This is a story I've never told. This is the story of how, a little over two years ago, my brother died of a heroin overdose. I've hidden the truth from most people about Gunnar's death - even his friends, even our extended family - at the request of my parents. But I'm not ashamed of how he died, I never have been, and I think we dishonor him by hiding behind half-facts like "His heart failed." Yes, Gunnar's heart failed. His big, beautiful heart - strong, if never wise - failed because a few days after his college graduation he injected a dose of heroin into a vein in his belly. And it killed him. And he laid there, in his bed, for we're not sure how long. Perhaps a day. Perhaps - more likely - as many as three. While his cell phone rang and rang and rang, his hordes of friends wondering where he'd gotten to, and me and my parents thinking he was still alive. Thinking life would go on like it always had. Thinking we had time, still, to be a family instead of the weary, worn little band of survivors we've become.
About a year before he died my brother called me one night. I was living in Knoxville with T, had been for about three months. Gunnar told me that he'd been shooting heroin, been smoking crack. But he was several months clean. He was seeing an addiction counselor, a therapist, a nutritionist. He was working out; the gym was his new addiction. Not, I think, that he was ever precisely addicted to heroin. He wasn't a longtime user...it hadn't yet eaten away at all that was good in him. He was, at 42, entering his last year at the University of Colorado and maintaining a high G.P.A. as a philosophy major. He was, not to overstate it, beloved by his professors and fellow students. So many of them called and wrote us after his death. They sobbed when they talked to us, even his advisor.
Gunnar was the single most magnetic human being I've ever met. I once called my brother the only person I knew who was a celebrity without being famous. He had hundreds of friends - and not just social media friends, but people he'd met over the years and drawn into his always-widening army of cohorts and admirers. Many of them modern-day hippies like him, whose best days were the ones spent inside a venue, at a Dead or Widespread Panic show. Everyone who knew him has a story. Rich, a friend to both my brother and me, talks about the time he casually mentioned to Gunnar that he liked his coat. My brother literally gave it to him off his back. "No, Richie, you have it," he'd insisted when Rich had objected. "Please, I want you to have it."
Gunnar was equally generous with me, hitchhiking from Colorado to Oklahoma to help pack a moving truck and whisk me away from a toxic boyfriend. I was in the Memphis airport once with that same boyfriend, in a long line of travelers stranded by a storm at Christmastime, when I mentioned that I hoped Gunnar, at least, had made it home. "Gunnar??!!" hollered a girl in line behind me. "Did you say GUNNAR?? Do you know Gunnar??" After I nodded, told her yep, he was my brother, the little group around her cheered. Stranded at the damned Memphis airport at Christmas and there's a half-dozen people who know Gunnar. Do you know that two years after his death one of his friends is still making buttons with his picture on them, spreading them far and wide so my brother can still go to shows and travel the world?
But Gunnar had something inky-black and hungry tucked inside of him, a cruel, sharp-toothed little beast that ate, ate, ate away at him, gnawing at any contentment he found, any peace. He hurt. I know it, because I recognized it. It was the same hurt I've felt within myself, only Gunnar had it in greater measure. I suspect that's why I'm still alive and he's dead. The worst part of it for me, the saddest, most terrible thing of all, is that he fought so hard to heal himself. So very hard. But he didn't quite make it.
That night that Gunnar told me he'd been using heroin I didn't get angry. I think mostly I was just...dazed. I remember parts of my face feeling numb, my lips and fingertips going cold. I'm sure I said the most supportive things I could. After I finally hung up I went to T, crawled into bed beside him. "My brother," I said, "is going to die. He's clean now, but he'll relapse and overdose or get sent to prison. And then my parents will die. I'm going to lose them all. And then I'll be alone." T didn't say what I needed to hear. "I'm your family now, baby girl," he didn't say. "You'll never be alone, " he didn't say. He was probably even then wondering what he'd gotten himself into. As ferverishly as I loved him, a part of me was, too. I was wondering what I was doing with a man who often seemed as if encased in glass, under a bell jar. Unreachable.
