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Parents of slain freshman: Students must “keep on sparkling”

Malcolm Astley and Mary Dunne visited campus this week to raise awareness of relationship violence, which claimed the life of their daughter Lauren.

Malcolm Astley addresses an audience of students and staff who took part in a Tuesday afternoon gathering to honor the life of Astley's daughter, Lauren, who died last summer shortly before she would have joined the Elon University Class of 2015.

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Several Elon University students and staff members on Tuesday honored the life of a Massachusetts teenager killed in July less than two months before she was to begin her collegiate studies in North Carolina.

The intimate program included remarks by Lauren Dunne Astley’s parents, Malcolm Astley and Mary Dunne, who spoke of the need for young adults to confront relationship violence in all its forms. Massachusetts authorities have charged Lauren Astley's longtime boyfriend with murder.

It was the second campus program in as many days for her parents, who visited campus as part of a weeklong series of events aimed at educating students on healthy relationships. The series is sponsored by the Office of Health Promotion, Interpersonal Relations and Community Well-Being, the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, and the Office of Violence Prevention and Response.

“Lauren had every reason to believe she had a great future ahead of her,” Mary Dunne said following a video that showed photos of Lauren accompanied by a recording of a song she performed for a high school vocal ensemble. “You honor her by being here today and by getting all you can out of the experiences you’ll have here at Elon.”

Students also had the opportunity to reflect on their own experience with relationship abuse, what they learned from those experiences, and how they plan to assist others who may find themselves in emotional or physical states similar to the one Lauren Astley faced.

The following are the full remarks offered by Malcolm Astley at the Tuesday afternoon program in the Commuter Lounge inside Moseley Center:

We are so glad, if also pained, to be with you here to acknowledge the hard events of our daughter’s death, apparently at the hands of her former boyfriend who in fact was a young friend with me, though it is puzzling to try to understand that now as it often is in such situations. I love being here, even amidst the pain, where she dearly wanted to be amidst the beauty and warmth and lovely energy in you. I want to support the spirit of your growing together in ways she hoped to grow. It is a bit of a miracle, even if I don’t really believe in them, to be with you and connected with Lauren’s spirit together here.

The dreadful parts, not dissimilar to many other situations, and do brace yourselves, they are dreadful, but it is important that we join in witness together of such events, so that we better mobilize to understand them and to mobilize together to say no within the mores of our society: 25-30 deaths a year in Massachusetts, and in a similar proportion in other states, for a total fatality rate of about 125,000 intimate partner deaths in the United States (about 4 to 1 in proportion of females to males) in my lifetime, the same number as the fatalities of U.S. soldiers in World War I. Lauren is described as having apparently been beaten, strangled and having her neck stabbed multiple times in her final minutes of life. I hope dearly she was unconscious quickly after having at least an opportunity to fight hard against the harm done to her.

I gain strength in knowing that you are willing to bear witness to such hard pain and loss, and conflict in many directions. I gain strength in knowing that you are willing to gather to bear witness to terrible tragedy and, I hope, also to ask, how do such events come about again and again in our culture, perhaps more than ever, and what can we do together to understand this and to address the unarticulated needs and unidentified forces appropriately and bring the pain, loss and tragedies to a stop? Caring and compassion and new values are needed in many directions.

I have many directions of inquiry that I want to go in this regard, and also to support your going. We need to come to grips with this terrible phenomenon within human relationships, often strangely and ironically arising from strong attractions and caring and need and love, ever a hard concept to define, even as I do believe there are many good and wonderful forms of it.

I don’t find it much easier yet to say what needs to be said about Lauren’s absence and the cruel and painful ending she apparently faced. I do know that the end of a life is not the appropriate basis on which to remember and value that life. Her life overall was rich and lovely and sparkling and even occasionally generous. We can take joy in that!

