What I know about grief, but what I choose to ignore until it becomes relevant, is that sometimes take a shower, brush your hair, put on make-up, get dressed become part of your to-do list rather than the unnamed tasks you complete before leaving the house.
Friends, coworkers, strangers say: Move forward.
They say: You’re in our thoughts.
They pat my shoulder, send me texts, ask if I need a homemade casserole, a drink, someone to talk to.
I say that I’m fine, that I don’t need anything. I want to say: Please tell me how to get out of my head. On June 12th, I woke up in North Carolina and thought for several sickening hours that all of my friends back home in Orlando had been massacred.
And I want to say: I have danced on the Pulse stage. I was just there with my friends in January. I drank a whiskey-and-diet on the same patio where people scaled the privacy fence and hid under cars to avoid being shot. I warmed my hands on the outside heaters and joked about the vendor selling fluorescent underwear. I watched Edgar avoid his slimy ex-boyfriend by drinking while facing a corner. I reminisced about how we walked to Pulse from our friend Margaret’s house the summer before we all started college, freshly-minted school IDs in hand for student night on Wednesdays.
And I want to say: The only reason none of my friends died is because they happened not to die. They called it an early night, stayed home with a new foster dog, went to a different Orlando gay club.
And I want to say: You have no idea.
What I know about the Kübler-Ross “Five Stages of Grief” model, what Kübler-Ross herself said years later, is that grief is not a straight line. The day of the massacre, I find an image online of heartbeats on a monitor, captioned healing is not linear, but I don’t connect the two ideas. That night I make gallows humor with my friend Martha because Denial comes first.
“I’m really glad none of your friends died,” Martha says. We stare at the ceiling. “I don’t know how I would have helped you through that.”
“No fucking kidding,” I say.
Monday, the day after, we can’t lift each other out of the mud. We wallow. I sob for an hour and obsessively refresh social media, checking that no one died while I put my phone down. With every Facebook “marked safe” notification, I’m reminded of one more person I forgot to check on, one more person I could have lost.
I make Martha watch Parks and Recreation. Martha makes me eat lunch, and then dinner. It’s running a three-legged race with our hamstrings severed.
“I forgot for one minute that we are never safe,” Martha says. We stare at the ceiling, both of us curled up in blankets on the couch.
After his first day back at work, my friend Arturo posts on Facebook: That we have to just swallow our feelings as queer people and keep trudging through straight world is excruciating and unfair…Stop asking if we are ok because the answer is no.
“No fucking kidding,” I say.
What the chorus of voices hopes I realize about grief is that it looks different for everyone, pulses spiking on the monitor at varying times. A week after the massacre, at least six of my friends have heartbeat memorial tattoos. Black stick-and-pokes on their thumbs, rainbows on their collarbones, upside-down messages on their wrists. The tattoos mean they can’t donate blood for a year, but as men who have sex with men they aren’t allowed to donate blood to their dying friends, anyway. They bring water bottles and snacks to those who can, keep them hydrated and fed as the line to donate blood stretches down Orange Avenue.
I do not get a tattoo. No one is doing memorial tattoos six-hundred miles away from Orlando. They are holding vigils and prayer services, but I do not attend. I do not want to stand in the UNCW amphitheater with a mass of strangers and grieve the latest gun violence. I want to raise candles in front of the Dr. Phillips Performing Art Center with my friends, because some of them weren’t as lucky as me, and attended funerals the next day. I want to buy a four-hundred dollar plane ticket. I want to go home.
Instead, I crochet a scarf with scrap purple yarn and a book called Teach Myself to Crochet that Nana, my maternal grandmother, gave me for Christmas. My hands shake as I practice the single stitch. I don’t realize until fifteen rows in that I have added an extra stitch at every turn. Martha, in the middle of crocheting a lovely afghan, looks at my stitches and frowns. “Oh honey,” Martha says, “those are so tight! Your poor fingers.”
We make a sex joke about my hand cramp.
The next three stitches, I struggle to get the hook through, loop the yarn around, pull it to completion. “I’ve been a little stressed,” I say. My grip loosens, the stitches even out, but the scarf bulges like a bulbous handbell. I want to start over, but I don’t want to rip out my progress.
To be funny, I have been calling it the grief scarf, because I have to be funny or else I will keep drowning, keep being unable to write. I tell Martha I’m going to turn it into an installation art piece. “You can actually see the stages of grief I’m going through,” I say. The tight ones where I’m unspooling, and the loose ones when I’m better at pretending.
“I feel like garbage, but at least when I’m done, I’ll have a new scarf.”
What trips me into the anger stage, kicking and screaming and railing at Kübler-Ross, is realizing that some people grieve differently. Or, help differently. Or, don’t know how to help, just as much as I don’t know how to grieve.
Nothing is comforting. I can’t read think pieces or OP-ED pieces the day after—the day after—because the names of the victims’ haven’t been released yet, and maybe I did forget to check in with someone, and how can we already be politicizing this when people are still in the hospital and the street I drove almost daily is still closed to traffic.
I don’t want to hear condolences from straight people because I don’t know if it’s genuine, or if it’s what they think they should do in the wake of something like this. Then my straight roommate doesn’t mention anything to me about Pulse until two days later, when she says: Did you see that thing about the first responders and all of the cellphones on the floor? And I had seen that, and I went to high school with people who were there, and survived, and left their cell phones on the floor, and I had just managed to stop thinking about it.
I repost the healing is not linear graphic to my social media accounts, but then question the motives of the person who created it. Was it to capitalize on the tragedy, notes on Tumblr, retweets, shares on Facebook?
I see people put the We Are Orlando frame around their profile photos on Facebook. People who voted to define marriage as between one man, one woman, when it was on the Florida ballot in 2008. They caption photos #OrlandoStrong, buy the t-shirts, stand at the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center, but focus their compassion toward the bravery of the first responders, not the demographics of the people inside.
I worry that my own grief is too much. I don’t know anyone who died; I wasn’t even there; this attack on queer bodies was also an attack on Latinx bodies, and my white privilege is showing. I don’t want to make this all about me. I’m afraid people will think I’m using Pulse, milking it for sympathy, empathy, the first paragraph of a query letter.
Nana calls three days after and says during a lull in the conversation, “Well, I suppose you’ve heard about the massacre. And that poor baby being eaten by the alligator at Disney.”
I don’t get upset, because she’s ninety and has dementia, but my future unwinds before me. I’m reeling, and people are going to casually drop: Oh, the gays. Oh, that baby and the alligator.
From now on, when someone asks where I’m from and I answer, Orlando, they’ll adopt a knowing look. I suppose you’ve heard about the massacre.
I wonder if it’s the same look people get when they answer Aurora, Newtown, Laramie. I wonder how far into my grief it will stop making me angry.
What I couldn’t have known about grief, even if someone had told me, even if I had listened, is that you grieve multiple things at once. On June 11th, I break down and admit to skipping meals and running until my hamstrings give out. I moisturize my legs, peel off a nose strip, and say one nice thing about every part of my body. Then I wake on the 12th and think all my friends are dead. My anxiety about food gets pushed aside in the panic. It doesn’t disappear, but slides down to the deepest part of me and waits, watches. Pulses.
Healing is not linear, but all the heartbeats overlap. I’m on day seven of the eating-disorder coping, day six of the massacre coping, day 690 of the emotionally-abusive-not-relationship coping, day 33,253 of the kicked-out-of-my-house-for-being-gay coping.
What I have to accept—or die trying—is that I am always grieving, and I only have so much yarn.