After reporting on the suicides of four young men within two years, including three who were Eden Prairie High School students, and learning that suicidal ideation in young women was rapidly increasing, Eden Prairie Local News (EPLN) began working on Silent Struggles in April 2023. EPLN presents an eight-part series on the critical issues surrounding mental health and suicidal ideation through the eyes of survivors, and provides resources available for families, friends, and those who serve our young people in Eden Prairie. Follow our weekly reports at eplocalnews.org.
Editor’s note: The story weaves in the personal writings of Renee Klein, Zane Stranger’s mother, highlighted as pulled quotes separate from the rest of the copy. These writings provide a nuanced perspective on her experience, shedding light on the complex nature of her grief and her enduring affection for her son. Incorporating Klein’s reflections and Zane’s own words, the article aims to offer a comprehensive view of their story. This installment is part 5 of the Silent Struggles series.
Renee Klein has embarked on a deeply personal endeavor: writing about the life of her son, Zane Stranger.
“I want to tell his story, our story, and God’s story,” Klein said. “I glean so much through the stories that people are brave enough to share. If our story can help one family, it’s worth it.”
Klein refers to her writing on Zane as a work in progress — an itch she feels compelled to scratch. She remains uncertain about when it will be completed or when she will feel that the entire story has been told.
Zane, the eldest of her five children, died by suicide in March.
“I have always wanted to tell his story because he has several angles,” she said. “There is the story of his death. His struggles, his diseases. There is a different story of his life and there is a story of great love.”
Klein shared a brief version of Zane’s story during his eulogy in April.
“He has struggled his whole life, and there were so many joys and victories,” she said.
For Klein, writing is an essential component of her grieving process — a process she acknowledges will never fully conclude.
“Part of it is bargaining,” she said. “I have to make sense out of his tragedy, his life, his meaning. He meant everything to me; he was my first true love, and I have to make sense of his 23 years.”
Struggle and addiction
In August, Renee Klein sat for a three-hour interview at the Pierre Bottineau Library in Minneapolis, candidly discussing the joys, challenges, and sorrows of her son Zane’s life.
Klein described the 2018 Eden Prairie High School graduate as a genius with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, passionate about linguistics and flags, and thriving as a band kid throughout middle and high school.
He was a percussionist, which, she said, symbolized how he lived his life to a distinctive beat.
With a tremble in her voice, Klein detailed the circumstances of her son Zane’s death by suicide on March 29, 2023, just six days after his 23rd birthday. Diagnosed with autism in first grade, Zane later faced a series of challenges, including ulcerative colitis, depression, an eating disorder known as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), and an addiction to painkillers.
More than seven months after Zane’s suicide, Klein’s grief is nonlinear, marked by enduring pain and vivid recollections. She remains focused on his silent struggles with illness and mental health, proud of his early accomplishments but anguished over his later years.
“I know that with my own son, he had contemplated or had (suicidal) ideation when he was a teenager,” she said. “And that was before he became chronically ill, before life just got exponentially harder. I sensed it then and tried to do everything to make him stay. You keep supporting them, keep loving them. As a parent, even if you suspect what’s coming, you don’t know what to do or say.”
Klein reflected on Zane’s efforts to manage his pain independently. “And that wasn’t something I was aware of,” she said. “I should have been, but I wasn’t.”
The full extent of her son’s struggle became apparent when Klein disclosed, “He had made a prior attempt 14 months earlier. He did admit he was taking painkillers, but I didn’t understand that it was an addiction and that he was doing it constantly. I thought it had stopped months before.”
The complexity of addiction and pain management often obscures understanding.
“He believed that if he stopped taking the painkillers, his pain would return,” she said. “That’s one of the misconceptions, too. You can’t ever really escape addiction.”
From an early age, Zane showed exceptional intellectual ability and faced social challenges.
“He taught himself how to read at 3 (years old),” Klein remembered. “We did not teach him. We read to him, and he memorized the books and cracked the code of reading at 3. Like, who does that?”
Living in Chaska at the time, Klein and Zane’s father, Steve Stranger, chose to enroll Zane in kindergarten at Eagle Heights Spanish Immersion in Eden Prairie because, at that time, the Eastern Carver County School District did not offer such a program. Zane was part of the inaugural class at Eagle Heights and continued his education in the Eden Prairie School District through high school.
