First Anniversary of Grief after Pulse Shootings

One year ago, June 12, 2016, a man with evil, hateful intent entered Pulse nightclub in my Orlando hometown and shot into the crowd of innocent friends and family members enjoying a night of dancing. Of the many he struck down that night, 49 never rose again.

In the weeks and months following that cowardly assault, local manifestations of support showed humankind at its best: Donations poured into the OneOrlando Fund for the shooting victims and their families. Murals, T-shirts, and business markees displayed messages of encouragement and unity. Scholarships honored the memories of the fallen. Neighbors stood alongside strangers in solidarity while acknowledging differences.

Painting outside Orlando’s Zebra Coalition honors the 49 who died in the Pulse shooting (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Media coverage — initially 24-7 — ebbed over the year but has resurged as we’ve approached the first anniversary.  Much has been tasteful and sensitive, though I observed one broadcaster recently say something that revealed a fundamental lack of understanding about grief: “As the anniversary approaches,” the person said, “it may even be possible some Pulse families and survivors will feel upset again.”  (I’ve written that in quotes, but I paraphrased the actual words to avoid embarrassing the speaker.)

One fallacy of that statement is the implication that mourners might be upset again about their loved ones’ deaths — as if they’d had ample time to no longer be upset about it. But grieving, adjusting, and building new lives takes much, much longer than a mere 12 months. Even when, eventually, surviving loved ones manage to move forward in life without the deceased present in their lives, the absence will remain present and painful in survivors’ hearts.

The other fallacy in that well-meaning newscaster’s statement assumed that some Pulse families (and therefore not all) will find the first anniversary difficult.  From the thousands of mourners I’ve interacted with, all expressed increased anxiety, sorrow, anger, irritability, and longing for their deceased loved ones in the days leading toward the first anniversary after death. All. Even among those whose deaths were peaceful and anticipated, the first anniversary brought with it more pain than resolution. Where death occurred via such senseless, hate-infused violence as was inflicted at Pulse, mourners’ minds and bodies especially rebel at reliving the date when their loved ones died.

With rare exceptions, grieving individuals and families find reaching the first anniversary of a loved one’s death offers an elusive, hoped-for, impossible, unfulfilled promise of relief from the bitter agony of bereavement. The hope is that if one makes it through that horrendous first year, one will be okay from then on. 

The reality comes as an aftershock when the bereaved realize the beginning of the second year often brings renewed heartache and struggles in coping. Compounding the difficulty is the perception — and assertion — by friends and coworkers that mourners should be better by now or get on with their lives already. (If you hear such thoughts trying to work themselves into your words, erase them!)

For soul mates and partners, parents and siblings, cousins and other kin (by blood or law or choice), when it comes to the first year, grieving will never be one and done. Neither should the support and encouragement we offer, which should remain ongoing for as long as the loved ones are missed.

In other words, it’s never too late to let survivors know you are aware of their loss, and it’s never too late to show you care.

Full width of painting outside Zebra Coalition (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

The Pulse of Grief, Six Months Later

Half a year ago, 49 people died without warning in an evil attack at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub. For six months, these victims’ loved ones — parents and partners, siblings and children, other family and friends — have privately and publicly mourned their beloved ones.  Just (or should I say already?) 26 weeks ago our city — and with television and Internet coverage, the world — ground to a halt in emergency response, physical recovery, and remembering.

In the 180-some days since those horrible, early morning hours, Orlando’s outward pace has accelerated almost back to normal in a deceptive echo of the trite, insensitive dismissal — “life goes on” — some shove at the bereaved.

"You Mattered" Pulse Birds (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

“You Mattered” Pulse Birds painted outside an Orlando business (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I have hope, though, that many hearts better understand the open-ended nature of grieving. Murals, T-shirts, store marquees, and hashtags all around town (#OrlandoStrong and #OrlandoUnited) display the love and pride my city’s citizens express in memory of the victims and in support of their loved ones. Surely, with such vivid visual reminders, we will keep these loved ones’ lost lives present in ways that will help their families rather than harm them.

I’m grateful for the media coverage focusing on the coming-together of disparate parts of our community. People who didn’t know any of those who were slain actively reach out to show their support for the people grieving them.

