Faithful Living: A dangerous game devastates family

On Monday, while reading Facebook posts, I learned of the unintentional death of the 16-year-old son of treasured college friends. Two days later, when Justin’s parents appeared before the media to say it appears their son died in a tragic prank or a choking game accident, it seemed clear that my support of them would begin here.

While they can never be completely sure how their high school junior died, evidence strongly points to self strangulation. They are determined to honor his memory and help prevent another tragedy by asking parents to educate themselves about the practice and talk with their children about the potential for serious injury or death.

Often referred to as the Choking Game, adolescents cut off the flow of blood to the brain in exchange for a few seconds of feeling lightheaded. Some make use of a belt, a rope or their bare hands, Others purposely hyperventilate or ask a friend to push on their chest. With pressure comes a blockage of blood. Releasing the pressure produces a warm, fuzzy feeling.

In reality, thousands of brain cells are dying.

Why do some kids do this? It produces a euphoric state that can be addictive. Others do it because it feels cool and risky. The majority of kids who are severely injured or die from this activity were intelligent and stable. They considered this activity to be a “safe” and undetectable alternative to drugs and alcohol. Youthful naivete also convinces them they are immortal or immune to great harm.

“The message we want to give is that life is fragile and you really need to think about the consequences of your decisions,” Justin’s dad said on Wednesday.

Sheriff’s investigators have ruled out suicide and Justin’s parents concur. He had no suicidal signs and had enjoyed a successful weekend, having delivered his team’s only touchdown the Friday before his death. Justin was a son anyone would enjoy: intelligent, compassionate, and fun loving; a good friend to many, a motivated athlete, and a joy to his brother and parents.

His life was stable. His parents are married, their family economically comfortable and active in their church. They were unaware of the Choking Game until a few of Justin’s friends approached them with information about the practice following his death.

According to his mother, this is not the story of a troubled kid. It’s a story for all kids, schools, and communities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that victims—whose deaths are ruled accidental -- are generally males, ranging in ages from 6 to 19, and doing it alone. The CDC uses media accounts to determine the number of deaths attributed to the Choking Game and in 93 percent of the deaths where sufficient information was reported, parents of the victims were unaware of the game prior to the death of their child.

Justin’s mother wrote on Thursday, “My heart is broken, but I know (he) would never hurt me on purpose. I am so, so sad. I was supposed to go first.”

Let’s have those conversations and pray for a broken hearted family and community.

Reach Faithful Living columnist Joan Bay Klope at

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