This article originally appeared in the Gordie Center's 2019 print publication.
Lily Lanahan was 14 years old when her brother, Gordie, died as the result of hazing. Gordie was 4 years older than Lily, and the two had been best friends for all of Lily’s life. “Gordie was inclusive and we were incredibly close for siblings with a four-year age gap,” Lily remembers. “We adored one another. I completely idolized him and felt so loved as a kid and even as a teenager. He was the big brother who was cool and funny, but self-assured enough to be inclusive to a younger sister. We were technically half siblings (sharing the same mom) but were raised under the same roof and didn’t see that as any kind of barrier between us. In fact, it meant that I got to accompany Gordie on school breaks to visit his dad and stepmom or that we could all spend Thanksgiving together in Sun Valley, Idaho. We were a quirky but solid family unit, and we didn’t know anything different.”
“We spent our childhood running around our house in Dallas, Texas, making home videos, playing with the zoo of animals that our parents let us bring into the house, and spending countless hours in the pool. As we got older, Gordie pursued a love for the guitar and would sit in my room at night playing all of the new songs he had taught himself that day. Before he left for boarding school in Massachusetts, he taught me how to play lacrosse in the front yard. My mom and dad (Gordie’s stepdad) were supportive and available to us, but also encouraged us to be independent from a young age — whether it be sleep away camp for the summer or some sort of backpacking adventure. We didn’t have extended family in Texas, so our friends became actual family and holidays typically included travel to see relatives on the east or west coast.”
Gordie attended Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts while Lily was in middle school, and his positive experience there inspired Lily to attend boarding school as well. She chose her mother’s alma mater, The Taft School in Connecticut, and was 2 weeks into her boarding school experience when she was blindsided with the news that her brother had died.
“My entire world changed the day that Gordie passed. I lost my best friend and only sibling at 14 years old, and without a chance to say goodbye. Words can’t begin to describe the grief … Gordie’s death demanded a strength in me that I never knew possible. Friends and family showed up and supported us in the most incredible ways, and after a week at home in Texas, I made the tough decision to return to Taft. I was faced with the challenge of adapting to a new school, in a new part of the country, and with an entirely new support system. I needed to re-discover my identity, which was so embedded in my older brother’s personality. Being away from home provided me with a unique opportunity to do just that. I was given the chance to grieve on my own terms and to become my own person. I’m forever grateful to my family for giving me that opportunity; their love, trust, and confidence in me has provided so much freedom.”
Lily was left as Leslie and Michael’s only child after Gordie died, and the fracturing of their family of 4 was incredibly difficult on all of them. The death of a child can easily destroy a marriage, and Lily was very aware of this from a young age. “I am so fortunate to have two parents standing strong today, and I’m so proud that they were able to make it out of this tragedy together. My mom is the most resilient woman I know, and my dad is our rock. We’ve come out of this experience stronger and with so much love for life.”
Lily gave Leslie the strength to keep going every day — she didn’t want Lily to lose her mother the same day she lost her brother. “Seeing a parent in their most vulnerable state is absolutely devastating,” Lily says. “Although it was definitely not asked of me, I felt the need to be strong for my parents. Gordie’s passing forced me to face grief for the first time and to grow up really quickly. I had a difficult time in my teens learning that we all grieved differently, and that hardness probably prolonged a lot of grief that needed to happen. I was trying to get through school and figure out who I was without my brother. If I could go back to that time, I would tell myself to trust that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. It’s hard to know just how resilient the human spirit is until you’re forced to be in that position. I’m so proud of the strength I found as a 14-year-old.”
At Taft, Michael says Lily really channeled Gordie — she came out of her shell and really thrived there. Lily was elected school president her senior year at Taft, and chose to attend Trinity College in Connecticut after graduation. At 18 years old and starting college, Lily was in the same position her brother had been in 4 years earlier, and that parallel was not lost on her. “After building such a strong support system in high school, I dreaded the prospect of having to recreate that in college. I was navigating many of the same things that Gordie had just 4 years earlier: new school, friendships, classes, and Greek life. I wanted to live fully and unburdened by my tragedy, but in a way that felt safe and comfortable. I decided to go to a small liberal arts school where I knew several people from my high school, which provided a bit of a safety net that I didn’t feel Gordie had at such a big university. I ended up partaking in Greek life, making incredibly close friends, and leading HAZE screenings on campus along the way.”