“And we’re like, ‘This is perfect because now he has to learn another language,'” said Klein, who lives in Minneapolis. “He already knew English and could read at a third grade level. We couldn’t put him in kindergarten to learn about shapes and letters. In preschool, when they tried to teach shapes, he would ask, ‘Where are the hexagons? Where are the dodecahedrons?’ He was so advanced. It would be like putting a third grader in preschool, at least academically, not socially.”
Zane excelled in environments that posed complex challenges, earning him the nickname “decoder” from Klein for his ability to dissect intricate concepts.
He received a diagnosis of autism that year. Klein commended Elizabeth Linares, the principal of Eagle Heights at the time, for her dedication to accommodating students on the spectrum.
“She made sure that everyone was in place,” Klein said. “If there was a speed bump, such as an issue with a paraprofessional, she smoothed it out. She ensured consistency. He thrived there.”
Sarah Schwarze, Zane’s paraprofessional at Eagle Heights from second to sixth grade, reflected on his unique character.
“He was the most exceptional kid in a lot of ways,” said Schwarze, whom Zane knew as Srta. Fimmen. “Truly one of a kind.”
“Before he was diagnosed with autism, we knew friends might be a struggle. We had heard the statistics. But children were drawn to Zane. Adults, too. His teachers and paras and case managers had some tough days, but at the end of most weeks, I’d say they loved him so much to keep going and keep finding ways to challenge him to stay engaged, get his work done, and try to follow rules (even when he didn’t agree with them).”Renee Klein
Adjusting to middle school
As Zane moved on to Central Middle School, he encountered fewer support services, which Klein believes adversely impacted his mental health.
Klein reflected on Zane’s difficulties within the traditional academic structure during these years. Despite high test scores, the challenges of classwork, homework, and project management — compounded by his autism spectrum disorder — led to academic setbacks.
“It was band that saved him,” Klein said.
“He didn’t fail middle school,” she continued. “I just thought high school would be better. And once he started ninth grade and could join the marching band, I thought this is going to be really good for him. It’s going to keep him motivated, wanting to go to school, and maybe one day, it’ll just click for him, how to function better in society.”
Along the way, he made numerous friends. Klein credits the band for providing Zane with a vital sense of belonging and structure during his formative school years.
As a percussionist for the EPHS Eagle Marching Band and Drum Line, Zane spent hours practicing and performing, collaborating closely with his bandmates.
“He didn’t have social problems,” Klein noted. “Everyone knew he was quirky and different — the smart kid who said a lot of random things. But he had more friends than he knew what to do with. He almost had too many. For someone with autism, having a lot of friends isn’t necessarily desired. But he had more than enough, between his band circle and, separately but overlapping, his (EPHS) Quiz Bowl acquaintances.”
“Junior high was a bit jarring for him, having new case managers, new teachers, a lot more students, no para, and of course, the fact of just starting the teen years. He struggled. Zane was a genius. But unless every class was going to let him test his way out to receive a grade, it became difficult. Executive functioning skills are hard for those on the spectrum, and it just seemed that everyone forgot about that. I remember sitting in IEP meetings at CMS and feeling that no one understood and that Zane was seen as lazy or bad. His grades suffered. One bright spot remained, and that was his involvement with band and eventually high school marching band. One of Zane’s bandmates sent me a handwritten letter after he passed to let me know what he meant to her back then. She remembers him as being ‘one of her first real friends.’”Renee Klein
Marching into high school
However, his high school years brought new challenges. Klein recounts a tense situation with a teacher threatening Zane’s participation in band over academic performance, highlighting the need to advocate for her son’s rights under his individualized education program (IEP).
“But had that gone through, and had I not been aware, or too late?” she said. “He could have done it right then. He could have said, ‘I don’t have anything else here. I’m failing school now. I can’t do band. I’m 17,’ and ended it then.”
“Marching band in high school got Zane out of the house during the summer and exposed him to so much Vitamin D that one day in 10th grade, he texted how happy he felt. Marching band got him out of bed in the morning and heading off to school. I knew that he confided in quite a few bandmates about his mental health, and they leaned on one another. It’s not that he didn’t like school. He really did. He did very well in the classes that were test-heavy and suffered in the ones that required high executive functioning. Projects, papers (at which he was naturally good but didn’t believe in his own abilities) were nearly impossible to get started. He needed help but didn’t want it. I noticed in junior year that he became more and more depressed, especially as the quarters were closing. He knew his grades were awful and didn’t know how to get out of that mess. Again, Zane was a genius, and he proved that senior year by scoring a near-perfect score on the math and English portions of the ACT. But here he was at 16/17 years old, failing classes. Again.”Renee Klein
Health battles emerge
In his senior year, Zane began experiencing significant health issues.