I didn't go out to Colorado to see my brother, to support him in his quest to keep sober. I was so overwhelmed, so depressed, my life in such upheaval after leaving my friends and family and moving down South to be with T. I couldn't muster the will or the energy necessary to make that trip. I don't kid myself that I would have saved him. That a year later he wouldn't have died, alone in his room. But he would have, at least, known how very, very much I loved him.
Do you have a story about my brother? Please share it in the comments below, or if privacy is necessary, use the link above to email me. I'd really like to hear it.
8/12/2016 01:54:10 am
8/12/2016 01:59:52 am
Dureing hs i was known by all. I was a wild crazy happy guy who seemed to have no rules. Thoe i was known i didnt have the ability to let people in. I was adopted young into a stormy family but gunnar had the ability to not only be a friend but a brother. I remember summers on hub lawn or being on the wall playing drums. I remember when we cooked at the allen room with moses . It is because of him i have the positive attitude i have now. One question where can i get a gunnar button i want to ware it proudly on my bag as we use to put grateful dead pins on our bags
8/12/2016 02:09:54 am
Wow Jill in my opinion there is nothing harder than being that open, honest and raw and letting everyone see the slow to heal wounds of a loss like that.
8/12/2016 02:39:24 am
I wish I'd known him. I really do. I remember when Rich came in, it was about the same time I met Paul. I'd never met Gunnar, and yet I grieved with all of you. I watched as these friends, most of whom I've never met, ache. And I ached with you. I read and heard the stories of this bigger-than-life man and I wished I'd known him even a little bit, so that I could feel justified in grieving his loss. I admit that I felt a bit of a fraud. But there's a silver lining, if you can handle the storm. I know Rich because of Starbucks. I know you, because of Gunnar. I think that's kind of beautiful in a bittersweet kind of way. I know I'm a poor substitute, but I hope I can bring a spot of joy to you in your heartache. I hope I can lighten the load a bit here and there. I want to help honor the memory of a man that I have no memories of and I wish I knew a better way to do that. Instead, I'll tell you that I'm grateful to have you in my life. That I look forward to the memories we'll create and that I cherish our conversations. I'm looking forward to our first phone call. And to showing off my new place to you. I want a celebratory dinner after we summit our first 14er. I'm excited. I like being excited again; I've missed it. Thank you for being my muse, Miss Jill. And thank you for sharing your pain. I know it's not easy to do.
8/12/2016 03:28:15 am
Gunnar was a social rock star. But, he made you feel like one too. Always, every time.
Heather Corrigan Card
8/12/2016 03:29:20 am
I (as well as many, many others) were in such shock when we heard that Gunnar had passed away. He seemed to have life pulled it together and was going to do more amazing things. Gunnar always had a smile on his face. I remember walking the hallways at school and there was gentle Gunnar smiling and talking away. I had just started working out again and Gunnar would encourage me as much as I was encouraging him on his quest. Lots of love to you and your family.
8/12/2016 04:16:31 am
I knew Gunner for the better part of 25 years… He was my show buddy. The smiling face across the crowd. The huge hug on the stairwell. Gunner was good. He was thoughtful,kind, and larger than life. I miss him.... Thank you for telling his tale. I wish peace for you and the rest of his family and friends…
8/12/2016 06:26:10 am
I have grown to love Gunnar through your heart, Jill. Your capacity to be honest may very well save lives of others who are struggling whether to get help. It also reminds me to show and share love today.
