In the days and months following my father’s 2014 murder I heard one phrase uttered time and time again: Please understand. The killer’s probation officer who failed to stamp a piece of paper in time, a police force who let an active arrest warrant sit meaningless on a desk, a District Attorney who didn’t want to waste the money on a trial and a life sentence if he could get a quick plea deal, the Department of Corrections who relocated the killer to a low security facility right by my house, the friends and relatives nearby and far away who were uncomfortable being around us death-kissed daughters and so kept a safe, comfortable distance: “Please, understand.” They told us newly shattered to understand that justice is a business, and though faulty they followed protocol, and prison placement has to take into account the criminal’s rights and program needs, and nobody really wants or knows how to sit down in this darkness so they need to send Facebook prayers of undisclosed intention or meaning. I became conditioned to not really hear it, to not let those dismissive words make harder the already unbearable days.
I am watching your widespread sharing of opinions across all forms of media since the brutal slaying of innocent Americans in Orlando. You are sharing what you are for or what you are against. You are posting little internet memes about religions and weapons and political candidates. You are fighting in the comments with strangers and using lots of numbers and percentages to support your theories. You are offended or defensive. And I see it all too clearly that what you are all really screaming is UNDERSTAND ME. UNDERSTAND WHAT I THINK AND FEEL. It seems of utmost importance that you and your opinions are heard and understood.
To the wounded, emptied hearts of Orlando, I will not superficially fight about weapons or faiths, politicians or legislature. I see in you the very wreckage I am still walking through. I do not want you to understand any of my pointless opinions. Your tired bones are already painfully overburdened. I understand. For us safely watching this horror unfold through a TV screen, I beg you to give pause and truly, calmly try to understand.
Please understand that losing a loved one to violence takes the breath out of them. It never comes back. There is a clenched knot at the base of their chests that never eases. This knot is bound tight with fear, anxiety, horror and anger, unresolved futures, and a million particles of the life that was just here but now is startlingly gone. Even years later, it holds tighter, tighter when news comes of another one or three or forty-nine souls murdered because they know this one achingly weighted breath and cannot fathom it multiplied. It feels like death and perpetual surprise that this pain has not killed them.
Please understand that they are emptying their pockets for any and every luxury funeral detail. They will try not to panic at the smiling blonde funeral director or the expense or worry about the cost of paying lingering bills and debts because your loved one has no more life and what is money anymore? What else can they do? When a person they love is handed a death not fit for a dog, the only thing in their control is what flowers their mother, father, brother, daughter, sister, son would like draped over the casket. The only way they can show their love is in white lilies and granite grave markers.
Please understand that they will force themselves to view the battered bodies of their precious people because it is the only way to hold their hands. Seeing their death-blotched skin and stiff lips and cold skin is the only way they will ever be able to say goodbye. These lives were stolen, understand, and with them the opportunity for a peaceful death.
Please understand they don’t have time to tweet and post as you are because they are vomiting in police station restroom. Their bodies are suddenly and violently ill, wrestling this shock and grief like a fatal parasite. They are looking around the frozen coroner’s den or the crowded candlelit vigil or the silent homes of the victims and they cannot form words or thoughts or gestures to describe what it means when your life becomes a crime scene.
Please understand that they will accept your ambiguous prayers but will grow overwhelmed and will fight the urge to scream “PRAY FOR WHAT?” You must understand that there is very little peace or comfort in faith immediately. The verses they’ve always lived by sting now, hurt to hear. Maybe their faith will return, maybe even defiantly stronger. But right now, my God, right now they cannot hear about beauty from ashes and God’s never-failing, never-changing plan. Right now they are feeling guilty and obliged to nod yes to your prayers while they are clutching a wounded heart and worried their loving God betrayed them.
Please understand they will notice in weeks to come a pulling away of the disinterested masses. These deaths that have shattered their entire world will seem less relevant, less talked about. They are good people who will try to understand that the world moves on for everyone else though not for them, not ever the same for them. They will try to squelch anger when those around them are too uncomfortable to say a word. They will try to reconcile the desperate urge to scream and shout and never let one person forget who they’ve lost with the polite guilt that tells them not to bring it up, not to make someone around them uncomfortable.