“It was April, and he complained of stomach pain — like, pretty bad,” Klein said. “He thought he was having appendicitis. It was the day after the state tournament for drumline in April.”
He was diagnosed with a severe case of ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease characterized by inflammation in the digestive tract, and was hospitalized for eight days.
Klein is uncertain what triggered the autoimmune disease in Zane but suspects he may have overlooked earlier symptoms.
The diagnosis at age 18 was a critical point in his life.
“He never really returned to Eden Prairie High School as a full-time student,” Klein said. “He went when he could. He was very sick.”
When he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, Klein said, her son qualified for medical marijuana but resisted because he was worried about the implications. He felt uncomfortable taking something that wasn’t legal for everyone, or that could be viewed disapprovingly.
“He was straight-laced until things got out of hand,” Klein said.
When graduation approached, Zane opted against participating in the ceremony. “They said, ‘If he wants to participate, he’s got to do XYZ.’ I told him that,” Klein said. Zane responded, “I don’t want to walk. Why would I participate in a ceremony with 650 kids I don’t know? They aren’t my band friends.”
Zane completed an online health class during the summer to fulfill his graduation requirements. Determined not to let his health issues stop him, he began his studies at Normandale Community College in Bloomington that fall.
“I didn’t get to see him walk at graduation. He just didn’t feel like sitting with his homeroom class and watching over 600 kids walk the stage. I was still so proud of him and even more proud that he was determined to fight this new disease and attend Normandale that fall.”Renee Klein
He never needed help after that with classwork.
“College is different — it’s not so “projecty,”‘ Klein said. Zane graduated with honors from Normandale in two years.
“Things started looking OK,” she said. “He was on his medication, and his weight was never what it should have been, but it wasn’t horrible,” she said.
However, in early 2020, as COVID-19 took hold, he suffered more setbacks. He was hospitalized multiple times with Clostridium difficile, commonly known as C. diff, a bacterial infection that can cause severe gastrointestinal distress and is often contracted in healthcare settings.
“I wasn’t able to be with him much in the hospital because of the (pandemic) restrictions,” she said. “Being his mom and only medical advocate, that was hard.”
“Doctors seemed unfazed by how sick he was for the next year and refused to discuss radical measures of treatment (called fecal microbiota transplantation, or FMT) to treat the C. diff. He ended up contracting C. diff two more times in his young life, and again, his gastroenterologist didn’t seem to notice how frail he was becoming. In the fall of 2020, I started noticing how thin he was getting. He had always been a picky eater, but what I didn’t know was that he had an eating disorder called ARFID. It wasn’t that he was just stricken with it now as a 20-year-old. It was that, now, with how sick he was and how much he was vomiting from complications of ulcerative colitis, I felt frustrated with how slowly he would be able to gain weight back. Food was already a challenge, and when you’re sick, who wants to eat?”Renee Klein
The recurrence of the infection led her to question its impact on his overall health trajectory.
According to Klein, treatments required potent antibiotics, which some believe carry mental health side effects, further complicating his recovery.
“By November of 2020, while he was checked into Waconia Hospital for stomach pain, I pleaded with a social worker by phone to help. He was emaciated: 5’9” and 94 pounds. He was there for gut pain, not weight, and it was like they were literally blind to what they were looking at. And every time he entered a hospital, he wouldn’t eat their food. He just couldn’t. And every time he entered a hospital, he was given narcotics. The social worker there was a bright spot. She was young and had heard of ARFID in grad school. She had never seen a patient with it, however. Things started to make sense, and she helped me get him into the (eating disorder) wing of Children’s Hospital in St. Paul directly from Waconia. I finally felt like his weight loss would be taken seriously, and it was. It felt like he coasted in there on literal fumes, and I was terrified of losing him. Children’s (Hospital) was so careful to screen his biometrics, to watch his heart, his potassium levels, everything to make sure his organs didn’t fail. He was able to put on 10 pounds over the next two weeks and was discharged in December. We thought we had a plan: Keep gaining more weight, get stronger. That lasted a little while.”Renee Klein
Klein observed that Zane never received specialized support for his ARFID diagnosis, a recently recognized eating disorder.