We have to accept that Lauren Dunne Astley is gone in terms of her physical state. That is very hard, though my heart and mind seem to grasp this fact slowly as time goes by, and I hope it is working that way with you here, and in terms of the other losses you have faced. That is our strange and ideally strength promoting path as human beings. That is our strange journey as caring people, to embrace deeply, and to let go tenderly with tears while holding on to the best memories, and at times strangely, the hard ones.

Otherwise we are stuck in the past, sweet or terrible as it may have been. Something inside us keeps trying to respond constructively to tragedy and to heal, and to move on in good directions, without dishonoring or neglecting Lauren and other women, and men (though much smaller in number), now absent, or facing hard challenges of consequence as a result of their own initiatives in terms of violence.

I am so glad at my time with Lauren and nothing can take such joy away as we all face the inevitable losses that are part of being a person. The key is to love deeply and mourn deeply as the hard changes happen again and again, especially with age, and to grow comfortable supporting each other in this grieving and moving on to new tenderness and new connections that are perhaps the most challenging parts of being a person.

Our commitment needs to be in addition to try to understand what happens in such harmful situations, what the contributing undercurrents are that we need to address to make the human condition better in this arena of love, to make it less likely that such events will repeat themselves, and to look after the needs of all parties in facing inevitable breakups and moving on.

It feels a little fake to talk about what Lauren would want in such a situation, but of some of her possible responses, I am pretty confident. She would appreciate the gathering today and she would be jealous she could not take part in physical form. She is utterly here in spirit as we carry her on, each in our way, and each focusing on developing our own spirits of initiative and focus, and finding our own paths, some of us early in life and some of us not so early. The search for our own paths never really stops. I am confident she would not want folks to remain still, nor to follow her path except as they were genuinely interested. She would indeed say, “Keep going, keep on sparkling in the way that is important to you and in support of others,” though she would not like my formality.

She would want to say that fine warm greeting of acknowledgement that is so simple, “Hey.” I think, that phrase may have comfortingly migrated from the south in every direction, judging by my Florida and Georgia raised Mother’s frequent use of that term, Hey,in my upbringing and youth, meaning hello, and I’m with you and be well and keep going. That is the sparkle I think Lauren would want us to carry on as we each pursue our own ways, our own paths, carrying the best of her along, and trying to look after both ourselves and each other, too.

Thanks so much for being here, for sharing pain and joy together and helping to gather resources to promote new directions to solve the challenges at hand in youth and human relationships. As a species we have pretty well taken care of cannibalism. We have taken on slavery, though there are some recent worrisome signs of resurgence. We have taken on human rights, and more recently women’s rights and the rights of gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people. We have begun to address bullying together effectively in Massachusetts and in other states, and we can take another step across this country and address dating and domestic violence effectively, too, and its heavy impact on women, though men are victims as well and are often in great pain, vulnerability and uncertainty, too, which I think often we have ignored. A new course for freshman in Wayland, Massachusetts on healthy teen relationships has already just begun. There is new hope! What else can we do together, insist on together, that needs to be done?

Now, just before we end my talk in this time together, and I am sure there will be others, I want you to try something, and it may drive you a little crazy, especially any men present, but we can do this. Try this (note: Astley held up his hands and created a “ripple” using his fingers). That is the sparkle in the human spirit, and we are bound now still more in the pursuit of promoting that sparkle in everyone, not just Lauren’s, but each his or her own that then connects with Lauren’s and each other’s. In supporting that sparkle in each of us, our interests, our questions, our initiatives, our passions and our skills, -- and perhaps most important – in being sure every young person has a safe place to share and work on their deepest worries, doubts and fears, we can promote deep self confidence and self respect and compassion which will support mutual respect and solid relationships that support each person, even as relationships change and end and move on toward something ideally fitting better. Try it once more. Let’s keep on together and build the means to avoid and prevent violence! Thank you, and keep on sparkling!

Eric Townsend,
Staff
4/4/2012 8:49 AM