they played a part. They would rather tell themselves pretty stories than consider what they could have done differently, what they contributed, or how they could change.
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