ARFID differs from other eating disorders as it is not associated with distress about body shape or size or fears of gaining weight. Instead, it is marked by a persistent inability to meet nutritional needs, leading to significant weight loss, nutritional deficiency, reliance on enteral feeding or oral nutritional supplements, or severe interference with psychosocial functioning.
“It’s essentially a phobia,” she explained regarding ARFID. “I see this thing on my plate, and I don’t trust it; I don’t recognize it. A lot of kids with ARFID are very brand-specific because brands are consistent. Mom can get it wrong; she might burn your grilled cheese. And kids can suddenly refuse a food they used to eat.”
After graduating from Normandale with an emphasis in global studies, Zane took an unplanned gap year. At Normandale, he completed two years of Japanese and independently began learning Chinese, later testing into the college’s advanced Chinese classes.
He planned to enroll at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in the fall of 2021 to major in Chinese and had arranged to live with roommates in an apartment.
However, signs of his deteriorating health were noticed by Klein.
“And he was so stressed out,” she said. “I think the stress made him even sicker because when you feel anxious, it just eats away at your gut.”
“2021 came with more hospital visits. More narcotics, more throwing up. To me, it seemed like his body was addicted and gave him pain to get more opioids. What I didn’t realize was that an ER doctor made a fatal error. When Zane was discussing yet another discharge, he asked what he should do when the pain came back without pain meds. The doctor prescribed him five morphine pills to take home. I remember Zane complaining that every other doctor he asked for that same script time and time again denied him, saying, ‘No one is going to send you home with morphine. If you are in that much pain, you need to come back to the ER.’ That statement is maddening considering it can take hours to be seen. What I didn’t know until just this year is that Zane found his own ways of getting morphine, and it wasn’t safe or regulated. What that ER doc taught him is that pills at home are the answer.”Renee Klein
He had not registered for classes or sought assistance from his family. As registration deadlines approached, Zane scrambled to sign up for courses, but his health worsened. His mother urged him to return to Children’s Minnesota’s Center for the Treatment of Eating Disorders (CTED) in St. Paul.
“I told him I think we need to go again,” she recalled. “When he went to that program the first time in 2020, and he’d go through this cyclic vomiting thing, he’d start throwing up and lose tons of weight. And I saw when he went to CTED for that first time, he’d be there a week or two, and he would stop throwing up and start turning the corner and gaining weight. But that program gets you out of the danger zone. And you have to figure out where you’re going to go. Are you going to go to Melrose, The Emily Program, Rogers? Unless you do inpatient and you go out of state, he can’t do this outpatient thing. And he wouldn’t qualify for these outpatient things because of his low BMI (body mass index). You’ve got a kid languishing or starting to look better, and you won’t help him?’
(Melrose Center, The Emily Program, and Rogers Behavioral Health are healthcare institutions specializing in treating eating disorders, offering services to individuals dealing with these conditions.)
“That’s when Zane stopped breathing one morning and required immediate intubation,” Klein said. “A nurse had come in at just the right time and saved his life. It was the first of three times that God had stopped him from leaving me. I needed more time.”
“In the fall of 2021, with plans of starting up at the University of Minnesota finally, he asked me to come over to his new apartment. He was very sick, very thin, anxious, and pacing the floor. He didn’t know what to do about anything. I encouraged him to check back into the (eating disorder) clinic at Children’s Hospital because it was the only place that seemed to take his nutrition seriously. He was seriously underweight again, at 100 pounds. I checked him in on Aug. 31. On Sept. 2, his pain had gotten so bad that they gave him morphine. What I didn’t know is that he brought his own street painkillers to the hospital. I saw the pain he was in, and there was no ‘medical reason’ for it. On the morning of Sept. 3, I received a terrifying phone call from a nurse: ‘Zane went into cardiac arrest.’ That had never happened; he had actually stopped breathing while a nurse ‘felt the urge’ to check on him for ‘no reason.’ She saw his oxygen plummet to 20 and hit the code blue button. He was intubated, and I was again horrified. He admitted later, in his suicide note, that he knew why he coded: ‘When I went into respiratory arrest at the Children’s Hospital, I’m 95% sure it was due to ingesting too much of some pills which contained fentanyl. I tested them when I got them, so I knew they were laced with fentanyl, but I chose to have them anyway due to the immense pain I was in at the time. I had more of them than I’d ever had just hours before the nurse found me not breathing. That wasn’t me being suicidal (even though I did want to kill myself at the time), just me being reckless and stupid because I was desperate for pain relief. Mom, I’m sorry for lying to you by omission and not telling you the cause even though I knew it, thus making us go to unnecessary doctor’s appointments to find out what the mystery reason for me not breathing was.’”Renee Klein
In January of 2022, Zane made his first suicide attempt, attempting to overdose on morphine.
