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Coping with the Orlando Anti-Gay Massacre: 5 Stages of Grief

Engel in TrauerIn the wake of the Orlando massacre this past Sunday, my own experience and that of my clients has been an intense mix of emotions.  As a psychotherapist who has specialized in working almost exclusively with gay men for over 24 years as the founder and director of GayTherapyLA, there are few better suited to address the collective trauma that the LGBT community and our allies are facing this week, and yet I find myself struggling to manage and balance my own feelings and process while simultaneously trying to help others.

It’s been a continuous 360 degrees of coping, from my friends when I’m home and from my clients when I’m at the office.  Clinical social workers (like me) are trained to manage a crisis by identifying and implementing thoughts and behaviors that constitute “adaptive coping”, and helping others to achieve a state of restored equilibrium.  What makes all of this complex is that while the attack happened to those at the nightclub in Florida, including its dead victims, wounded victims, and traumatized survivors and their loved ones, the impact of that attack reverberates all over the country and the world.  I believe that the act was indeed terrorism, which has been defined as not only a violent act against an individual or local group, but but an act that is also designed to strike terror in the entire population that that targeted group represents; in the case of 9/11, for example, it was meant to terrorize all Americans (which it did).  In the case of Orlando, it was meant for the entire LGBT population.  But where terrorists often “get it wrong” is that their efforts to strike horror are only partially effective, because while their actions do cause horror and trauma widely, they never seem to achieve their second aim, which is to destroy the spirit of the targeted group and scare them into some kind submission to their will.  We band together, and we resolve, quite profoundly, that we will not be diminished by their pathetic actions, but actually strengthened in our resolve.  When the LGBT community gets pissed, watch out.  When AIDS happened, so did ACT UP (which stood for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, by the way).  When New York City Police tried to raid, for the umpteenth time, the Stonewall Inn just to harass LGBT patrons, the response was three days of rioting and demands for equal treatment under the Law.  At various times, there have been Marches on Washington and other forms of protest.  The spirit of the LGBT community, and I think LGBT Americans in particular, will not be diminished by disease, terrorists, disasters, or oppressive laws.  It is that striving for life, dignity, equality, and just overall quality of life (especially in mental health) that I have devoted my professional identity to, almost exclusively, and I’m proud to be able to say that.  I was once told by a graduate school advisor, tersely and through pursed lips, when I told her I was going to specialize in my career in doing therapy and counseling for the LGBT community, “Well.  You’re going to be a very narrow person!” I have ever since worn that “narrowness” of focusing my career on helping gay men and others in the LGBT community with their mental health and quality of life as a badge of honor, perhaps never more so than this very week.

So in this week, of shock, horror, and profound emotional reactions, how do we collectively cope?  In part, it’s like any other disaster like 9/11 – we go on automatic pilot and do things we need to in everyday life, particularly at work.  But the emotional layers that so many of my clients have described this week really reflect the classic Elizabeth Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.  While subsequent research has criticized her theory as there being no one “right way” to grieve, in my many years of clinical observation and experience, I see clients going through these stages in response to accidents, diagnosis with illness, death of loved ones, death of pets, relationship breakups, and even (during the Recession, especially) the loss of a job.  This week I’ve seen these layers a lot.  Let’s look at them in more depth, in the wake of the Orlando massacre:

  1. Denial – Our psychological defenses tend to kick in when we first hear bad news. Our minds try to protect us, the way we might hold our hands/arms in front of our face to protect us if someone throws something at us.  It’s instinctive.  It gives the mind a chance to take the information in smaller pieces and process it, so it doesn’t overwhelm us (even though we can feel overwhelmed).  We tend to ask questions, to clarify, to resolve pieces of information that seemingly conflict.  We look for pieces of information that mitigate the bad news, for example with Orlando with things such as wondering if there are survivors, or if the gunman has been subdued/arrested/killed.  We also use Denial when we have to function, and go on “automatic pilot” to dress, shower, eat, drive, work, etc., even if intrusive thoughts of the other stages (anger, grief especially) creep in and break through our denial.
  2. Anger – We see it on Facebook, especially. There has been anger about the country’s laws that allow ridiculously easy accessibility to high-powered guns for suspects investigated by the FBI, when buying more than one box of Sudafed a month, or carrying full bottles of shampoo on a plane, are forbidden. There has been anger about how “conservative ‘Christian’” pastors and pundits have gloated and tweeted and preached that they wish the massacre had been worse, and calling gay men “pedophiles”.  There has been anger about how too many straight people have been silent, when they were vocal and visible with memes and profile pic changes about the Paris massacre or the murdered gorilla at the zoo.  There has been anger the DeVos family gave some money to the families of the victims, but gave millions more to the more virulent anti-gay organizations in the country that fuel anti-LGBT hate and embolden violence and discrimination.  But the anger is mitigated by our straight allies showing love and support in abundance, and how our global LGBT community has joined together to raise funds, protest in the streets for awareness, and increase our visibility in order to increase our dignity.
  3. Bargaining – We “bargain” with the situation by trying to find something positive, like channeling our grief and anger into positive social action like confronting anti-gay hate (such as from Republican legislators who blocked LGBT anti-discrimination legislation right after the massacre) or raising funds for the victims, or renewing our determination to fight for our rights. We become determined that we will not be diminished, and that we will hold hands or kiss in public even more, defying those homophobes who make snide comments or use their “revulsion” at same-sex signs of love and affection to justify social (denying rights) or physical (hate crimes) violence.  If we didn’t use our psychological defense of “bargaining”, being determined to make something good come from so much traumatic loss, we might be overwhelmed or hopeless.
  4. Depression – Which brings us to depression. There is just no denying the profound sense of loss around not only the dead victims and the wounded ones, but also their loved ones (from their Family of Origin AND their Family of Choice, which is a concept many straight people have trouble understanding). There has been a collective pall over the LGBT community locally but also nationally and globally, and yet reports from Orlando seem to describe more adaptive coping and rallying, even if the face of grief, than any kind of helplessness. When the going gets tough, the LGBT community gets going!  Depression can be seen as both a cognitive (thought) process, as well as a behavioral one (being less active, even “vegetative”).  In my work with gay male clients this week, much of our focus has been on coping with depression about many things – the audacity of the anti-gay pundits, the brazen hate of Republican politicians, the silence of some straight people or the media, and just the profound sense of loss of life and all that represents.  Only it’s really more the natural grieving process than Depression; Depression is really a part of Complicated Bereavement, because depressed mood, sadness, and loss is normal after something like this – and on a very large scale.  Many of my clients, friends, and even myself experience periodic tearful episodes at the sheer pain of the senseless loss of life.  And it’s part of the process that we need to accept this, and let the grief happen.  Paradoxically, the more we allow our grief to be there, to experience the sadness in its magnitude and meaning, the smoother the natural grieving process will go.
  5. Acceptance – What a word. When applied to the LGBT community, “acceptance” is not enough, just like “tolerance” isn’t.  I “tolerate” the noise of garbage trucks outside as I write this.  Garbage trucks don’t involve the dignity of an entire group of human beings (except the trash collectors, but I mean the trucks/noise as inanimate objects).  When Kubler-Ross described “acceptance” here, she meant that this is the final stage of grief, where we never stop missing our lost loved one, but we accept the loss enough to move on with our lives, perhaps a bit scarred by the loss, but also made more resilient that we can cope with losses – sometimes severe ones – in our lives, and get through them.  In this case, in the times ahead, we will never get to a place of “acceptance” of an anti-gay massacre, or condoning the gunman’s supremely hateful actions.  The acceptance is that our lives have high highs and low lows, and this is a low low.  Acceptance is that the arc of history bends toward Justice, but we have to push it along.  Acceptance is that we can’t change that our LGBT community friends died in the attack, but we can change what we can through our activism, perhaps most of all our VOTING, and brave continuation or even escalation of our determination to show affection in public, demand our equal rights, and to educate the public that has been deliberately mis-educated about the nature of sexual orientation and gender as an expression of hate and control by our enemies.  (I sometimes listen to “Christian” radio in the car, so I can hear EXACTLY the types of verbal manipulation tactics and “spin” they use to sway their listeners’ opinions against the LGBT community; it’s a fascinating use of language that reminds one of Nazi propaganda, or the “education” techniques used by (“Red”) China or the Soviet Union/Russia.  While most fair-minded people can’t stand to hear their hateful rhetoric, it behooves people outside of the “conservative Christian” community to understand exactly how they influence their listeners with their lives (particularly “Focus on the Family”, which mixes legitimate family therapy theory and positive concepts with bigoted and false “education” about LGBT people in families).  We focus on acceptance as the ultimate goal after a tragedy such as the Orlando massacre, just as we did with Sandy Hook, or 9/11, or countless other “bad news days”, because we have to.  I learned in show business, “the show must go on.”  We must go on.  Acceptance and moving forward doesn’t invalidate grief, but helps us to be standing, talking, working, functional memorials to the victims by working in our lives to help improve the political and social climate that emboldened the gunman in the first place.  For me, that’s doing my part by being a psychotherapist and coach supporting the mental health and well-being of gay men.  For others, it’s being an accountant, real estate agent, lawyer, photographer, physician, etc., but also doing what they can to support the dignity and well-being of LGBT persons worldwide, by speaking up, voting, and advocating in ways large and small every day for a lifetime.

These stages are not necessarily sequential.  They can be non-linear, they can mix and overlap, they can change on a dime, and leave us feeling mercurial and chaotic. But if we can learn to “expect the unexpected” in this time of aftermath of a major horrific event, then we validate our feelings and give ourselves self-compassion, patience, and understanding, which can lead to peace, even if we renew our efforts in the fight against the many forces that contributed to the massacre in the first place.  We accept that we hold this “dialectic” (polar opposites) of peace and determined action at the same time.  After a trauma, one of the most important words is “reclaim”.  We reclaim our equilibrium, our own mood/behavior control, and our sense of self to move forward, not forgetting the victims, but allowing their memory to comfort and inspire us for a lifetime – or however long it takes to build a better world.

If you would like a consultation on coping with this, or any issue, please let me know at 310-339-5778 or email


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