December 23, 2017

Editorial: Connor’s conversation

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The greatest scourge of a season dedicated to joy and goodwill is the untimely death of a loved one — a heartache multiplied beyond measure when that passing is a child’s. That unspeakable grief has befallen Sutton’s Jason and Teresa Tronerud, who laid their teenage son to rest on Dec. 11.

Yet in a poignant ode to their kind, high-achieving child, the obituary dispensed with the usual “passed unexpectedly” or “died after a short illness” qualifiers. Instead, it offered us the necessary gifts of courage, candor and a call to action:

“Connor Francis Tronerud, 15, took his own life on Monday, December 4th, 2017, after struggling with bullying from peers.”

So stark and straightforward — and so rarely acknowledged in public.

We are in no way implying that grief-stricken families are obligated to share such personal details, especially in the immediate aftermath of a tragic loss. But the Troneruds’ brave statement accomplished something the typically opaque announcement of a young person’s death could not:

It started an international conversation. Hopefully, it will continue to build momentum toward fully acknowledging and resolving two of the biggest threats to today’s youth.

Through now-countless postings to the funeral home guest book, Facebook pages and comments on news-media sites as close as the family’s hometown to across the ocean, Connor’s death has elicited emotional — and illuminating — words from victims of bullying and those who found their way back from the brink of suicide. Heartfelt support and advice from parents who’ve experienced a loss like the Troneruds’ has also been conspicuous.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the second-leading cause of death among the 15-24 and 25-34 age groups (and third among 10- to 14-year-olds) in its most recent tabulation. It’s no surprise there’s a strong correlation between bullying and youth suicide.

“ ‘Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never harm you.’ I’m not so sure about that,” said Our Lady of the Assumption Church pastor, Rev. Daniel Mulcahy, during Connor’s funeral Mass in Millbury.

“Sometimes they break people.”

A gofundme.com page created in Connor’s memory seeks donations “for bullying prevention and self-harm awareness education … The more we can equip peers, coaches, teachers, mentors, and friends to bolster those who are isolated, the more lives can be saved, and the sooner healing can begin.”  As of Dec. 21, the White Knight Youth Advocacy appeal — using the team nickname of Marianapolis Preparatory School in Thompson, Connecticut, where Connor was a sophomore — had drawn more than $18,400, far beyond its initial $1,000 goal.

Connor’s obituary also caught the attention of Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early Jr., whose office said it will investigate the death.

Halting strides have been made previously. Seven years ago, the suicide tragedies of Carl Walker-Hoover, 11, of Springfield and South Hadley 15-year-old Phoebe Prince galvanized Massachusetts lawmakers to enact groundbreaking legislation that explicitly banned bullying in schools, ordered prevention training for faculty, and required the reporting of incidents to parents and police. But many argue that enforcement of the law has been lacking.

Its equally pernicious but more elusive twin, cyberbullying, gained wide notoriety during last summer’s trial of Michelle Carter. The Plainville defendant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of 18-year-old Conrad Roy III of Mattapoisett when, at age 17, she engaged in an escalating series of text messages encouraging her despondent boyfriend to end his life.

While we understand the human instinct to shield those closest to us and withhold facts that a culture might consider shameful or that could lead to blame being heaped on the victim, calling out the societal menaces of our time is the straightest path to progress. Yet that reticence repeats itself within the opioid crisis: We see near-daily obituaries of young people launching promising lives that offer no explanation for their sudden demise.

We’re left to guess how many of these obituaries mark the latest casualty in our drug and suicide epidemics.

By refusing to let the circumstances surrounding their son’s death go gentle into that good night, Jason and Teresa Tronerud did more than help destigmatize the brutal realities of bullying and youth suicide. The fortitude required to go beyond themselves and educate others during this terrible time cannot be overestimated.

The best way to honor Connor — and Carl, Phoebe and so many others whose bright futures were stolen — is to forcefully acknowledge uncomfortable truths. Let’s all keep this vital conversation going.

 

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