Klein noticed that Zane’s challenges seemed to peak during the colder months, a pattern she had observed since his childhood. His struggle with addiction also took a toll on his mental health.
“He was embarrassed by it,” Klein said. “He felt like a failure. He felt like all of his friends were passing him up. They were all talking about graduating and adult things. He just felt like he was getting unintentionally left behind socially. He felt like his autism was getting worse. He said these things in his (suicide) letter. Not giving any credit to the addiction that he had or the malnutrition, you know, all the vomiting that was going on, you’re just stripping your body of what it needs to survive. Instead, he always thought it was something else.”
A fortuitous event may have been pivotal in saving his life during his first suicide attempt.
“The fire alarms went off at 3 a.m., which had never happened before,” Klein said. “That was what woke him up. When Zane had told me about it, he had a weird look on his face like he knew ‘someone’ had woken him up and stopped him.”
She regarded the incident as a “weird miracle,” attributing her son’s survival to divine intervention.
“By December 2021, he seemed depressed and told me not to buy him anything for Christmas. I should have known that was a sign, and I didn’t put the pieces together. Just after midnight on 1/1/22, I dropped him off at Abbott in Minneapolis for not feeling well again. He was diagnosed with adenitis, which is basically an infection in the gut. He stayed for almost a week, probably receiving more narcotics. He wanted to go home. On 1/22/22, he made his first suicide attempt. He took morphine mixed with oxycodone, thinking that would work. He passed out for roughly six hours when he was awakened at 3 a.m. by the sound of his apartment’s fire alarms going off. To me, it was God telling him to wake up. He was in extreme pain from ingesting so many pills, and there was also a huge concern with his leg. He called 911 on his own, and they took him to HCMC, immediately performing surgery for compartment syndrome on his leg. This is a known complication for overdose patients. Once I knew everything had happened, I did my best to encourage him, love him, beg him to stay with me. Because of COVID shutdowns, I was unable to visit him for at least a week. When I finally got to see him, I hugged him and told him to never think that I would be ‘better off without him.’ He had told the psychiatrist at HCMC that he regretted this decision. Upon discharge, he stayed at a crisis facility for a few days. I’m not sure if it helped.”Renee Klein
He developed compartment syndrome in his leg from the attempt, impairing blood flow and potentially leading to tissue damage.
It resulted in “drop foot,” a paralysis type that hinders the ability to lift the front part of the foot, necessitating a leg brace, which Klein described as burdensome and painful.
Klein expressed frustration that her son was not adequately informed about his condition.
“He avoided a lot of that talk,” she said, lamenting his reluctance to engage with his health issues despite his capacity for understanding complex information.
“In April of 2022, he agreed to go to an eating disorder facility for adults. Children’s wouldn’t take him anymore as they said he was ‘too old.’ He had to go out of state because there are no hospital programs in Minnesota for adults, only residential and intensive outpatient clinics that he didn’t qualify for because he was too underweight. He only stayed at this facility in Colorado for two weeks. I don’t know if he brought any pills with him or if he ran out or really anything. He came home on his own decision. I thought things were going better by summer. He made plans to go back to Minneapolis to enroll once and for all at the University of Minnesota and start his transfer degree. He had even made a road trip with a few friends to Montreal for fun. He texted me on the way back about how bad his foot had gotten with all of the walking around they did. This was the first I knew about how bad it was. School started in September, and I was driving him to classes. He was doing OK, made a new friend but was also abusing painkillers. I came to pick him up one day in October to find his roommate giving him CPR and ambulance crews coming in to administer Narcan. ‘Luckily’ his roommate was home, heard him struggling to breathe, and went in to save him. I can’t thank him enough for giving me five more months with Zane. That day, I knew he had used opioids because the Narcan administered by first responders worked and he came back to life there in front of us. He lied and said he had a party drug. For fun. Pretending to be experimenting like so many other students. That wasn’t true either. He was just throwing me off the scent so that I wouldn’t know his secret.”Renee Klein
A photo taken at the start of his second semester revealed Zane’s alarming thinness, Klein recalled.
“At the time, I was unaware that it was due to drug use combined with the stress of finals in December — staying up all night, drinking excessive amounts of Red Bull, possibly to counteract the effects of morphine,”she said.
