Forever and Ever
Four years ago today my brother died of a heroin overdose. Maybe not died - that could have happened days earlier. We're not clear on that. My brother lived in Colorado, my parents in Pennsylvania. I had moved down to Tennessee to be with T, so none of us could drop by Gunnar's place to check on him, even if we had been concerned. I found out only later that my brother hadn't answered his friends' calls for a couple days before he was found, the needle still in his belly. He didn't answer my call that day, four years ago, a few hours before his body was discovered. I didn't think anything of it. I was sure he was off somewhere in the summer sun with his dog, happy and laughing. Gunnar experienced joy just as fully and deeply as he did pain. Like me.
Before I allowed his friends in to clean out his apartment I spoke with the detective investigating his death, a kind man, who never once made us feel that Gunnar was just another dead junkie to him. I told him I had a very difficult question, but I needed him to be honest with me. I wasn't crying. I don't think my voice even broke as I asked him what the condition of my brother's body was when he was found. Would it be awful if his friends came to clean his apartment? I couldn't send these people, most of whom I knew, some of whom I loved, into that situation. No, the detective answered back. The fan in his bedroom had been on. It had been cool in there. They would be fine.
Waiting for the detective to answer that question was not the worst moment of all the awful moments surrounding my brother's death. At that point I was riding a wave of dull, dumb numbness that even the term decomposition - never spoken aloud, but squatting like a poisonous toad in the back of my brain - couldn't quite pierce. No, the worst was the moment my father told me, over the phone, him in Pennsylvania, me in Tennessee, that my brother was dead. He said he didn't know how it had happened yet, the police officer who came to the door had just told him Gunnar had been found in his bed.
I remember it took a bit for me to get that my dad was telling me my brother was gone. Irreversibly gone. Forever gone. T was standing before me, holding my arms, looking into my eyes. I whispered to him that Gunnar was dead and he helped slow my collapse to the floor. I hadn't quite understood the meaning of the word keening until that I heard the sounds that came from me then, an unholy mix of sobbing and screaming and the word "no" repeated over and over again. I cried until my voice was gone. I cried until my face was swollen. I don't know that I've ever really stopped crying. The tears are always there now, ready to spill over whether I'm happy or sad.
I moved back into my parents' house after Gunnar's death, T joining me later. The grief I endured over the next months didn't lessen so much as mutate. I felt infested with it, like it had metastasized from my heart, creeping into my blood. My bones. The pain that had once been sharp, so sharp it made me double over, curl into myself with the force of it, turned into a relentless ache. I tried to alleviate it with therapy, with writing about my brother's death and the sorrow I was experiencing. I don't know that it helped.
I didn't try to lose myself in drugs or booze or sex. When Gunnar died I was more emotionally stable than I'd ever been. But I still look back on that time with wonderment, amazed that his loss didn't destroy me. I knew that my brother's fate could have - should have, maybe - been my own. My end could have come at so many times, in so many ways. Suicide. Sex with a stranger who turned out to be a monster. An accident borne of self-destructive recklessness. Overdose. For decades I invited it all. But I dodged what Gunnar couldn't and I don't know why. Four years out from his death and I still sometimes wonder in my worst moments why I made it and Gunnar didn't.
If I had died, would Gunnar have lived? Would he have gotten the help he looked for but never found, shocked sober and sane by my loss?
Maybe part of the bottomless grief I feel is borne of survivor's guilt. Or maybe it's because I didn't try to save my brother, not really. I never visited him in the year between the admission of his heroin and crack use - just to me, not to our parents or his friends - and his death. I called him, checked to make sure he was still clean over a phone line from a thousand miles away, but I didn't get on a plane to go see him. My relationship with T was already a nightmare. I was already dying a little, losing who I was in order to be what he wanted. I believed that if I left T to go to Colorado he would make me pay for it, withdrawing his affection, what passed for his love. I was exhausted and confused and I chose T over my brother. I don't know how I live with this.
I never got to tell Gunnar how brilliant and beautiful I thought he was. He knew I loved him, at least I hope he did, but I don't know if he ever knew how dazzled I was by him, by his charisma and humor, his intellect and generosity. That haunts me. Gunnar and I loved each other and battled each other in equal measure, two people too alike not to clash. But he was the one person I believed would be with me my entire life. My parents are in their 80s, in failing health. After they're gone I'll have no one. So I suppose my grief is not only for Gunnar, but for myself. For the years we should have ahead together, but don't. For the loneliness I'll soon face, and the longing for a family that no longer exists.
People keep telling me, well-meaning people, people I love, that my grief will lessen. I don't believe them. My grief resides in a small, secret place tucked inside of me, where no one can go. I won't allow it to be made weak, or diminished. My grief will endure, burning cold and bright because I owe it to my brother to bear it.
5/19/2018 06:11:27 pm
So glad I got to know Gunnar. I can really relate to what you say about how the grief never seems to fade and as time passes it seems more friends succumb to overdoses and suicides. Another guy I knew, not well but very well liked in the community killed himseld a few weeks ago. It makes me wish these folks knew how loved they were and how dangerous the risks of drug use are and how dangerous untreated depression is. May u find peace somehow in all this Jill.
5/19/2018 06:39:59 pm
Oh Jill, what a heartbreaking post. I have never known this loss but I hear yours so loudly. I too have keened. You are holding that grief because it is all you have of Gunnar now. It is yours to feel and hold and that is perfectly fine. Much love and admiration.
