A month ago, just before sunset, I was out walking along a quiet rural road near my home when my phone rang.
“Are you sitting down?” My mother asked in a voice that clearly wasn’t normal. I wasn’t, but there wasn’t anywhere convenient to sit nearby, so I asked what was wrong anyway.
“Trent was killed in a car accident tonight.”
Trent is—I typed is out of habit, but now realize I must say was—my 18-year-old nephew. He was on his way home from studying with friends, and would have graduated from high school in just three weeks.
The day he died was also, as it happened, his mother’s birthday. Two days after Mother’s Day.
There is a before and after to grief: one minute, your life, and the lives of your friends and family members are humming along in the ordinary way; the next moment, you enter a new and very different world. For the first few hours, the first few days, you keep thinking you may wake up, realize that this has been a nightmare, that Trent is still alive, that his mother is not hysterical, that his father is not stoically holding himself together while their whole world comes apart. But you keep waking up, and he is still dead.
For whatever reason, my nephew’s story attracted the attention of the media, and so our little family drama got shared and commented on all over the world. Thus, in addition to the ordinary family crisis created by death, there were also reporters calling looking for photographs, stories, and quotes about Trent. And after the articles went up the comments piled up—many heartfelt, or at least well-meaning, some flippant or cruel. (Compared to my usual experiences with Internet comments, even the worst of these comments were relatively benign.)
One of the things that you learn, when you try to talk about death and loss, is that there are no adequate words. No words adequate to describe your own sense of loss. No words adequate to convey sympathy or condolences. We say, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” or “I miss him so much” or “I guess I’m holding up ok,” and we mean it. But the words seem so small and flat compared to what they are trying to describe.
* * *
Late Saturday night, a friend texted me that there was a shooting in progress at a gay bar in Florida. CNN didn’t yet have a story up, but I found a little bit of news on the BBC website. I followed some updates on Twitter (which included a lot of speculation and personal reaction, but less real information and context). When I finally fell asleep, there were still no firm numbers for those killed or injured, nor had any of the victims been identified.
By early Sunday morning when I woke up, the toll had risen to 20 dead and 42 injured. The police had identified Omar Mateen as the shooter, and called it a terrorist attack. An hour later, it had risen to 50 dead and 53 injured, and identified the shooter as a second-generation Afghan American Muslim.
A couple of hours after that, news broke that the Los Angeles police had arrested James Wesley Howell, who had assault rifles, high capacity magazines, and chemicals that could be used to make an explosive device. He said he was going to the Los Angeles Pride Festival, though it was not clear whether he was planning an attack or not.
The preceding paragraphs seem small and flat compared to the horrific reality they are trying to describe.
* * *
Sunday morning, I saw an interview with Andy Moss, who had been in the Pulse when the shooting started. Although he had escaped, his best friend Chris had not. “I don’t know where he is, I don’t know what his status is. He’s not answering his phone, I can’t go to the hospital, so I’m just trying to figure out if he’s ok.”
The United States has strict medical privacy laws, which are written on the assumption that the most important ties in any person’s life are based on family, not friendship. Moss, like many others who had been separated from their friends in the confusion of trying to escape, couldn’t go to the hospital, couldn’t call and ask for information that, by law, the hospital can only release to family members or those with a valid medical power of attorney.
Andrew Sullivan has written movingly of the importance of friendship in the LGBT community. And although gay marriage became legal last year, the community’s social structures have not been remade overnight. Many of the men and women injured or killed in the Pulse Sunday morning were more intimately connected to their friends than to their families. It is an additional dimension of the tragedy that Andy’s desperate search for news of his friend Chris was multiplied over and over again, as friends struggled to find information in system that prioritizes access and notification for family members.
When the interviewer asked him if there was anything viewers could do, Andy replied, “Keep praying. I’m not a very religious person or whatever. Whatever religion you are, no matter what you believe, just send whatever our way. We all need it, we all need something, we all need that hope, keep praying for us. We all need it.”
“There’s no bullet that could ever break a friendship,” Andy said. “He will forever be my best friend.” Chris’s name hasn’t yet appeared on the lists of those killed, so we may hope that they will see each other again. Sadly, though, until Chris is well enough to contact Andy, he may learn little that is not already available to the general public.
* * *
There was the sadder story of Eddie Justice.
Eddie was not killed in the initial exchange of gunfire. For 45 minutes, he and his mom, Mina, exchanged text messages. Then, this exchange:
Eddie: “Hurry” (2:49 a.m.)
Eddie: “He’s in he bathroom with us” (2:50 a.m.)
Eddie: “Women’s bathroom is” (2:50 a.m.)
Mina: “Is the man in the bathroom wit u”
Eddie: “He’s a terror”
Eddie: “Yes” (2:51 a.m.)
That was the last text Mina received, though she kept trying, more and more desperately, to get in touch with her son. The next day, the police confirmed that Eddie was among the dead.
* * *
At Mass Sunday morning, there was a very generic intercession for the victims of terrorism, and those charged with responding to it.
I cannot say this with complete certainty, but I am still quite sure that in previous tragedies, we prayed for “the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting” or “the victims of the shooting in Aurora, Colorado.”
I have, in the past, complained about the apparent allergy among conservative Christians to looking at the faces of LGBT people. In talking to friends, I am not the only one who has perceived a gap in the way Christians have responded to other tragedies, and the way they have responded to this one.
Still, I am grateful for prayers, even if they are vague. As Andy Moss would say, “Just send whatever our way. We all need it.”
* * *
Last night, Fr. James Martin posted these prayers:
Pray for the eternal rest of all those who were killed in Orlando.
Pray for their family and friends and all who mourn them.
Pray for an end to homophobia and any hatred or violence directed at LGBT people.
Pray for an end to gun violence.
Pray for peace.
Then ask God to help you to act.
In the weeks ahead, social and news media will dissect the life of the killer and search for answers to prevent future tragedies. That’s a necessary step: for too long, we have responded to mass shootings with prayers and vigils and moments of silence, but have not done enough to prevent these attacks from happening again and again.
But let’s never forget the victims. Remember their faces, honor their memory, and mourn the tragedy of lives cut short so soon. They were sisters, brothers, sons, and daughters. They were friends. They were loved by God. May they rest now in His eternal embrace.