He had also been illicitly taking Adderall.
“December came, and with finals coming up, he pulled all-nighters, ate poorly, and consumed loads of energy drinks. I didn’t realize then that it was to combat the sleepy effects of morphine, plus a new drug called pregabalin. This drug was prescribed for his nerve pain from his leg injury. It also has a strong warning of suicide ideation. It seems odd that someone would prescribe him that drug less than a year after his first attempt with no psychological interventions. As a final project for Chinese class, he and a buddy sang a very sad song that he chose, which is written by a famous Taiwanese band. This was something I found on his phone after he passed.”Renee Klein
Klein delves into the complex web of her son’s struggles, underscoring the interconnectedness of his mental and physical health issues.
“The dilemma he faced was profound: not wanting to live, feeling unable to continue. It’s tragic because ulcerative colitis shouldn’t be a death sentence within five years,” Klein said. “But when you combine that with ARFID, existing anxiety, depression, and autism, it becomes overwhelming, especially without proper support.” She expressed frustration with the healthcare approach, which seemed to focus heavily on medication: “Doctors too often resort to prescribing pills as the sole solution.”
After Zane’s leg injury, he was prescribed an increased amount of medication, including nerve pain treatments such as gabapentin, which has known mood-altering effects.
“I honestly believe that the narcotics prescribed to him countless times since 2018, gave him a known condition called narcotic bowel syndrome. Every time he felt bad enough to go to the hospital, he usually was given narcotics. His pain went away. He went home. Then the cycle would repeat. I believe this gave him a dependence.”Renee Klein
She criticized the healthcare system’s approach, describing it as experimental and inadequate for her son’s complex needs.
“And I think part of the problem is that he didn’t always go to the same hospital. His records were scattered which made him harder to track as a drug seeker. I don’t think Zane was a drug seeker. I think his body put him in pain to get what it thought it needed. At some point, I started mentioning this to doctors. To his own gastro doc, to the ER, anyone with an MD. Could he have narcotic bowel syndrome? All I got were blank stares. At any time, they could have screened the blood they were already taking from him at his gastro visits. I know that Zane knew he was in trouble when he started getting it on his own but even then, I don’t think he understood narcotic bowel syndrome and how it can make you feel pain as a way of getting what it needed.”Renee Klein
Reflections on missed signs and a final goodbye
In February, Zane confided to his mother that he wanted to drop out of school.
“Not just for the semester, but to leave the University of Minnesota altogether due to mounting stress,” she said. He expressed concerns about his ability to maintain satisfactory grades and revealed that he was experiencing a mental health crisis.
She was overwhelmed, juggling full-time work, caring for four other children, and dealing with the recent theft of her car.
“How can I help you?” she repeatedly asked her 22-year-old son, contemplating if a mobile health unit might be the answer.
“Now, looking back at his prior suicide attempt 13 months ago, I can’t help but wonder why I didn’t see the signs,” Klein said. “He never explicitly mentioned suicide, so I failed to recognize the severity of his condition. At that time, I was dealing with significant stress myself.”
Her stress was exacerbated by the need to drive Zane to and from his classes. Despite these challenges, she offered him steadfast support, which he acknowledged in a note found after his death, referring to her as the best mother and his most reliable supporter.
On the evening of March 29, a text from Zane’s roommate prompted concern.
“He said, ‘Do you know where Zane is? I can’t get into the apartment.’ And I was like, ‘He should be there; he doesn’t have a car. He’s supposed to be at home,'” Klein recounted the conversation.
She was immediately worried. “That’s when I quickly realized something was wrong,” she said.
Klein called 911. “I informed them of the situation,” she remembered.
Eventually, Zane’s roommate called with devastating news. Zane had died.
“I felt so sorry for him,” Klein said, referring to Zane’s roommate. “It’s a horrific thing to experience. This was your roommate, your friend since junior high. I’m certain he has many regrets. That’s the burden of those left behind. Everyone has regrets. Everyone wishes they had said or done something different.”
In the days before his suicide, Zane’s behavior was concerning.
“He had just planned his own birthday parties six days earlier,” she said. “He was saying goodbye. He made it significant because it was his golden birthday. He said he wanted to acknowledge everyone that mattered to him. ‘Yep, I’ve had a good time. Now it’s time for me to go.’ It all made sense in retrospect.”
Zane’s suicide note was brief, but it gave Klein access to his phone to find a more extensive letter he had written before his first suicide attempt in January 2022.