It’s important to remember, though, that most people mourning loved ones don’t have national or even local media reminding everyone of grief milestones — such as the six or twelve or eighteen or twenty-four months — since their loved ones died.

For many who grieve, such commemorations pass in lonely, heartbroken silence.  Death anniversaries — even “monthiversaries” — can be difficult. So please, reach out to those you know who have lost someone recently.

 

When Grieving Friends Go Quiet

“I haven’t heard from my friends since the funeral. Why don’t they return calls?” I’ve heard mourners ask this question — but others have asked the same question about those who are bereaved.

Yesterday one of my friends expressed concern over not hearing much from me lately. Also a widowed writer, she’d noticed my diminished postings here and on my Facebook page. *

Silence isn’t my norm, but this summer became a season of quiet.

Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

107 Degrees in the Car. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I don’t mean quiet in the sense of vacationing away from home or hiding out from Florida’s relentless heat.

I mean quiet as in stilled by Mom’s adage — If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all — mixed with an adulterated metaphor — grief’s got your tongue. (Sorry, cat. You’re out of this one.)

So now, nearly six years into widowhood, when grief’s got my tongue, near-silence results. (More on this later.)

I wasn’t always this way.

In the early months after my husband’s death, I radiated raw emotion. I sobbed in public and blurted nonstop without thinking. Grief shredded whatever filters I’d once had.

As shock faded, I began — gradually — to recognize strangers’ uncomfortable body language whenever I shoved the intimacy of my loss into their awareness. (It took nearly a year to rein my words in, longer to channel the emotion behind them.)

Worse were the moments acquaintances’ and friends’ expressions shouted wordless discomfort … then beat hasty retreats.

But I still needed to talk about my loss.  One of the greatest gifts you can give grieving friends is the assurance and presence of being there to listen — without judgement — over and over again.

Suppressed grief doesn’t disappear or go away — it drills deeper, cutting below the surface of already inflamed wounds, even damaging what may appear (from outside) to be healing.

Mourning is personal, even when the loss is publicly known and acknowledged past the deceased’s core family and friends.

Britain’s Prince Harry recently said, “I really regret not ever talking about” Princess Diana’s death.

I can’t begin to imagine what it was like for Harry and William to mourn their mother while the world watched and weighed in.

As much as I needed to talk through the traumas of my mother’s and husband’s deaths, I also needed to insulate myself. Wounded, I cocooned myself (and my kids, as much as possible) toward healing. Answering the phone took monumental effort; returning calls exceeded my capability. Opening emails overwhelmed me; replying no longer seemed possible, let alone expected.

Sometimes, like this summer, I return to similar silence.

I’ve written elsewhere of why July 4th renews missing my mother and about my first wedding anniversary after my spouse died — our 25th. Tiptoeing toward and through those dates (and a birthday) this month had me on shaky footing as my 30th anniversary approached.

Meanwhile, a couple of personal, below the belt blows left me reeling.

And horrific, ongoing public scenarios fill this summer’s news: The Christina Grimmie and Pulse shootings in my hometown. Violent murders and beatings by errant police officers, which prompted demonstrations of much needed awareness that #BlackLivesMatter. Attacks by rogue protesters against dutiful officers in Dallas and other cities. Political vitriol spewed between people (of otherwise seemingly good conscience and good sense). The plight of refugees around the world (including those my friend Melissa Dalton-Bradford volunteers with and writes about — see, for example, “Life in Limbo: The Ahmed and Shafeka Khan Story“) …

Maybe it's grief, not the cat, that's got your mourning friend's tongue. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Maybe it’s grief, not the cat, that’s got your mourning friend’s tongue. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Sometimes it’s grief, not the cat, that’s got one’s tongue.

Even if your silent (or blurting) grieving friends don’t call you back or reply to your texts or emails, keep reaching out. One day, they may have the strength to respond again, and knowing you’ve cared all along will make that possible.

___

*Thanks again for reaching out, Shelby Ketchen! Your friendship is as full of honest encouragement as your writing. (Check out Shelby’s latest at www.BrokentoBlessed.com.)

More Killings, More Grief, More Sorrow

More killings. More bereaved loved ones. More mourning.

I’m crying, blinking furiously just to see the screen while I’m typing.

