Content warning: Discussion of suicide, hate crimes, death.

When we're surrounded by death, what keeps us going?

When we’re surrounded by death, what keeps us going?

A former intern at the LGBT nonprofit where I work committed suicide a couple of months ago. I heard about it through the grapevine at work — she had been with us for only about a month during a January term and had already been back at college for several weeks before it happened. She was trans and queer like myself; I remember her for her fly sneaker/sock combinations, for being incredibly sharp and discerning when we would talk politics, and as someone I thought I’d probably have been friends with when I was in college.

When I found out a couple of months ago, it felt very surreal. I felt more haunted and confused than necessarily sad. I had never personally known someone so young who had died — my familiarity with death came only from understanding what it was like to lose elderly family members to long-drawn out, unsurprising diagnoses. But last week, I met a friend of hers — coincidentally, a new intern in our office — and all of a sudden, two months late, grief struck.

She had been mostly quiet. Nothing about her demeanor or our conversations had suggested that she may be struggling with so many demons. Knowing that she was another young person in our community, I understood that her life was likely hard in a lot of ways. But the thought that she was struggling to the point of despair — that she might take her own life only a month or two after the end of her internship — I never saw that coming.

For the first time last week, I cried about her death. Life in general has been hard on me lately — a breakup, trouble with toxic friends in my life, stresses at work and the general pain of existing as a queer/trans person in the world. I kept it together until a friend turned on a gospel song, one of the lyrics of which goes “There is power in the name of Jesus to break every chain.” I started crying, hard, because it hit me that our former intern had somehow stopped believing that anything could break her chains. She had lost all hope that there was any power that could stop the pain she was feeling. I have flirted dangerously with this sense of hopelessness for much of my teen and young adult life. I wept, hoping she had found peace.

A day later, my best friend from college called me, frantic and crying. She, too, had reached a point of hopelessness, and told me she wasn’t sure what was keeping her on this earth. She is trans, too — we had figured out our identities together in our college years, and she has remained very dear to me even now that we live many hundreds of miles apart. I am familiar with her ups and downs, almost as much as my own, but in light of the grief I was currently feeling about the former intern in my office, I was especially worried for her.

I told her the story. She was calmed a bit, and moved. We chatted about how hard it is to feel like life was worth living sometimes, and yet, how much someone actually taking their own life put things in perspective. (My best friend is still alive and well, though struggling, at the time of this writing.)

Three days after that, Saturday, June 11, a dear friend — also queer and trans — swallowed some pills in a panicked attempt to take his own life. I freaked out. I begged and begged and tried to persuade him to come to the emergency room with me to be checked out. He said he was fine now, that it hadn’t worked, that nothing was going to happen, but I still spent the better part of an hour convincing him that he had to come to the ER with me.

He finally relented, and we walked to the ER at a hospital near my apartment in Philadelphia. We arrived around 7:30; through all the various processes, tests, and waiting periods, we finally left (with the welcome and miraculous news that he would be totally fine) around 1am that night, and settled into my apartment. I had never felt so bone-tired and drained in my entire life.

About an hour later, a gunman entered Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, and shot over a hundred people, killing almost 50 of them.

I was laying in bed the following day, trying to rest, when I heard the news. Orlando well and truly broke my heart. I had to face all of that senseless death only hours after I had been waiting in an ER, worried that my friend’s time was running out.

The massacre at Pulse nightclub doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and its tragedy, though larger in scale than most we have faced lately, is only the latest of many. In order to understand how devastated we queer/trans people are, you have to understand that to be LGBT means to be surrounded by death. It is in the suicides of our former interns. It is in the self-harm scares of our friends. It is in the constantly ticking count of how many transgender women have been murdered so far this year. It is in every young gay person who is bullied to the brink, every hate crime that shatters queer bones. It is the fear I feel to wear anything rainbow outside of the insulated blocks of my city’s gayborhood; it is the desperation with which queer youth escape abusive homes. To be queer or trans is to be constantly surrounded by death — suicides, murders, violent hate crimes like the one at Pulse nightclub. Our people are quite literally dying around us, and most of us have been to more vigils than anyone should ever have to attend.

I’m struggling a lot, to keep going after the week I’ve had, surrounded by death all around me. Perhaps most terrifyingly is the sense of death within myself — the understanding that I believe most queer/trans people have, that someday we might run into a person who will end our lives; the understanding that, if things get too rough, as they often do to us, the person who ends our lives may be ourselves.

I think about our former intern a lot now. Her memory is something to hold onto. She was funny, and witty and kind. If life had been kinder back, if the world a more hopeful place for people like her, for people like me — maybe she would have stayed. That’s what’s doing it for me right now — wanting to help people like me stay. I’m not sure how yet — I’m fighting myself, after last week, after Pulse — but it’s something. And in the end, it’s all we’ve got.

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