5/19/2018 06:42:27 pm
Jill, I'm so sorry you have to bear this. Reading this post makes me know how glad I am to have my sister in our old age. We both did a lot of foolish things in our lives, and we've had obstacles that pushed us apart, but our love of each other has always drawn us back together. I'm grateful we've had the time for all of this. No one knows us like our siblings. And when the parents are gone, if we have each other, we are lucky. You've made this clear.
5/19/2018 06:49:28 pm
It still shocks me still. I miss him so much.
5/19/2018 07:13:52 pm
Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest places, if you look at it right.
5/19/2018 07:16:17 pm
We all feel your loss, Stay Strong!
5/19/2018 08:58:51 pm
Beautifully rendered. Wished I'd known him.
5/19/2018 09:02:57 pm
Some well meaning nurse asked me if I was still grieving over my Mother's death. I got angry (inside). I wanted to slap her. OF COURSE I'm still grieving. Had she never lost anyone? Grief isn't something that goes away. It is like chronic pain you learn how to live with (perhaps) - but it is always there. It may lessen in intensity - but it doesn't disappear. The world just changes.
5/19/2018 10:29:59 pm
Jill your pain, heartbreak, and grief are real. I don't know if anyone ever gets over losing a loved one especially one that was so close to you. But you remember the good times you had with them. Gunnar is in your heart forever. ❤
5/19/2018 10:32:10 pm
Perfect description of how grief changes you and stays with you. A haunting and beautiful tribute.
5/19/2018 11:44:22 pm
Jill, I don't believe the grief of a dearly beloved one ever goes away. It may change intensity and wash over you like a tsunami without any warning . I am so sorry for your loss of Gunner and the guilt you feel. I'm sure he wouldn't want you to feel that way but to enjoy your life and make a difference in those lives you touch with your writing. Prayers being lifted for you.
5/19/2018 11:45:16 pm
Thank you for sharing, Jill. It is hard to explain grief because it is such a wild animal. We all seem to experience it a little differently, and maybe it does lessen for some, but for others of us it lingers in the way you described, and we all deal with that differently, too. Nothing wrong with it.
5/21/2018 02:42:24 am
Thank you for sharing and for your strength. I just thought of Gunner yesterday, I left Colorado years ago and hadn’t been in touch so I’m just now learning about his death. What a pure and beautiful heart he had and such a joy for living I am eternally grateful to have had the opportunity to know him. I feel like to know Gunner is to love him and his love will always be with us. Jill without a doubt he is with you, he feels you and wishes for your happiness and peace. I am Sending you support and ease as you travel through this grieving process.
5/22/2018 03:28:02 pm
I so deeply sympathise Jill. My brother died (from depression) in 2010 and my Dad died many years before. When my Mum dies (she is 86) I will have absolutely no blood family either. It's so hard to deal with that on a day to day basis. We are friends on Facebook and I read about your fearless travels and know you are a strong person - but every strong person has their own devils and sadness - so lean on your "family" of friends and if you ever want to chat you know where I am. Look after yourself.
6/9/2018 02:35:51 am
I deeply respect your pain and your opinion. What a trooper of a human you are.
6/13/2018 05:16:51 pm
I read your Kate Spade piece and about your brother. I've had some of these issue my entire life and your words touched me deeply. I suddenly felt warm tears running down my face. I wish I could hug you and that we could cry together.
8/25/2018 06:04:12 pm
Jean ,replace the anger with all the beautiful things you knew and know about your brother . Replace the guilt with something you in your heart of hearts know that Gunner would wanted and would have wished for you in this life. I have had losses and know what you feel I know exactly what you mean about the grief but dear your brother would never want you to suffer or feel such hurtful gilt .
10/8/2018 04:51:24 pm
Just read your article. I was diagnosed with depression about 15 year’s ago during a bad marriage. I take my medication and exercise everyday but the depression lives in me. It never moves out. I have just learned to move through it but I hate it. I have those thoughts alway’s and assume they are here to stay.
11/27/2019 09:47:03 pm
Jill, As I sit here alone in my kitchen on the day before Thanksgiving, I'm alone...again. My heart grieves for you and all of the loss you've experienced. I'm missing my mom, my dog, and my boyfriend, who I know was bad for me but I miss him anyway. Sometimes I ask myself who (or what) else is next in a long line of losses in my life.
12/27/2019 12:25:58 pm
I'd like to discuss an opportunity to publish your story - if possibly even others as well. Site details i can provide in more detail in private message. If issue, simply respond NA and I'll get it.
12/26/2020 10:10:15 pm
I love your thoughts, and how you dealt, and are dealing, with the passing of your brother! I found your website, by reading an article you wrote about Murphy beds! One thing led to another, and here I am... I'll be back to read some more... May this find you at peace! :)
1/26/2022 08:44:34 pm
Thank you for venturing into this difficult place to help your readers better understand their own lives and challenges.
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Jill Gleeson is a journalist based in the hills of western Pennsylvania. She is a current contributor to The Pioneer Woman, Country Living, Group Travel Leader, Select Traveler, Going on Faith, Wander With Wonder, Enchanted Living and State College Magazine, where her column, Rebooted, is featured monthly. Other clients have included