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Reflections from a Chaplain in Orlando
Life Changing Events
I have several articles that I have written about compassion being an action and not a simple passing of emotions. When the news came of the massacre in Orlando, I used the skills I have as a first response chaplain with the Bernalillo County Fire Department and Sheriff's Office to assist the first response team in Florida. Truthfully, I thought I would be helping with blood drives and donations; what I experienced was much more meaningful and life changing.
Arrival is so much more than showing up at a destined point of location; it is also the sense of arriving to one's sense of duty, sense of self, and so much else. In many ways, I arrived in Orlando. My plane came in late, but because I had been in consistent contact with the first response team, I met up with individuals (I am deliberately leaving out names for anonymity's sake; they would not want to be in the limelight; as the focus is not on us but the community we serve) and was briefed on the situation. There had been one park designated as a place to take blood donations; that had quickly boomed and two more parks were allocated locations designated to this purpose. Because United Way had come in, there were plenty of resources there. Where the resources were running thin were in visiting those in the hospitals. So my marching orders were given, and I was teamed up with a gentleman from the Orlando First Response team to this task. My plane got in at around 10:00 pm Orlando time, two hours ahead of what I am used to, and by midnight, I was ready for sleep in my Super 8 Motel room, and prepared to meet my partner to go to a nearby hospital at 5:00 am, as relief for the team that was already there.
Human Beings are More than Statistics.
When I got to the hospital, the initial chaos of the situation had been minimized to a dull roar. Keep in mind that I traveled between Wednesday and Thursday, so that by the time I got there, more than 72 hours had passed since the initial chaos. The nightclub itself was still an active crime scene, so there was still a chain of command to follow within law enforcement protocol. At the same time, even though Orlando is a much bigger city than Albuquerque, and for that reason has more resources, after 72 hours, those resources have been pretty much tapped to the maximum capacity.
So with my experience and understanding of the situation, I went into the hospitals, not knowing what to expect. There were several families I visited with, but one in particular stands out in my mind. There was a young man, in his mid-20s, who had been at the nightclub with his boyfriend. The boyfriend had died; the young man had survived his injuries but still has a long recovery ahead of him. As he had regained consciousness and a sense of awareness after surgery, he had tried to contact his boyfriend. But the phone just kept ringing.
At the other end of things, the boyfriend's family had been notified. His father was the one to receive the news that his son had been shot and killed. His father had to go identify the body. This young man had just finished his BA coursework. His dad had really no idea about his son's life outside of school and work. Money that had been saved up to set up to celebrate his success and help his future was now being put toward a funeral home. The body was sent to a funeral home; the effects were collected by the father as soon as they had been processed. Among them was the cell phone. By that time, the battery had died. And the father was charging it as a way to hold onto the essence of his son as much as possible. Then, the phone rang. And it was his son's boyfriend.
The father of the deceased got permission to be in the hospital with the young man, and these two I sat with for a long while. The father said something so amazing to me. He said, "I love my son. I am proud of my son. And I had no idea he was in a relationship. I wish he had trusted me enough to know that no matter what, I love him. And anyone who earned my son's love is a lucky person." And yes, he referred to his deceased son in the present tense, unable to let him go, as though saying his name in the past tense would be a symbol of his letting go, something he never wanted to do.
At the end of our time together, this father, this incredible human being, so full of love and grief that it permeated the room, wrapped me up in one of the most sincere hugs I have ever experienced. This rather large and stoic man transformed a simple empathetic grasp of a hand into a gesture of such emotion that it was almost overwhelming. While I was hugging him, I was also holding onto the hand of the young man in recovery, the boyfriend, who was struggling with the fact that he had lived when the love of his life had not.
The Struggle of Survivor's Guilt
Many have felt the anguish of survivor's guilt as the boyfriend expressed. In fact, many services were being provided to ensure that there would not be a higher statistic of suicide committed by those who survived. This is a very real and deeply concerning effect of the aftermath of such an event. It is gut wrenching and terrifying to think about. And after several sittings with families in pain and anguish, I had to take some time for my own self care.
Ironically, or perhaps fitting, the most quiet and empty room in the hospital was the chapel. And it was there that I sat in silence and collected myself in a way that deepened my connection to the people around me. My chaplain partner and I worked together with families in the hospital for much of the morning. Then my partner got the call that he was needed to do follow-up calls with families in their homes. I told him, "You do what you need to do. I will go where you send me." He said, "I have been watching you in this hospital for a while now. I think I would like you to come with me." And so it was that I found myself on a ride-along to people's homes, assisting as best I could with a different kind of survivor's guilt within the homes where the victims had been just four days ago.