While in college, Lily pursued her passion for art and art history, which led her to a graduate program in art and design in London. She began her post-graduate career in New York City at Sotheby’s auction house, and then was recruited by a design firm in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Today, Lily lives with her boyfriend Johnny in Sydney, Australia, where she is consulting for several design businesses and launching a home décor brand of her own. “When Gordie died, I gained an entirely new perspective on life that provided me with more clarity than I ever could’ve imagined. For the first time, I was able to easily assess what mattered most to me, and this has been a gift that’s rewarded me with incredibly special friendships and relationships over the years. As cliché as it might sound, I’m constantly fueled by Gordie’s memory to live the kind of life that he would’ve wanted me to. His spirit has inspired me to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro, backpack through the Milford Sound in New Zealand, and to ultimately start a new chapter in Australia. Regardless of the weather, Gordie always said ‘every day’s a beach day’ and I’m happy to be able to live out that motto.”
Michael and Leslie can’t hide how proud they are of their daughter. “Lily is really talented and has more of a business mind than I do. She gets out there and does her own thing, and I’m so proud of her for that,” Leslie gushes. Michael adds, “I love watching her grow … I always think about her at 2 years old, and how I wanted to protect her from everything. She has flourished — she determined that she was going to be someone that Gordie was going to be proud of. She was forced into situations where she was talking to large groups, and screening HAZE and having to talk about Gordie’s death. It was an opportunity to be proud of something rather than being sad. Lily is very happy to be in Australia with Johnny, and that makes us very happy.”
Lily has lived 15 long years without her brother and best friend. “It’s hard to describe what 15 years means to me. This year’s anniversary marks the date that I’ve lived longer without my brother than I had the chance to live with him. It’s really painful to think about, but I think he’d be so proud of where I am today. So much has happened since I was 14 years old, and my grief now is for the life that I so wish Gordie had the chance to live. I wish I had the chance to share all of my adventures with him. For me, it’s a constant reminder to love fiercely and to live a life that’s fulfilling.”
The yearly calendar is full of especially difficult days for Lily, and for all of Gordie’s family and friends. Lily focuses on the good when those days roll around. “I like to look back at old photos of Gordie, re-watch some of our favorite movies, and share funny stories with my loved ones. My boyfriend and many of my closest friends never actually had the chance to meet Gordie, so it’s an occasion for me to share memories and continue his legacy. After all of these years, I’m still moved by the outpouring of love from family and friends. For 15 years straight, I’ve received a note and flowers from a former high school teacher and close friend, Pam MacMullen. Her compassion is endless and her thoughtfulness inspires me to pay it forward to others.”
Lily feels strongly that education is a large part of preventing another loss like Gordie’s. “Students should enter college aware of the dangers of alcohol overdose to the same extent that they’re educated about drinking and driving. It’s about recognizing the signs of alcohol overdose so that you can take care of your friends. Everyone needs to know when to make the call for help. I also think students and families should be fully aware of the responsibilities and legal repercussions of leadership positions within sororities and fraternities. Hazing and alcohol misuse is not a new story, and while awareness for this issue has increased, the problem is still very much present. The framework around hazing is complex, and we’ve seen a lack of accountability at universities and Greek organizations for years. Slowly but surely, individuals are actually being held accountable for their actions in a legal capacity, which we believe will be the most powerful agent of change.”
What stands out the most for Lily is the impact Gordie made in his short life, and that he continues to make through the work of the Gordie Center. “Gordie made an impression on people from a young age. He was big, animated, attention-seeking, and had a very distinct optimism about him. Gordie was a bit of a unicorn to me, and I absolutely idolized him for it. As a math wizard, captain of the football team, self-taught guitar player, and lead in the school play, Gordie seemed to do it all. But what I later learned was just how many people he touched while doing so. Gordie’s reach was wide and his presence was memorable."
"I think Gordie’s legacy has resonated with thousands of students and families because people can see someone they know in Gordie. I think they are also aware just how preventable a death like his was and how important it is to share his story. The Gordie Center means everything to our family."
"The work that the Gordie Center does has given us a voice and a channel to continue sharing Gordie’s story 15 years after the fact. We find a great sense of peace knowing that we can make a difference out of such a senseless and preventable death.”
These 15 years have proven to be a long road to recovery and self-discovery for Lily, and Gordie is never far from her thoughts. “I am so incredibly proud to be his little sister.”