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Ryan Johnson, Published September 19 2013

'Torn and worn': After losing Jolene Lande to suicide, family, friends work to raise awareness

MAYVILLE, N.D. – After years of struggling with her sexuality, depression and her father’s declining health, Jolene Lande died by suicide Jan. 9 in her hometown of Mayville.

The family and friends she left behind are making sure the vibrant, funny 30-year-old who could strike up a conversation with anyone isn’t forgotten.

“We have to be Jolene’s voice now,” said her mother, Carol Lande.

Lande and her other two daughters – her oldest child, Christina Willison, and Jolene’s fraternal twin, Jenny Neset – are raising money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s eighth annual Out of the Darkness community walk to boost awareness of the dangers of mental illness and to cut through the stigma that still surrounds it.

Registration for the walk begins at 1 p.m. Sunday at Fargo’s Lindenwood Park, and the event starts at 2 p.m.

Finding her calling

Neset said she shared a birthday but was completely different from Jolene, her twin sister who boasted the blonde hair and outgoing nature that Neset didn’t have.

“She was more of the adventurous type,” Neset said. “She was more of the leader, and I was more of a follower. She was getting into trouble, and I would have to come with her.”

The sisters’ trouble never escalated beyond juvenile pranks, like the time they changed the letters on a Dairy Queen sign.

The twins worked several jobs together, including a stint at Luther Memorial Home in Mayville, where Neset said her sister gained the respect of the residents and their families.

“She knew more of the people in town than my own parents did,” Neset said.

Still, Lande said Jolene grew up struggling with attention deficit disorder and depression, taking prescription medications Ritalin and Wellbutrin.

After graduating from high school in 2001, Jolene and Neset lived together in an apartment in Mayville until they both enrolled at Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks, Minn.

Neset said Jolene “didn’t really get into the swing of school,” dropping out after just a few months.

Lande said Jolene returned home with a plan, telling her family she was moving to Chicago.

She enrolled in a mortuary science program there to pursue her newfound dream of being a funeral home director, partially inspired by her love of the TV series “Six Feet Under.”

Willison said it was a surprising goal for Jolene, who was a natural at helping the living.

“She was so good with people and at the nursing home working with people when they were passing away,” Willison said. “She was just good with anyone.”

At first, Jolene seemed to flourish in Chicago, taking classes and finding work at the county coroner’s office and at several funeral homes.

But Willison said there were signs Jolene was struggling. During phone calls, Jolene would recount the “horrible things” she experienced in her job, especially picking up the bodies of young children who reminded her of her nephew.

It was during a family visit to Chicago that they met Jolene’s good friend, Jennifer, and realized she was a lesbian.

“I to this day don’t know for sure if she really knew she was or not,” Lande said.

The family started to hear from Jolene less often, and she would ignore their calls. If she answered, she’d say she had to get back to work. Lande said she’d make plans to visit, only to have her daughter cancel at the last minute.

Jolene came home in 2010 when her father, Richard Lande, started his recovery from heart surgery. She stayed for nine months, moving into a friend’s place in Mayville and rarely leaving the basement.

Family members noticed that she drank a lot, and she’d lie when confronted.

Her family prodded her to get help, and Jolene said she was seeing a counselor in Fargo. Neset said it was obvious she “just wasn’t herself.”

Jolene was in a relationship with the man she lived with here, but she was still in love with the partner she left behind in Chicago, Neset said.

Unexpected loss

Jolene moved back to Chicago, once again falling off the radar. Her family tried to get her to come back in September 2012, when they were looking for answers for Richard Lande’s new illness.

Jolene wasn’t there when her father was diagnosed with cancer. She came back home for a couple of weeks at a time to take him to appointments, devastated from watching the man she admired become weak from the cancer treatments, especially when he needed to go on oxygen.

“She thought it was the death sentence right here,” Willison said. “That’s what her mind was thinking.”

Jolene told her sisters about the rocky relationship with her partner in Chicago, and she was under stress to finish a paper to earn a mortuary director license.

Lande said Jolene stopped by the house one night in January, saying she was getting her shoes to go for a walk. Lande thought it was strange – Jolene always took the family dog on walks, but not that night.

The next morning, the family learned Jolene’s body had been discovered in a storage building they owned in Mayville. She had died from suicide at the age of 30.

Neset said it was an unexpected blow because they were focused on fighting Richard Lande’s cancer. They knew Jolene was having a hard time with her father’s illness, but she said her sister never talked about being suicidal or asked for help.

Neset wondered what had happened. She was angry and confused her sister wouldn’t tell her about the anguish she had been going through that claimed her life.

There was no full explanation of the loss, Neset said, even in the letters Jolene left behind.

Lande said her husband consoled her with the best explanation he could, the phrase “torn and worn” that Jolene had written in a letter to her parents.

“I’d keep on about, ‘Why Jolene? You’re supposed to be here helping me now,’ ” Lande said. “And he’d say, ‘Carol, she was torn and worn. You’ve got to know that. She hurt so bad inside, she couldn’t take it anymore.’ ”

Lande said her husband helped the family start to heal, going together to the local AFSP support group for survivors of suicide loss. He was cancer-free just weeks after Jolene’s death, and for a while it seemed the family would get through this.

But Neset said there were other plans out of their control.

“It almost seemed like someone was giving us a little hope at the time that we were going to get a little more time with dad, because as a family, we were hanging onto each other,” she said.

Richard Lande learned his cancer had returned May 10, the same day the family gathered at the Mayville Cemetery to bury Jolene’s ashes. On June 10, he lost his battle with cancer at the age of 63.

Five months after Jolene’s funeral, Lande and her two daughters were back at Mayville Lutheran Church for another funeral.

Neset said it’s comforting knowing Jolene and her father are together again, and the family has found strength through faith.

Still, she said it’s been difficult dealing with the two “completely different deaths,” and said it was hard to celebrate Jolene’s 31st birthday on July 31 – the same birthday she used to share with Jolene.

Lande said she now wants others to know that mental illness is just like any other life-threatening illness. She said the stigma that still surrounds depression, anxiety disorders and other mental hardships needs to end.

“We don’t treat cancer that way,” she said.

If you go

What: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s eighth annual Out of the Darkness Fargo-Moorhead suicide walk

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Lindenwood Park, 1905 Roger Maris Drive, Fargo

Info: Registration at the park begins at 1 p.m. To register online or for more information, visit www.outofthedarkness.org.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587