Anger and Blame: Ways to Discharge Pain
There are many stories I could tell from visiting the families. There are two that were full of love and sadness, and several others that were filled with another side of grief. The two stories that I will carry with me are these:
A mother and father were sitting quietly in their living room, the shock and exhaustion reading plainly on their pale faces and quiet wide-eyed stares. As my partner initiated the conversation, I noticed that the mother kept glancing across the way into the kitchen area. I looked at where her gaze had carried her. And said, "It's like you can feel him." She looked at me and said, "See those dishes by the sink?" They were her son's dirty dishes. He was living at home to save money while being in college. He had told his parents that he was going "out," and he didn't say where. All he said was that he'd do the dishes in the morning. Neither he nor the friends he had been with survived the shooting. The family couldn't do the dishes, for much the same reason that the father in the hospital referred to his son in the present tense. To do the dishes would mean that he was finally gone. The parents knew that soon they would have to be washed, but they couldn't bring themselves to do it. Their son had told them he would wash them.
Another family talked about how just the night before the shooting, they had eaten a dinner that had black beans. They had been laughing about how the gas in the house between the people and the dog (who had bad gas anyway) could be the start of developing a new bio weapon for the military. And here I was, sitting in a now very quiet and heavy energy, where just a few days before, a vibrant and humorous young person had laughed with his family in the living room, making fart jokes and playing video games.
Each of the survivors in these families would have given everything to have their loved ones back, and would gladly have given their own lives if it would mean that they would continue on as "normal" and "complete" again.
The other side of the story are those who did not want to even acknowledge their children and relatives. There were such things said as, "The morgue will just have to keep them. We're not getting them. They can stay there in their sin." Others refused to hold funeral services, but at least would cremate and scatter the ashes. But they talked quite a bit about sin and the rage that they had felt of a "godlessness that had taken over."
I could see through their anger and their blame that they are desperately trying to discharge pain. But it is still a challenge to hear that kind of venom.
I came back home earlier than anticipated because a forest fire was raging in the mountains east of where I live, and the Bernalillo County Fire Department had called on its chaplains to be on hand and assist the first response team there. So I left Orlando on Saturday morning and arrived in Albuquerque in time to be on scene in the east mountains by 3:00 pm my time. The Dr. Whovian side of me was laughing at how I could be a time lord and jump forward and backward in time by simply being on a plane. My head and heart were exceedingly heavy, and there was much pressing down on me that was not the humidity of Florida.
In a way, it was cathartic to leave an area that will be reeling and grieving from this event long after the news no longer finds it a point of interest for 24 hour coverage, and arrive into an area of fire. The same scared and lost faces greeted me for many different reasons. The fear of the unknown was palpable. But it was cleansing in its own way. The fire is now out, and there was zero loss of human life, zero loss of livestock. 24 structures were destroyed. It is still difficult to recover from such loss, but not nearly what it is like to recover from human loss.
I am back home. But I have not yet arrived. I am forever changed by these events. I can talk about so many more, but wanted to at least say what I have said. We need to be kind and gentle with ourselves so that we can learn to be kinder and gentler to one another. We need to support each other in times of great struggle. For it is in that connection that healing can take place. We all need to heal; we all need to be nurtured.
No Good Way to Close
There is no good way to close my sentiments. I know that in many ways, there is rage all over this nation for the lack of action taken to reduce the number of mass shootings. I know that there is rage that the names of the victims are already being forgotten and that the media has shifted its attention to the next big story. But regardless of your own rage and anguish, I strongly urge you to not reduce these incidents to a story. I urge you not to forget the faces of those who are in the throes of agonizing grief. I urge you to hug your loved ones a little tighter and to really listen to them, to be there for them. We all need each other right now.
This is not my normal "pick me up" kind of story. I did not take any pictures while I was working; these stories need not to be remembered by graphic images, but in the shadows that are left in our minds after hearing their experiences. If you are in the middle of your own challenge coping with any kind of emotion--fear, grief, loss, hopelessness, I urge you to reach out. You can always contact me; I am here for you if you need it. But reach out to those you trust and know treasure your heart and your beautiful spirit. Embrace what you can, and we will support you through the rest.
With deep, deep love for all of humanity, thank you for being the amazing treasure and gem that you are!