Gunnar is part of a large family that has been personally impacted by the suicide death of his first cousin, Benjamin Curry Stassen, in 2010. Gunnar’s aunt and Godmother, Helen, is Benjamin’s mother. Benjamin was a 21-year-old junior in college when he died.
Now almost ten years later his parents, Jay and Helen Stassen of Prescott, Wisconsin, are supporting Gunnar in this project to highlight the critical need for greater focus on suicide awareness, prevention and providing support for those who must live in the aftermath.
This will be Gunnar’s third Iditarod run. He is dedicating his 2021 race to increasing suicide awareness and prevention. He would be honored to carry your loved one’s name throughout his run in March 2021.
A Dedication Letter From Gunnar
My cousin Benjamin was the second and youngest son of my mother’s youngest sister, Helen. Benjamin was a handsome young man with a quick, sly smile. He spoke enthusiastically about his dreams for the future, which included finishing college and heading west to try his hand at flipping houses. As a child, Benjamin loved naps on the lawn and big slices of watermelon on a hot summer day. He was a typical kid.
On October 22, 2010, a quiet fall day, Benjamin died by suicide on the banks of the Mississippi near St. Thomas University in St Paul, Minnesota. He was 21 years old.
His death felt like being blindsided in a horrible car wreck. His funeral held an overwhelming sense of sadness and confusion as we buried that sweet young man. What happened? Why? Did we miss some clue? Even now, ten years later, the sense of grief and trauma is still fresh and painful. The waves of feelings from Benjamin’s death will forever haunt his parents and brother. His death also impacts our extended family in powerful and traumatizing ways.
In 1991, I was a young man about the age Benjamin was when he died. I ran the Iditarod Dog Sled Race. It took me 22 days to get from Anchorage to Nome. I was totally unprepared for the journey. The race took me from the highest emotional highs to the deepest depths of fear and despair. My dog team and I travelled across the frozen Alaskan wilderness through four major snowstorms, temperatures of 40 below, more than 1,000 miles of dirt, snow and ice. The journey changed me in good ways and bad. It gave me a grittiness that has been invaluable throughout my life, but it also left emotional scars that still haunt me.
Twenty-six years later in 2017, I had an opportunity to run the Iditarod again. People asked me to carry all sorts of items on the race: belt buckles, beads, letters, and bibles. Carrying anything on a 1,000-mile dog sled journey is extremely burdensome. Weight matters. It always makes more sense to bring a second set of gloves rather than a useless belt buckle. In the end, the only “memento” I brought on the race that year was a metal pocket token created in remembrance of Benjamin.
My second time around on the Iditarod trail I had a little bit better understanding of what I was doing. Still the race was difficult. The temperatures this time dipped to 55 below. The snow was unusually deep, my dog team had issues, I learned mid-race that my father-in-law had died unexpectedly, and I struggled to keep pace with my lofty race plan. At one of my lowest points, my dog team quit in the middle of Norton Bay on the Bering Sea, some 200 miles from the finish. When you look over the entire Iditarod trail, the one spot you do not want to get stranded is exactly where I was stranded. My wife was waiting for me in Nome and was told that my race was over because “no one gets off that ice.”
I spent 18 1/2 hours out on the sea ice. As I laid on the ice in my sleeping bag that night, the wind blew while the temperature dropped to 15 below. I was about as alone as a person could be. Lying there was oddly spiritual because I was exhausted, scared, hungry, angry and totally alone. I looked into the darkness and thought about Benjamin. I could feel his presence because he was with me on this journey. His spirit gave me a renewed sense of power and purpose.
All the while, I had a small device on the front of my sled with a button. If I pushed the button, someone would come rescue me and my race would be over. I struggled with whether to push the button. In the depths of my dilemma, pushing the button sometimes seemed like a logical solution to my problems.
Ultimately, I did not push the button, and I managed to get off Norton Bay. I was a wreck when I arrived at the next checkpoint. I pulled myself and the team together and moved forward. After 10 days and 22 hours of racing, I made it to the finish line in Nome with 11 dogs and the spirit of Benjamin in my sled. We both completed our journey.
I have signed up for the 2021 Iditarod. Benjamin’s parents, Helen and Jay Stassen, his brother Peter, and I would like to expand on the journey I took with Benjamin in 2017. We are gathering the names of other victims of suicide to be carried in my dog sled during the race. At the race conclusion the names will be presented, we will honor the memory of all and then the list will be burned, with the ashes spread on the frozen water where they will flow into the vast Artic Seas with the Spring melt.
We are gathering and carrying names for two reasons. First, to remember individuals who have died by suicide. Once suicide touches you, it becomes impossible not to see that it is a national epidemic. Despite its sad prevalence, suicide is not easy to talk about. We want to wipe away the stigma and silence and remember the individuals lost. Second, we want to support the family and friends who have survived a suicide loss. Grief and trauma linger on even if our loved one has died long ago. We believe that being part of this journey across Alaska can offer support to survivors living with the ongoing emotional impacts brought on by suicide. We hope it sparks a meaningful conversation. We hope it brings peace.
We are not doing this to raise money for any cause or organization. It is simply to remember those that have died and support those left behind. Nothing more.
I cannot promise that my dog team and I will complete the full race circuit. Last year, over 40% of the Iditarod participants scratched before the finish. I know that the trek will be a highly emotional journey in and of itself. Carrying what I expect might be a long list of names will not be easy. Well beyond its physical weight, the stories are also emotionally heavy. We will give it our best shot. In the end, it is about the journey not the finish line.
If your life has been touched by suicide, please join us in this spiritual trek. To add names to the list, simply visit www.gunnariditarodhope.com or send a name(s) to Iditarod Hope, PO Box 152, Prescott, WI 54021.
Pleases follow us on Twitter @iditarodhope https://twitter.com/iditarodhope too.
January 2021 update
The ceremony of the burning of the names will take place at the historic start of the Iditarod after Gunnar and his team finish the race. The location is near the shore of the Knik Arm. More details to follow.