8/12/2016 11:03:44 am
Jill, your story could have been written by me, except not so artfully. I didn't know your brother but my Gunnar was named Peter. So much of how you have described your brother was mine...The magnetism, the sense of humor, the kindness, the addiction. My Peter was a good man. A modern-day Pied Piper. Those who knew him loved him and would never forget him. I also knew how much he hurt. And how monumental the achievement of turning his life around after decades of being possessed by the demons of alcoholism...My Peter survived, however only for 5 short years after getting sober. The best 5 years of his life. The love I have/had for that kid goes deep. The best person I ever knew. Lots of layers but a giant of kindness. He lost his battle to a body that he had abused for years...a body that couldn't give him more than five yeas of the new peace and serenity he had found. He passed away in my arms late one night - body broken but spirit soaring. I was the lucky one - I had 53 years with him - some very good and some very bad - of loving my best friend and guardian angel who is still watching over me from heaven. Thank you, Jill, for your story. It's mine, too.
8/12/2016 11:26:50 am
8/12/2016 11:46:31 am
I knew Gunnar for about the last year of his life. He was in a few philosophy classes with me at CU. I should mention that talking with him helped me improve my understanding of the topics in class. Perhaps my grades on my exams and papers wouldn't have been as good as they were had it not been for Gunnar's open discussions he had with me and my friends while we studied for class.
8/12/2016 12:20:29 pm
Gunnar was such a positive light to my friends and I. We were much younger than him as we were about 20 years old when we met him in 2010, but remained friends with him throughout our time at CU until I moved out of CO in 2013. We saw so many shows together and laughed until we cried. We would even workout together in the CU Rec Center and he looked GREAT. Doing kettle bells faster than I ever could. Two of my favorite memories of him are: 1) My friend Taylor and I went over to his house to hang out and we ended up at King Soopers to get some food, and Taylor and I didn't want anything, so we waited in the car for him for almost an hour, only to see him walking in the parking lot towards our call in his white sunglasses with only a watermelon. That's it. I lost it from laughter. 2) STS9 at the Ogden in 2011. My friend's car got towed while we were in the show and we were stranded without a ride back to Boulder from Denver. Gunnar immediately offered up his free space in his car and drove all of us home, not only safely, but also introduced us to the best hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant I've ever been to in CO. Love that guy and still miss him. I hope Orby is okay too! Great dog.
8/12/2016 01:49:18 pm
I think of him often and fondly. Wes wears his button. And we take him everywhere in spirit. Hats off to you for sharing a glimpse into the life of a man many of us thought we knew so well. The most compassionate and gracious souls carry the darkest burdens on their shoulders.
8/12/2016 02:34:12 pm
8/12/2016 03:00:11 pm
8/12/2016 03:00:28 pm
I went to high school with Gunnar, he was so funny...full of life! I remember one time in Junior High I had Co-Ed gym we had to clothes relays running to one end putting on clothes (over our own) running back and taking them off...well it was my turn, I ran, I put the clothes on, ran to the other side and started taking them off...that is the point I heard Gunnar laughing, saying Nancy we weren't suppose to take our clothes off too!! He was pointing...yes I was standing in my bra in front of everyone. Not sure why i remembered that moment, but I do. I wasn't real close to him but I did have several classes with him, he always made everyone laugh, and smile. He was a free spirit, full of life. I will never forget him. As everyone who knew him will not.
8/12/2016 06:29:21 pm
Thank you for sharing. I knew Gunnar in high school. His larger-than-life personality made him special. He was so easy to like. He was funny and friendly to everyone. So sorry for your loss. This blog must have been very hard and yet cathartic for you. It's never easy to lose someone, but I imagine that it becomes so much harder when it is someone so close to you, someone who had such magnetism, someone who has left such a strong impression on all who have met him, and a loved one who has passed under these circumstances. We can not judge Gunnar about circumstances surrounding his death. We have all made mistakes, just not fatal ones.. yet.. I know others who are struggling with the demon of addiction. Many of us have been just one step from losing everything, from jail, or from death at some point in our lives (not necessarily related to drugs.) May you continue to have some comfort in knowing how special he was to so many. If only we all could be remembered so fondly by so many!
