Manjit Virk lives in Victoria.
A 14-year-old in British Columbia, desperate for acceptance, goes out to hang with friends. Fun is in the forecast – another glorious chance to fit in.
But they’re not really friends. They’re older. They don’t care for this awkward, tag-along teen. There are drugs.
By the time night falls, that gentle, innocent 14-year-old is dead. A life is cruelly snuffed out, far too soon. A family is left shattered.
Oh my goodness. That’s all I can think, to keep from being overwhelmed, when I read about Carson Crimeni. On Aug. 7, after young people mocked his intoxication and filmed his suffering, the teen died of a suspected overdose near a soccer field in Langley, B.C.
And all I can feel is the pain from remembering how I lost my own 14-year-old, my daughter Reena, who was bullied, beaten and drowned by her peers in Saanich, B.C., in 1997.
After Reena died, my wife and I spoke at schools across Canada in support of anti-bullying programs such as Pink Shirt Day. We campaigned, provincially and federally, for more policies to encourage inclusion. I thought that pouring myself into the fight against bullying could help heal my wounds; I thought I could make my pain productive and create a world where Reena’s death was an isolated case. But now, even after they’ve scabbed over, those wounds are bleeding anew.
It is hard to ignore the gnaw of nihilism, the voice that says people simply have not learned anything. How else am I to understand how this tragedy, which has so many awful parallels to how we lost Reena, could happen 22 years later?
I still remember the psychological scars Reena’s school bullies left on her. She would cry, knowing that her friends weren’t really her friends; she would plead to stay home from school altogether. But her self-esteem had been so wounded that her family’s love wasn’t enough – she craved acceptance by her “friends,” and needed it so badly that despite the risks, she carried on, all the way to that fateful day at Craigflower Bridge in Saanich.
That was an unconscionable cruelty. And with Carson’s death, there’s another layer of cruelty, because through social-media videos recorded of his final hours, we know that someone – anyone – could have stepped in and stood up to say, “Stop.” Instead, they chose to jeer or photograph or film. It has been reported that only one person called the police, after seeing a Snapchat photo of a terrified Carson, but it was too late.
No one there stood up for him as he suffered.
For me, the fact that a young person, no matter how old, could have participated in this gleefully, or recorded it to share, is a sign of a deeper rot in our society. It is a sign that parents, whose primary responsibility is to teach their children values and set a good example, need to do better. It is a sign that young people’s minds have become desensitized by social media, by less face-to-face interaction, and by pop culture and entertainment. It’s a sign of decay in the traditional family dynamic, as there is now more insularity and more obsessing silently over screens; with less and less devoted time for the family, which forms the foundational unit of our society. We risk a moral decline. Yes, technology is improving lives and helping us become smarter and better, but what is happening to our hearts and minds?
But no matter the cause, and despite this painful tragedy, I hold tight to the knowledge that in Canada, we are giving our kids a better chance. In other places around the world, these kinds of things are all too frequent. I was bullied myself, growing up in a village in the state of Punjab, where my peers would push and shove me; I lived with it, because I believed that’s just how it was, that bigger boys just do that kind of thing. It’s not the same as the horror that Reena and Carson experienced, but it cannot be the way of the world.
I hold tight to the knowledge that there is power in standing up. I share Reena’s story with schools, in face-to-face talks, and afterward, countless students have come up to me to say they’ve been bullied or even that they themselves have bullied others – and they vow that, amid tears and apologies, they’d never to do it again. I wish someone among the group had stood up when they watched Carson struggle, or when they saw Reena suffer, and said, “This is wrong.” So I stand up, so that our children learn to stand up, too. I have to.
I know that the coming months and years will be hard for Carson’s father, Aron. I know too well that no one should watch their child be buried. We were a happy family raising our kids, and suddenly, there was this dent – and then this chasm – in our lives. But I also know that he will overcome this. We took time with our grief, we chose not to succumb to anger, and we went to work. I know that experience has led to support and comfort for me. If Aron chooses to fight – and that’s entirely up to him – I know that it’s a battle that needs more champions.
And if he can stand up – for Reena, for Carson, and for all those who have been victims of bullying – why can’t you?
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