In a portion of his note, Zane’s words suggested he was suffering from anhedonia, which is the inability to find pleasure or interest in activities once enjoyed. “I don’t believe he ever learned the word, but as a former spelling bee champion, perhaps he did,” she speculated in her own writing.
“I was in gifted & talented programs as a kid; I was supposed to be one of the ones who’d go on to do great things. Or at least be successful enough to support myself. But I’ve grown to be so lazy, unmotivated, and complacent over the last few years that I’m not even close to where I’d like to be in terms of life goals, and I don’t see the possibility of myself ever changing in that respect, to be frank. I was banking on having one very good skill by this point if nothing else — being able to speak Chinese well so I could be an interpreter or translator someday — but I have not really made any progress on that in over a year. I didn’t even schedule any classes for this semester. The reason for this and me not making any progress is mainly that I have lost all interest. And I don’t just mean interest in Chinese; I’ve become uninterested in almost everything that I used to find interesting. It’s as if what makes the world bearable has been slowly drained out of me. It’s an embarrassing existence, and yet I have no desire to do anything else with my life. I find basically everything in life to be extremely dull now, and I don’t think anti-depressant medication would have helped with that. I’m just done seeing what life has to offer.”Zane Stranger in his note to his family
That, she says, is painful to read.
“There is so much shame in that note that didn’t belong to him,” she typed underneath it.
“That’s not how I saw him, but he was so trapped in addiction and depression and pain that he let the thoughts get to him,” she wrote. “The amount of pain and nausea he endured in the last five years of his life were cruel and unfair. He just wanted to feel better. He wanted to be free of pain.”
After Zane’s death, the University of Minnesota finally contacted Klein. They had struggled to locate her as his emergency contact, a lapse they acknowledged with an apology. Klein challenged the university to cut through red tape that hinders students in crisis, arguing that a less cumbersome system might prevent students from spiraling into despair.
Her message was direct.
“You might want to make it easier for kids who are struggling, so they don’t end up taking their own lives over something like an unpaid bill because they had to drop a class,” Klein said. “That just reinforces the lie they’re telling themselves — that they’re failures. They feel trapped, thinking they should give up.”
What could have been
Klein believes that a simple act of kindness might have altered the course of events.
“I think a girl could have easily saved him. If a girl had looked his way, I think it would have delayed it,” she said. “And I think maybe that’s why he was distracted and delayed for how many years because of an interest in this person, or I’m going to study this, or I’m going to do this. But it was always in the back of his head.”
Klein’s voice trembles as she wonders how things would have turned out differently if COVID-19 never happened.
“I think COVID did a weird number on people,” she said.
She speculates that her son’s life could have been different without the pandemic. “Zane was set to go to China in the summer of 2020 through a study abroad program. He was signed up and ready by December, and then COVID happened. That would have changed his life.”
Facebook support group
Klein has found solidarity in a Facebook group for parents in similar plights. Sadly, new members join each week, seeking answers.
“Some parents don’t have notes, and they’re jealous,” Klein says. But she notes that, despite the notes, the outcome remains unchanged, and time cannot be rewound.
Members of her support group have expressed a common sentiment: They believe if their children had better understood the pain their suicides would cause, they might not have taken that step.
Klein disagrees, offering insight into the nature of mental illness.
I don’t believe that’s true because depression hijacks you,” she said. “And it doesn’t allow you to see anything else.”
She acknowledges the commonality of regret in the tragedy of losing a child, regardless of the cause.
“You hear these stories of kids who are able to fight cancer and have this amazing attitude and a strong will to fight. Not everyone is like that. Zane was diagnosed with celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, appendicitis, primary sclerosing cholangitis, ARFID, C. diff (three times) and cyclic vomiting syndrome all within about three years. This was as a young man living with autism and already trying to figure out how to live in a neurotypical world. I think he fought as hard as he could with what he had.”Renee Klein
Klein’s reflection on her son’s struggles leads to a broader conversation about the complex factors contributing to such situations.
“There are so many reasons for people to go down this path,” she observed. “Is it mental illness, depression, sudden-onset depression, recurring depression? There are so many facets of this; I wouldn’t know how to tell anybody to stop their loved one from doing it, even if they knew how.”
She highlighted the delicate balance between personal responsibility and the need for external support.