8/13/2016 12:15:54 am
Wink (Erik Winkler)
8/13/2016 08:24:15 am
I'm not sure that you, Gunnar, and I have ever been in the same room at the same time, but back when he was in State College, PA for a while working at Zeno's, he stopped by my place for a post work drink. He knew you had been a frequent visitor of WWESC and said it was too bad you weren't here as well. I have no question that he knew how very, very much you loved him, and it was clear to me he felt the same love for you. Interesting this memory didn't come to until today. Hugs.
Young Jon Horan
8/13/2016 09:43:42 am
I'm going to try to type this story so that it was as funny as it was when it happened. It's very indicative of all of my times with Gunnar, which were many in the 12 years I knew him. So many funny stories. He and I rolled out of Red Rocks in the Black Caddy after a WSP show one night. Headed home after another night and we're both in a state... Gunnar got hungry and says, "I'm gonna pull off here and go to that Taco Bell/Pizza Hut to grab something. We pull into the drive thru line. There are a few cars in front of us. When we get to the ordering box the exchange goes like this:
Young Jon Horan
8/13/2016 09:48:05 am
And another one from last week. I received my Gunnar buttons from Matt Cox. Posted a selfie of me wearing the button on FB. I called my friend Michael to tell him that my wife Katie is pregnant and he said, "Yeah, when I saw that picture of you in your stealie shirt with the Gunnar button on I knew you were going to tell me she was pregnant soon."
8/13/2016 09:50:20 pm
I remember I first moved to State College from New York in the middle of the 6th grade in 1983. Gunnar was one of the first people i met in school, he also happened to be my first boyfriend here in PA for about 2 weeks in the summer. Thats about how long 6th grade relationships lasts at least in the 1980's. We also had matching Afro's we went well together. Seriously though even through out all the years of high school and all the problems he knew I had he was always kind, gracious and compassionate. He was one of the most generous and loving souls I have ever met, he could walk into a room and just change the feel of it with his energy. He will be greatly missed always and will hold a special place in my heart forever. Much love to you Jill and your family.
8/13/2016 10:20:28 pm
I dated Gunner for a spell and he made me smile so much my cheeks hurt. We'd since Grateful Deads songs together super loud in his car. I enjoyed spending time but it was suddenly all put to a halt because of an accident he was in. I tried to reach out but we did not speak for a super long time and then many moons later last time I saw him was the at the Lazy Dog, it was the NBA Finals
8/14/2016 12:55:12 am
I grew up with Gunnar in State College. I remember playing in his front yard and running around the neighborhood together raising hell as kids. We were probably only 12ish at the time and even then I remember liking his carefree approach to life and will never forget his laugh. Cool guy for sure and sad to loose another old friend to heroin. Sucks.
8/14/2016 01:44:50 pm
Gunnar was my best friend and dance partner for almost 20 years. I miss my best friend with excruciating, gnawing pain every day. We had dinner about 2 weeks before he died. I remember looking over at him and noticing a difference. A darkness. Going through my own darkness at that time kept me from asking about his. We had a good night. I whispered "Goodbye, Gunnar" as I left the next morning. I told myself the next time we got together I would ask him what was the matter. I will never forgive myself for not asking that night. His light lives in me now and I try to give it to others like he would have. And, I am consciously trying to appreciate life for what it is and the love I can give. Like he taught me.
8/14/2016 10:18:01 pm
I rock my pin every panic show I go to. Such a great human being. Think about him often
I dont remember when we started going to school together. Seems like we were young children when we met. Always had a smile and a "Hey Che" for me walking through the halls of the intermediate. Never a dull moment either, lots of friends in high school different click then me but never had a bad thing to say to me... The last interaction I had with Gunnar was, an argument with another person on face book and Gunnar in his eloquent yet direct way proceeded to schooled the fuck out of this dude and put him back in his narrow seat to think about the shit that just fell from his ass face.. As, at the same time, I did about the same thing.. Just not with the same finesse.. Jill, I have much love and respect for you and your family.. Peace and Blessings for you and yours... Ps: I read your blog... Love Che'
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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