Please understand that they will not rest. Their bodies have been hollowed out and crushed flat with the understanding that what they thought was safe is not safe. What they assumed to be the natural order of life and age and death has been turned on its head. The grief of losing a crucial heartbeat will be compounded by the knowledge that their loved one was nonsensically hated enough have their heartbeats stolen. While you are researching gun statistics to compile a real zinger of a Twitter argument, they will lie awake scared to see bloodied, brutality of the nightmares which hound their sleep.
Please understand that they will hide away, acutely aware that their breathing and walking and very person feels off. They will feel too insecure to go out in public, sure that they will cry at the first eye contact from a grocery store employee. They were normal just a minute ago and now they can’t hold their hands or grin or reach for milk in the right way. Nothing is comfortable. They will break out in hives in the store and church and school, panicked that people can see the dark and the hurt and the death that is just under the surface, enveloping them. They have been marked Murder.
Please understand that they will wonder why the news focuses so much on numbers, on tallies and death tolls because they’ve come to understand that ONE murder is enough to break the world. They will get lost calculating the kids their sons will never have, the changes their daughters could’ve made in the world, the number of years or lifetimes they will have to survive without for a chance to see their friends again one day. They will mentally gather all the holidays and birthdays and deathdates and they will be overcome with the prospect of so many joyous days turned to hard ones. They will lose track and settle that when one life is taken by another there is no number great enough to value the loss.
Please understand what it does to their human hearts when they experience true, barbaric violence right there in their ordinary lives. Can you understand the panic at every violent movie or a stranger walking a little fast towards them or the startle of loud noises or even the cheer of a pastel colored greeting card aisle the week before their baby’s should-have-been birthday? Can you imagine your only certain feeling being that you are next, that if this evil can happen, all evil will happen?
Please understand that they will feel desperately alone as swarms of people argue about the politics and religions and protocols and light candles in large vigils. They will wish any of those angry typing, publicly praying hands would just rest on their weary shoulders.
Please understand that while you share your opinions they are mustering up every ounce of strength to comfort those also hurting around them. They are assuring the children that there is nothing to fear while they are terrified. They are looking to their spouses and coworkers and friends and wishing some of you healthy people could use your energy to comfort because they feel the very life draining out of them. They are the wounded trying to heal the wounded while we have just finished lunch and headed out for some light shopping. They will see this disparity. It will hurt them deeply.
Please understand that your innocent mentions of needing to turn off the news because you can’t handle it, it’s just too much, make them rage and weep. They are not awarded the option of averting their eyes from the massacre that has become their new life. This is not a hard 7 minutes of CNN but a life sentence these innocent people have been dealt.
Please understand that they will pace around the kitchen island and sit very still for long stretches and drive aimlessly because they cannot find a place or a task or a way to be alive and feel okay. They will look around months from now and realize triumphantly that they’ve made it a whole morning without crying, a whole day at work without hiding in the parking lot, a whole week without wanting a break, to sleep or to die. They will want you to really see them then. They will want anyone to feel pride in them for getting up every single day to face this hard, new world.
Please understand that there will come a day when they have carried the weight of this grief so long it has chiseled and molded them and left them still and forever brokenhearted but stronger. They will feel resilient and able if just enough to emerge into the sun where they will look around and wonder where the thousands of people with so much passion for (gun rights, party politics, domestic terrorism, bigotry, religion) their loss have gone. They will be ready to fight for changes that make it as impossible as humanly possible for another to suffer the death or the aftermath of such a manmade death.
Where will you be? What of your opinions then? Will you have worked and done for them or will you have simply said a lot and said it very loudly? Will you, as so many have before you, look back and tell the surviving mothers, fathers, spouses, friends, and community of Orlando, “Please, understand. It’s been a few months, we’ve moved on to the next sad thing. We’ve shared our memes and fought our Facebook wars. It’s over for us now. Please, understand.”