School mourns loss of 2020 graduate

Vigil brings community together for support

Environmental portrait

courtesy of Kevin Christiansen

A remembrance of Clayton Valley Charter High School alumnus Riley Jude Christiansen was held at the school last December.

At 5:30 in the afternoon, students, parents, and teachers walked to the football field. Candles on the turf illuminated a pathway for all to follow. 

After receiving an LED candle, a sea glass stone, and a polyester cord bracelet, members of the crowd were welcomed by canvas pictures of a student who once walked the campus for four years. As distant music from a slideshow played on the bleachers, individuals gathered at a table where condolence letters were written. On display and for the taking were car bumper stickers with the initials “LLR”: Long Live Riley. 

On Dec. 3, 2020, Clayton Valley Charter High School held a candlelight vigil for Riley Jude Christiansen, who graduated in the spring of 2020. The memorial was organized after the school sent an email Nov. 10 to the community informing students and teachers that Riley had died. He was in his first year at California State University, Chico.

The email expressed condolences for the Christiansen family, noting that “the entire CVCHS school community is saddened by this event. It is very difficult to experience the death of a young person.”

The message also let the community know that guidance and counseling service were available to “students, families, and family members to help each with their thoughts and feelings associated with this loss.” Riley was a victim of suicide. 

The Thursday night vigil was an opportunity for the community to focus on the fond memories of his life.

As the coral-colored sky began to fade into a muted grey, family, friends, former peers, and educators stood on the football field, each beside a lit LED balloon. Facing the bleachers to see a slideshow on a large screen, everyone watched the heartfelt moments of a life that had begun as a toddler enjoying a bubble bath to a son graduating from high school in a blue cap and gown. 

The night proceeded with warm-hearted anecdotes and speeches. On the bleachers, coaches, teachers, a cousin, friends from all stages of life, and a grief counselor shared what they wished to say.

The Christiansen family made it known throughout the vigil that Riley had loved the beach, hence the sea glass stones and the blue Pura Vida bracelets.

Friends connected Riley’s favorite songs like “Better Together” by Jack Johnson and “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” by Willie Nelson to themes regarding the importance of support and awareness needed during the bittersweet time.

The vigil recounted Riley as a gregarious individual with a memorable smile, a passionate student-athlete, a lover of music, and a one-of-a-kind friend, son, and brother. 

Once individuals finished their speeches and the slideshow came to an end, the LED balloons were released in loving memory of the young man who had impacted many. The sky was now the color of the deep sea, a place that Riley had loved.

Everyone eyed the balloons as they joined the stars in the cold night sky. Goodbyes and heartfelt sentiments were shouted out into the void above until no one could even differentiate a star from a balloon.

Riley’s death left many with unanswered questions. It also draws attention to public concerns about the mental health of young people because of the pandemic.

“Teen and youth anxiety and depression are getting worse since COVID lockdowns began in March, early studies suggest,” according to a Sept. 10, 2020, NPR story.

The story reports on a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) of Americans on their mental health. While symptoms of anxiety and depression were up sharply across the board in the spring compared to last year, “young people seemed to be the hardest-hit of any group.” 

“Almost 11 percent of all respondents to that survey said they had ‘seriously considered’ suicide in the last 30 days,” NPR reported. “For those ages 18 to 24, the number was 1 in 4 — more than twice as high.”

In an article by Harvard Health Publishing, Dr. Jack Jordan noted the toll a suicide can cause the people who knew the victim.  “Suicide can shatter the things you take for granted about yourself, your relationships, and your world,” he said. Dr. Jordan is a clinical psychologist and co-author of “After Suicide Loss: Coping with Your Grief.” 

If you or anyone you know needs support, free and confidential help is available, including the Contra Costa Crisis Center’s home page. You can call 211 or 800-833-2900 or text “HOPE” to 20. 

Isabella Monet Mendoza is Management Editor and Secretary of The Talon, the student news site of Clayton Valley Charter High School in Concord.