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Friends through anguish

Two families, bound by grief, find forgiveness in wake of heroin overdose.

Michael Harrington (left) and wife Michele with Peter Bruun: Children suffered with addiction.
Michael Harrington (left) and wife Michele with Peter Bruun: Children suffered with addiction.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. - They met halfway between their heartaches, in a bar by a river near the Chesapeake Bay, two fathers and a mother bound together by death but determined to rise above it.

By society's standards, Peter Bruun should not have been sitting next to Michael and Michele Harrington in Coakley's Pub here after driving up from Baltimore, and the couple should have been wary of driving down from their South Philly home to meet him.

But as the sun set over the Susquehanna last Friday, forgiveness was palpable in everything they said and didn't say over dinner. They joked about the Mets, because Bruun is a New York City native. The Harringtons, who live at 2nd and Jackson streets, tried to explain the Mummers Parade and settled on: "You just have to see it." They ate mozzarella sticks and chicken avocado salad, while silverware clanked in the kitchen and Springsteen and Cheap Trick played in the background.

And they talked at length about their children, Elisif and Sean - the reason they'd come here, after all.

In February 2014, Sean Harrington, 26, mailed heroin to his friend, Elisif Bruun, 24, while she was in a recovery center in North Carolina. She had asked him for it and it was her final fix, arriving in a greeting card, her father said. Sean Harrington is still sitting in prison there, awaiting trial for second-degree murder, and Peter Bruun didn't feel the way people expect when someone is to blame for killing his first-born.

"Where there's great pain, there's great love, and luckily for me, that's what rose to the top. I don't blame family members who get angry and vindictive, because you do not have a choice. When something this big happens, you feel what you feel," Bruun said in the bar. "I'm just lucky that what I felt was love and compassion. That's just luck."

The Harringtons and Bruun, 52, told the same stories about addiction and worry, how living a life waiting for that phone call robs parents and loved ones of their peace of mind. Sean, a Central High grad and a guitarist, would steal money from his parents, they said, and would spend nights under I-95 in Philadelphia. He was in rehab twice.

'It's all heroin'

"I don't know anyone who doesn't have a story," said Mike Harrington, 56. "It's all heroin."

The Harringtons learned about Bruun and his views about Elisif's death from a story in the Daily News. They had declined to comment about Sean's arrest and extradition to Polk County, N.C., in September 2014. But when they read how Bruun felt, coming from a South Philly world where street justice is as acceptable as handcuffs, they were shocked.

"We were floored," Mike Harrington said. "I was in tears."

He and Bruun began to communicate via email. They didn't feel like enemies, Bruun said, and they often spoke about fighting addiction, not seeking justice or being foot soldiers in the war on drugs.

"What a shame it would be if we were at odds with each other. It would be a missed opportunity for fellowship," Bruun said. "There's no value in that. There's none. Prison for Sean is a missed opportunity to have a motivated young man contribute to society. He's an asset."

The Harringtons are accustomed to hearing Bruun say things like this, but still seemed stunned when he called their son an "asset."

A few months after Sean's arrest, Peter Bruun decided to use his medium to help fade the stigma of addiction and mental illness. He called it the New Day campaign and it includes ongoing art exhibitions and dozens of public events in the Baltimore area. He knows that, in some strange way, Elisif's death freed him from worry and put his focus on helping others. It enabled him to start the campaign.

"Before your daughter dies or before your child dies, you have nothing but fear for your child's life, and that fear affects your ability to see things clearly. It's hard to act rationally always and manage your emotions," he said. "When Elisif died, I lost all my fear, and I think that has given me clarity and shown me the truth of human behavior. When she died it was almost immediate."

When Bruun unveiled the New Day campaign last November, he invited Mike Harrington down to be a part of it. Harrington was nervous.

"I was embarrassed," Harrington said. "There was this misplaced guilt that I had done something wrong."

Instead, Harrington was welcomed by the audience. The event turned him into a self-described "blubbering baby" and he was awed by Bruun's grace.

"When he came home that night and I picked him up at 30th Street Station, he was like, 'You are not going to believe this person,' " said Michele Harrington, who works at Famous 4th Street Deli.

They all laughed after she said that.

Bruun's attitude toward Elisif's death even affected the people down in North Carolina at the Cooper Riis Healing Community, where she was being treated and, according to Bruun, prospering.

"The heart of a father who is hurting has become so opened," said Virgil Stucker, Cooper Riis's executive director. "I have nothing but admiration for him."

Mike and Michelle Harrington plan to head down to the hills of Transylvania County just to get a video-monitor visit with Sean. They said one judge covers three counties and Sean has had just status conferences. His public defender advised them not to push it, they said.

The law-enforcement officials who paraded Sean Harrington before the cameras did not find an ally in Bruun. He told them he'd only testify for the defense and said he made it clear in his victim-impact statement that he didn't consider himself a victim.

The only victims, he said, were his family and the Harringtons, Sean included.

"We are killing people by blaming and shaming them," he said. "When you start to talk about addiction openly, people come out of the woodwork and whisper, 'Me, too.' "

Elisif would be proud of her father, he thinks. And he admits that perhaps that's the reason he's doing all this and why he feels this way. Maybe it's simply her grace, flowing down through her father, in a bar by a river in Maryland.

"I would feel shame if I didn't do this. She would want it," he said. "I have to do it for her."

On Twitter: @JasonNark