I didn’t know until a few moments ago about this week’s police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota or the subsequent shooting of police and other citizens in Dallas. (Once again, for two days I’ve not watched or listened to the news and have given Facebook and Twitter only brief glances.*) I almost wish I hadn’t caught the noon news today.

So much pain. So much death. Too much.

My first reaction was a silent scream. NO!

My second thought was of the victims’ families — their shock and grief and disbelief and pain. NO!

My third reaction was sobbing. My heart cries out for all the new grief those families face. My body remembers early bereavement. Would I wish it on anyone who’d ever wronged me? NO!

I’ve never understood violence and hatred — especially in response to fear or in protest of violence and hatred. Although I consider myself pro-life, I have never agreed with those who spew hatred (or violence in any form) toward those who choose differently. Although my ancestors were persecuted for their religious beliefs, I’ve never understood those who proclaim their faith as a reason to fight. Proverbs 15:1

In my town (Orlando) and country, hateful violence against individuals continues to break homes and hearts. Around the world, war and upheaval send families fleeing from nations ripped apart by strife.

Why don’t they, why won’t they recognize the wisdom of another way? There’s timeless truth that “a soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1, KJV).

Even the longest of lifetimes is too short to live in anger, because the cliché is true: life’s too short.

Especially when it’s senselessly cut down.

___

*Sometimes a person’s grief makes it difficult to watch (or read or listen to) news of others’ losses. Please see Grief Is Not a Spectator Sport to better understand why some mourners — at least why I — avoid heeding the news.

 

Grief on the Fourth of July

I’ve always loved the U.S. holiday called Independence Day, but for twenty years I’ve struggled to enjoy the Fourth of July, the day we celebrate it. Contradictory? Perhaps, but holidays after a loved one’s death can become complicated, contradictory things.

20150704_stars and stripes fireworks burst

“Stars and Stripes Fireworks over Orlando” photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

On the one hand, maintaining annual traditions can give survivors a lifeline of continuity in a time when their lives have been demolished by death. Things will never be normal again, so holiday celebrations and commemorations can — for some mourners — offer the comforting familiarity of ritual. For the first couple of years after my husband died, only at the last minute did I remember to buy hot dogs, potato chips, dip, and soda (our family’s traditional Fourth of July junk food)  — primarily because our kids expected it.

On the other hand, for some who grieve, carrying on with past traditions (as if nothing has changed) hurts more than it helps. Also in the first year (or two) after my husband died, I felt raging jealousy and resentment for those going about their days as if everything was okay — because to me it wasn’t. I couldn’t make myself display any of our household Independence Day decorations I’d made and/or purchased during our twenty-four years of marriage. (In fact, on this my sixth widowed Independence Day, that bin remains untouched. Maybe next year.)

If your friends have lost loved ones recently, please be sensitive to their grief this Fourth of July (and in holidays yet to come):

  • Acknowledge that this holiday will be different (if not downright difficult) for the bereaved. Don’t be afraid of reminding them of their loss or “making” them sad; they already remember their loss every minute of every day. What they need is to know someone else does, too.
  • Invite them to join you in cookouts, picnics, beach trips … whatever you usually do to celebrate. Tell them the invitation remains open if they decline. Don’t push — they may really need space — but do make certain they are welcome to change their minds later.
  • Don’t take it personally if they turn you down, won’t RSVP, or don’t return calls or messages. In the early months after my husband died, sometimes I answered the phone only for my immediate family but let other calls go to voicemail. (It wasn’t them, it was me.) It took me more than six months to be able to even think about attending social gatherings (and it took longer to actually go).
  • Ask them how they usually celebrated the holiday with their deceased loved one. Most mourners are grateful for the chance to speak about the ones they grieve.
  • Tread lightly with greetings like “Happy Fourth.” Of course you want your friends to be happy, and happiness is possible even while grieving, but when grief is new and raw, a safer, more considerate message might be “Thinking of you on the Fourth.”

(To find out why I’ve had an aversion to July 4th since the 1990s, see Fireworks of Grief.)

One more thing. While you’re enjoying whatever it is you like to do on this national holiday, please take one moment (or more) to reflect on the gift it is to be able to celebrate as you wish. The freedoms we too often take for granted were purchased by the labors — and the lives — of many to whom we owe a debt our gratitude can never repay.

 

 

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.

vigil.2.061316

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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