Where were you on Sunday morning, June 12? What were you doing? Who were you with?
I’ll go first.
I was doing what I always do on Sunday morning. I was lounging on my couch, reading the newspaper, slugging back coffee. Unplugged.
Later in the morning, I decided to check my email. I noticed a news headline, something about a shooting. And then I read further.
I can’t describe my first reaction, other than shock and disbelief. You might have felt the same way. I stayed pretty much numb through the afternoon. I’m a therapist, but I nevertheless had to ask myself: How do you wrap your mind around something like this? Questions about what happened gave way to questions about who it happened to. And then the names of victims started emerging, followed by faces.
At that point the tragedy became that much more real to me, and I was overcome with sadness, along with anger. Why? Early Saturday evening — just hours before the shooting — these individuals were finishing work, having dinner, picking out clothing, planning on where they would meet their friends. I looked at the pictures of those who had died, their beautiful, hopeful smiles bringing tears to my eyes. That so many were members of the Latin community further intensified the sense of injustice and confusion I felt and provided yet another reason to ask the question you may have also been asking: Why?
Just 12 hours before, the crowd at the Pulse had been looking forward to a night enjoying each other’s company, celebrating their freedom to be themselves and their affection for each other. And then, in the early morning hours, their lives were over.
I had similar thoughts on Monday: Just 36 hours ago… And on Tuesday: Just 60 hours ago… I read the stories of their lives, their accomplishments, their dreams, and the devastated loved ones they left behind, in the US, and in other countries. One young woman was described as a striver, and my heart broke yet again.
It seems that tragedies become milestones in our lives. On the anniversaries, we look back and remember what we were thinking, doing, feeling on that day. How we heard the news. Who we talked to first. A story to be told, and told again, the feelings experienced again. And I suspect that, like me, June 12, 2016, will live in your memory forever. I also suspect that, like me, you will hold it in your memory.
The next day, as more faces and names emerged, the loss became that much more real. And that much more real to my clients. One after another, we talked about Orlando, and this unspeakable act of violence against the LGBT community. Like my clients, I spent the week walking around in an achy daze.
My clients expressed their grief, anger, confusion. Here’s how one of clients described his reaction.
“I am so angry I can’t stand myself. I feel violated. Why should the LGBT community be singled out when we have suffered so much? Sure, I’ve gotten lots of calls and lots of words of support and I appreciate that. But I also have to read the sanctimonious statements from politicians who talk about people being killed who were ‘just living their lives.’ No! I want to scream ‘they were not people just living their lives. They were LGBT people, dammit. You can’t say that?’”
And then he said: “Today it feels good to hate back. And at this moment, I don’t care if that’s good or bad. It just is!”
As I sat with my clients during that week that followed this tragedy, I felt my clients’ sadness. I sure as hell felt their anger. I was no longer trying to hold my own tears back. I had given up on being the objective listener and decided to just be human along with them.
Here is the word that so often emerged in my conversations with my clients: powerless. They described the horrifying images they held in their minds of the victims of this massacre were trapped in the Pulse and powerless to save themselves as their lives slipped away. And these thoughts and images became a profound metaphor for the loss of power — and the abuse that can come out of nowhere — that so many LGBT people around the world grow up with, and continue to live with. In their families, their schools, their communities, their state, their country. Every day of their lives.
When we experience loss, we grieve. As we grieve, we feel the anger, the sadness, the frustration, regret. And yes, the feeling of being powerless to stop an unspeakable tragedy from occurring. Our experience of grief may also give way to feelings of hate.
How do you cope with a tragic loss like this? I think you cope by placing one foot before the other, and working through your own personal grief process. What I have to offer you may not be especially profound, but I have taken comfort in the basics of Grief 101, and so have my clients. I hope you too will find something helpful here:
Let yourself feel. Feelings are feelings. So let yourself feel all of them — the good ones and the ones you aren’t so proud of. Without judging yourself.
Have a good cry. Or a few of them. If you’re walking around with a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes, give yourself permission to have a good cry.
Talk it out. Sit down with a friend and let them know how you feel. Choose someone who is not going to judge you or tell you what you should be feeling. This might be a good time to reach out to a mental health professional.
Hang out. Spend time with people you care about. Talk, share, laugh. Tell them how much they mean to you. And hug it out.
Do an act of kindness. Say a few words of support to a friend or family member in need. Smile as someone you wouldn’t normally acknowledge. Volunteer. Donate. The world around you needs a few more do-gooders right now. We are all in this together.
Do an act of advocacy. Use your anger energy to do something positive. Get involved in an LGBT cause. Write letters to politicians. Yell! Attend a rally. Vote!!!
Find your own greater meaning. This is personal, based on your spiritual beliefs and perspective on life. I’ll tell you mine: This tragedy has reminded me that life is random, and often not very fair. And it’s reminded me of the importance of embracing every moment, living my life to the fullest, being grateful, and making sure the people I love know how much I care about them. What about you?
There’s an old saying you might have heard before: Time heals all wounds. What does it mean to heal from the massacre of innocent people? If time is going to somehow make me feel better about this tragedy, then I don’t believe time heals all wounds any more than I believe in Santa Claus. And if the passing of time means forgetting, than count me out.
Let me tell you something as a therapist. I don’t believe that time heals all wounds. I think that when you experience a great loss, that wound stays there forever. And I, for one, am not sitting back and waiting to feel less wounded at what happened to the members of the LGBT community and their friends and family members who were at the Pulse on June 12. I don’t want to ever forget that night and that pain. It’s a wound I will carry with pride.
But here’s what I also think. Over time, we will all learn to walk with this wound that was carved into the collective heart of the LGBT community and into the collective heart of every person who values equality and freedom to love. We will hold it in our own hearts and our minds and our spirits. And by walking with this wound, we will have the opportunity to become more compassionate. Less judging. More kind. To fearlessly expose the tenderness that we so often keep hidden from each other.
Stronger as a community. Stronger as individuals. Refusing to be broken. Yes, to be empowered by the memories that will never go away and should never go away. This is the healing that we achieve by allowing ourselves to feel, to grieve, and to hope.
Let’s seize every opportunity to love, to give of ourselves, to care for and to appreciate and to protect the people in our lives. Let’s honor those whose own lives ended so tragically by living and loving fierce and ferocious! Moment by moment, every day.
Are you in?
Gary McClain, MS, PhD, LMHC, is a therapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. He writes regularly for HIVplusmag.com and runs the website, www.JustGotDiagnosed.com.