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Second son's death harder to accept, say West Fargo parents

WEST FARGO -- Fourteen years ago, Lynne and Curtis Olien's 5-year-old son Nathan died after an excruciating battle with an inherited and fatal neurological disorder known as Batten disease.

Lynne Olien talks about losing her son Justin to suicide and the impact on her and others.David Samson / The Forum
Lynne Olien talks about losing her son Justin to suicide and the impact on her and others. (David Samson / Forum News Service)

WEST FARGO -- Fourteen years ago, Lynne and Curtis Olien's 5-year-old son Nathan died after an excruciating battle with an inherited and fatal neurological disorder known as Batten disease.

Nathan suffered through an ever-growing number of seizures and sight loss as his body and brain deteriorated. His siblings--9-year-old Ryan, 3-year-old Justin and 1-year-old Rebecca--would stroke his hand as they all watched TV, or dance around him as he lay on a mat in the livingroom of their home in his final days. Nathan was always part of the family, even after his death.

"When my kids started driving, the first thing I would tell them was, 'I will never survive losing another child,'" Lynne said Wednesday, May 25, fighting back tears. "But obviously you do. I mean, you have to."

The West Fargo parents lost 17-year-old son Justin to suicide last week.

"You have to make it through, because you don't have a choice," Lynne said. "You can cry. You can scream. You can do whatever. But when it comes right down to it, you have to continue to feed them, you have to continue to go to work so they can put gas in their car, so they can play soccer. You don't get a choice."

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Despite losing two sons, Lynne and Curtis say they feel blessed as well.

"We have two other amazing kids," Lynne says. "We have a huge support system. We have an opportunity to maybe make a difference in other families' lives by maybe having them not go through this, making a public-perception change of suicide and depression."

Justin's death was totally unexpected, the parents say, though they've since learned from Justin's close friends that at times he sent friends text or social media messages indicating he was down or depressed.

"That's the toughest part for me," his mother said. "He hid his demons so well."

Adds Justin's father: "He didn't want to let us down."

Now the Oliens are channeling their grief into a mission to help others avoid the same fate.

They ask that parents and children talk about what's bothering them, and that young folks tell an adult, any adult, when they hear from a depressed friend or classmate.

"Let somebody know who can handle this, who has the maturity to take the next step" Lynne says. "We need the other kids out there to know that they need to get help to help their friends."

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When Nathan died 14 years ago, Curtis said he didn't take time to mourn. He threw himself into work.

"Apparently, I'm paying for it double now," he said.

This time, though, he says he's trying to connect with every kid and parent he knows, telling them to open up and share more with each other, something he acknowledges is not his strong suit.

"I'm sure I cried more the first day after Justin died than I did since Nathan died."

When Nathan died, Lynne said she didn't think she could feel a worse pain. But with Justin being in their family for 17 years, and with all the great potential he showed everyone, she said this time is harder.

"He would have been an amazing teacher. He would have been an amazing husband. He would have been an amazing dad," his mother said. "We all knew he would succeed. He had a plan."

Curtis said he knows the loss of his two children is part of a bigger plan--one he is trying to accept. Lynne is having a harder time with that concept.

"I think I get it. But, again, I think it's my brain versus my heart," she said. "That's the mom part of me and the guilt is my first-, middle- and last-name part of me.

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"I'm selfish. I would rather have Justin back. I want him here. I want to be yelling at him because he left dirty Kleenexes on the floor again. All that stuff that at the time I was, 'Seriously, you can't pick up your own Kleenexes?' Right now, I'd probably let him leave them there for a week."

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