Grief after Shooting in Orlando

Early Sunday morning, people were slaughtered in Orlando, my hometown. Forty-nine victims died on-site at Pulse Nightclub; more than 50 were hospitalized due to serious injuries inflicted in the attack; countless others’ lives are forever altered — traumatized survivors, witnesses, first responders, and their families. All of them. All of us.

It is tragedy. It is horror. It is pain.

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My first, panicked thoughts were for of one of my daughter’s dear friends, a young adult who has not come out to blood family but who (like many of my children’s friends over decades) has called me a second mom for years. My fingers shook as I texted, “Are you okay?”

I’m grateful — so grateful — this friend of ours replied immediately, was not at Pulse at that time, is physically okay. But this adult kid who calls me Mom … this young soul’s roommates lost many friends.

Being “okay” will never be the same again.

In the aftermath of most tragedy, we witness the best and the worst of humanity. At church hours after this happened, everyone I encountered spoke with tears in their eyes, with broken voices (and hearts), with compassion and pain for those impacted. Congregants were vocal in prayer for the victims and their families, of course, but even more vocal about the need to reach out in tangible help — to give blood, to be of support, to offer healing help and comfort. To love our neighbors.

I was proud, too, of the statement Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer emailed to residents:
“Despite the fact that this crime will have a lasting effect on our city and country, Orlando is a strong community. We will be grieving together in the upcoming days, weeks and months. We need to support each other and love each other. This tragedy will not define us, but will bring us together.”  Well said, Mayor Dyer. Well said.

But I was appalled by other reactions — as if the hateful, terrorist acts of murder and mayhem weren’t appalling enough.

As I scrolled through social media after church — searching (like everyone else in and/or with ties to Orlando) for assurance regarding those I know — I couldn’t believe what I saw:

People were politicizing these lost and shattered lives.

I’m a proponent of free speech, and there’s a time and a place for most forms and reforms, but immediately after a tragedy —within hours, or even days! — is not the time or the place. Death does not invite discussion about dogma. Murder does not mean it’s time to moralize. Loss is not linked to knee-jerk legislation.

Loss should be only about loving the bereaved, mourning the missing, healing the hurt. Period.

Unless you are in the inner ring of mourning, it is not your place to voice your political or moral views on those who have been injured or who have lost loved ones. Significant others, immediate family, closest friends — these are the people who have the right to state (or not state) their views from within the LGBTQ community targeted by the shooter. These are the souls whose lives have been altered by the killer’s evil actions, who have the right to state (or not state) their positions on gun laws and ISIS and every other blame-relevant topic.

For everyone else, everyone not directly impacted, it is our place — and time — to offer love and support and help and presence while listening. (The time to legislate and protest and reform will come … but not at the cost of depersonalizing individual loss into broader causes. Not yet.)

People are mourning. Reach out to them. They will need your love and support not just now but in the weeks, months, and years to come. (In the meantime, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.)

I was standing surrounded by many people. I was surrounded by men, women, children, and even dogs. I was surrounded by people from every faith, every sexuality, every race. And we stood together. We stood together with grief in our hearts, tears in our eyes, and hope in our minds. We will stand together, through tragedies or triumphs.. In the end, love wins. We won't be broken by hate. Thank you to all those who made it out tonight, to those 5,000 people who stood waiting to give blood Sunday, the people who have volunteered their time to the community, those who donated their money from all around the world.. Thank you for your support and love. #orlandostrong #standtogether #hatewillneverwin #lovewins #lgbtq #gay #gaypride #strength #courage #grief #pulseorlando #oneorlando #love #orlando #florida #prayfororlando #youarenotalone

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Thanksgiving and Thanksgrieving

This is my fifth widowed Thanksgiving, and it’s the first year I’ve been up to preparing a traditional meal for our family. Extended family circumstances meant we had our celebration on Sunday, half a week before “real” Thanksgiving Day. It was a wonderful gathering of family and friends, and in almost every moment I basked in watching loved ones laughing, talking, teasing … almost like the years B.G. — Before Grief. Even so, I don’t think I could have mustered the energy — or the will for it — had we met on “real” Thanksgiving Day. 

From the earliest hours after my husband’s death I’ve been grateful for many tender mercies that blessed me through my darkest hours. That doesn’t mean I’ve walked around like Pollyanna playing “the glad game” over the pains and practical problems of grieving. There are many, many aspects of my husband’s never-diagnosed mental and neurological deterioration and his sudden, unexpected death that I cannot  honestly say I’m grateful for. (Perhaps not “yet.” Perhaps not ever.) But I’ve seen sparkles of sunlight (loving gestures from family and friends, personal and professional growth, life lessons learned, and multiple mini-miracles of circumstance) while stepping through otherwise impenetrable days. I continue to appreciate each pinprick glint of goodness as it comes.

HOWEVER, I had to see those glimmers of gratitude for myself. Hearing others say, “You should be grateful that…” or “Aren’t you thankful for…” did not help when grief was a raw, festering sore in every step I took. It didn’t help while I began learning to live with grief’s limp, moving forward but with faltering, often errant steps. It still doesn’t help now that I walk (and sometimes run — though briefly) with my grief-acquired gait.

What did help, and what still helps, is when people reach out to me, when they acknowledge their awareness that grief has altered my path. When grieving souls (like mine) are ready and able to lift their eyes to see the beauty or the genius in the surrounding landscape, they will. They will know when they are ready to look up. You will not. Do not tell your grieving friends where they “should” look — you’ll distract them from placing their wounded feet on safe terrain.

Instead, let them know you’re nearby with your arms outstretched, ready for them to grab hold if they need somewhere to lean. Instead of wishing them a “Happy Thanksgiving,” especially if the loss is as recent as two years, say, “I’m thinking of you on this Thanksgiving Day. I know it’s different. I know it’s hard. I’m here for you.”

UPDATE:

I’m amending this post to include the words of my friend, Andrea Rediske. She and her family have experienced their own battles with love and loss as they grieved their oldest son’s years of medical crises and as they now grieve his still recent passing in February 2014*. I asked Andrea’s permission to share her poignant, clear, insightful perspective to help better educate those who wish to support grieving friends, whether they grieve impending or final losses.

From Andrea:
I wrote this blog post about 4 years ago, after Ethan had had a particularly difficult year. I wish I could summon the same anguished serenity that I felt when I wrote this. I DO have many things to be grateful for: my husband, children, family, friends, my health, the opportunity to pursue my PhD, and many more. But am I grateful for nearly 12 years of witnessing my son fight every day for his life? Am I grateful to have sat at his bedside when he died? Am I grateful for the grief that regularly blindsides me? Nope, nope, nope, nope…
http://segullah.org/daily-special/give-thanks-for-this/

When grief “regularly blindsides” your bereaved friends (as it does with the regularity of a clock ticking off every second of every day), be sure you offer them your outstretched arm in that darkness. Bite your tongue if tempted to preach Pollyanna practices. Instead of telling mourners what to be grateful for, listen to what they have to say — without judging them for saying it.

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* Please see https://tealashes.com/2014/02/21/ethan-rediske-act-supports-my-grieving-friend-and-many-other-families/ to learn more about Ethan Rediske.