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How We Grieve


Nicholas Johnson is a playwright living in Los Angeles.

My breath catches. I scan the headline. Not again. I click the link and my computer screen flashes white momentarily. My face lights up briefly as the page transitions away, and in the space of a millisecond, I feel the tides of grief begin to surge up and lick at the walls of my heart. The new page loads and the headline glares out at me immediately: Gay Night Club Shooting. I feel far away and disoriented, my mind protecting itself in a haze of disbelief. Bad enough for another shooting to occur, but in a gay club, a safe haven for queer bodies and outcasts and others and beauty queens and punks and cool kids – now no longer a haven for queer bodies but a charnel house for them. My mind slowly returns to reality with the repeated metronome of a sound. It takes me moments to realize it is my own voice in a low monotone: “No . . . no . . . no . . . “

It is not usual and nothing will be normal again.

The day passes in a haze. I almost hit a pair of joggers backing up my car and slam on the brakes. My hands grip the wheel; my knuckles strain against the thin skin of my fist, turning it into a skeletal claw, a sudden and unwelcome reminder of the mortality lurking the skin. How fragile the human body is, and how easy it is to break it and spill the secret contents, like the bodies now lining the rooms and hallways in Orlando. I picture a macabre still life of the interior lives of men and women, an embarrassing display of the utmost privacy made public – stop. I did not know these people. With the creak of stiff leather I peel my hands off the wheel.

I check my blind spots carefully and back up. Something clicks and gives a hitch somewhere in the internal mechanism of my car. It’s as if even this machine is aware of the turbulence passing through the heartstrings of the world and struggles to function normally and as usual. It is not usual and nothing will be normal again.

Word begins circulating through social media by noon. Memorial service. Downtown. Six o’clock. We make our way there, drawn by an atavistic impulse to congregate, to hold one another, to make contact.

Yes, I am real. Yes, I feel you.

The lines of people flow in from every block, forming a mass of people in the park, sands of an hourglass being hopelessly poured in reverse, imploring time to go back, go back, just this once. It does not.

We stand under an old tree as part of the congregation. I hold my lover and feel him shiver in my arms. I feel a hand on my shoulder and it is my friend Gary, a consoling smile warm under his bushy beard. He enfolds me in his arms. All around us similar tableaus play out, lovers and friends and strangers reaching out and holding, caring, comforting. There there, it’s time to cry. Grieve with me. The tears flow hot and unexpected: I did not know these people. I was not there. Why am I heartbroken. I do not understand.

By now, the extent of the horror is well known: 49 dead, 53 wounded. Words like “terrorist” and “hate crime” and “ISIS” are being thrown around. That is fine. Let the world take our tragedy and use it for its own purposes.

That is what the world has always done best with our culture. We are here for your entertainment. Let our tragedy make your lives better. But not now. Not in this moment, linked arm in arm with the men and women and intimates and strangers who are the nervous system of our community. Right now we grieve. The “massacre” that merely makes a scrolling tic in the news has torn a gaping wound in our collective hearts. But this is what WE do best: take care of each other. Feel each other’s hearts and lives and souls, and cry when we hurt, and raise our voices when we succeed. There will be time for politics. This is a time for our family to grieve.


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