“That person has to want to get help,” she said. “But then again, you can’t put it all on them. In the same way, you wouldn’t say to someone bleeding on the side of the road, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to get yourself help.’ There’s a point in mental health where you have to take over for them. But sometimes you don’t know how to do that, and who do you call?”
Klein thinks her son’s actions were influenced by numerous factors, often rooted in false perceptions.
“He had a lot of reasons, but most of them were just lies anyway,” she said with a heavy heart. “I think the medical system failed him. I’ve received condolences from so many people, yet I have yet to hear from one doctor. These are the people who were supposed to take care of him. They learned of his death, and they said nothing. How does that work?”
Zane’s lasting impact
Zane was laid to rest on April 21 at Eden Prairie Cemetery, where a headstone has not yet been placed. At the gravesite, flags from various countries have been planted into the ground alongside letters spelling out his name.
“I call it the circus,” Klein said of the memorial set up where Zane is buried. “We put all these flags in the ground because this is what he loved. This reflected his personality.”
The pastor officiating his service urged those attending to write their goodbyes on his casket with Sharpies. Many did, in several different languages. Klein said his friends and teachers came to say goodbye to Zane, “who everybody knew because he was so unique.”
Schwarze, one of his paras at Eagle Heights, spoke at his service, reflecting on the enduring legacy he left behind.
She said their relationship evolved from mutual wariness to a deep connection, shaping Schwarze’s approach to teaching and life. Zane’s wit and intellect, from reciting pi to challenging teachers in spelling, became the stuff of Eagle Heights Spanish Immersion School legend. His unique fascination with a yellow marker he named “Laser Lemon” exemplified his distinctive character and love for specific hues.
Schwarze knew he was struggling with his health in recent years, and “my heart hurt for that little boy that zipped through the halls,” she said.
“When (Zane’s sister) Zoe called to tell me about Zane, my heart broke,” she said. “I don’t think he will ever know how much of an impact he had on me and his teachers and educators. We all have different stories, but one thing is for sure: he made each and every one of us a better person.”
Friend and classmate Crystal Li also remembered their time together at his funeral service, particularly highlighting their shared experience in the EPHS High School marching band. She recounted how Zane took pride in his ability to write a complex Chinese character, a skill he showcased each year by drawing it with chalk on the ground during band camp. This tradition extended to Li’s graduation party.
Li’s remarks offered a glimpse into their shared history and the personal significance of Zane’s interests and talents, including his delight in using his Nintendo Switch and a humorous instance involving a pack of seaweed with Peppa Pig packaging.
“Zane has had more of an impact on my life than he probably ever realized,” Li said. “His ardent passion for learning languages and linguistics inspired me to pursue a linguistics degree in college. Also, I probably would not even be at my current company if it weren’t for Zane introducing me to the company back in 2018. I will be forever grateful and cherish all these precious memories. I offer my condolences to Zane’s family and friends, who also share countless memories with him. I know Zane is at peace, and I will miss him.”
As Klein reflects on her approach to writing about Zane and its eventual form, she is uncertain about the exact message she intends to convey.
“I certainly don’t know what the answer to preventing suicide is,” Klein said. “I can be vulnerable and let God use our story. At this point, it’s all I have to offer.”
“Absolutely nothing about this is your fault, so blaming yourself is the last thing you should do. You have been my biggest advocate for my entire life (even more than myself, usually) and I couldn’t be more grateful for you. I don’t think it would be possible to ask for a better mother than you. I’m sorry for not telling you about my addiction or the feeling I’ve felt of wanting to die for many years now. I didn’t tell anyone out of a fear of getting institutionalized before I could attempt anything. And please, don’t let my death ruin your life or anything. This might all feel like a bad dream, but it’s the choice I’ve made. I wish I could watch you grow old and care for you when you need it. If it weren’t for you being around, I probably would have done this a long time ago. You’re the one who’s kept me going for so long … I’m just at the end of my rope at this point. I’m sorry for everything I’ve put you through. I love you so much.”Zane Stranger note to his mother
Stay tuned for Part 6 of the Silent Struggles series next week: Reporter Mark Weber examines the Eden Prairie Police Department’s approach to juvenile crisis intervention, focusing on mandatory officer training and enhanced interagency communication.
Editor’s note: This EPLN project is partially funded by grants from the Eden Prairie Community Foundation and the Eden Prairie AM Rotary.
If you or a loved one is in crisis, please call 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or text “MN” to 741741. Trained counselors are available to help 24/7/365.
If you or a loved one is at imminent risk, please contact 911 and ask for a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officer.
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