Brandon Wolf, who carries heavy survivor’s guilt about the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, thinks people are too quick to put trauma behind them. People want to rush on, rather than stay in the uncomfortable place of acknowledging the current reality.
“I’ve been thinking about our need as a society to move on. Our desperate need to find closure to these things,” said Wolf, 30, who was at Pulse the night of the shooting, which left 49 people dead and more than 50 injured. “We prop up people who were once physically injured that have made [that part of] their recovery.”
June 12 was the third anniversary of the 2016 Pulse shooting, and like many other dark anniversaries, postings of photographs of the dead and memorializing words exploded on Facebook and other social media platforms.
Wolf’s survivor’s guilt was more than the “normal.” That is because he urged his two best friends to go out with him that night. Wolf’s former partner had contacted him to see if they might get together. After saying yes, Wolf sent a message to his best friends Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, and Drew’s partner Juan Ramon Guerrero. But Drew said they were not up for going out. Brandon persuaded them to change their minds.
“I need backup,” he told them. “I’m going to pull the best-friend card. And I need you there with me.”
They agreed. “We got in the Uber. And flipped a coin, basically, and said, ‘Where do we go?’ And we landed on Pulse.”
That choice would change their lives forever. For two of them, it would end their lives. Wolf escaped, but his two friends did not. He still cannot describe that night without what-ifs and stinging tears. Wolf rearranged his life priorities to initially respond to his feelings of guilt, and later to simply work toward making the world brighter, and safer.
He and others started the Dru Project, a nonprofit that “gives scholarships to students who truly exemplify Drew's spirit and desire for unity, inclusion, and love,” according to the website. (The spelling of “Dru” comes from the fact that Drew Leinonen, like many millennials and Gen-Zers who brand themselves, had branded himself online as the Dru Project.)
Wolf has also become an activist for gun reform, modeling his work after the Parkland students and calling it his life’s purpose. He met high school activists who helped him choose this path. After the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Wolf attended a memorial in Tallahassee, where he had moved after the Pulse shooting. He could not stop crying.
“It's really hard to figure out or feel out when you're gonna have an emotional reaction to something. That particular tragedy really shook me. I think that was the most emotional I've felt since June 12th. So much so I think that you could feel the ripple effects outside of that,” he said. “I felt responsible that I had failed them in my advocacy. And I'm watching the TV and 17 people are dead, most of them children. And I thought, ‘If I had just done more. If I'd just said more, if I'd just fought harder, maybe this wouldn't have happened to them.’”
His plan was to slip out, but a man stopped him.
“This lawmaker grabbed me and he said, ‘You need to say something to these kids.’ And I said, ‘Well, what I have to say to these kids? I failed them. Why would I talk to them?’ And he said, ‘Because you're the only one who gets it.’
“So I went over. And I tried to talk to them. But again all I could say was ‘I am so sorry.’ The kids put their arms around me. And they said to me ‘It's gonna be OK.’ And so I made a bond and a pact with them in that moment. That I would not stop talking,” he recalled. “They’ve challenged me to think beyond what's possible, many times.”
Wolf reflected on the trauma of a live shooting.
“It’s difficult to describe,” he said, sitting in an Orlando Starbucks. He worked at Starbucks for more than 13 years, and now does media relations at the nonprofit Equality Florida. “It’s a bit like being in this moment. Where we're just talking, we’re having a conversation, we're at a Starbucks and, without warning, we’re in the middle of a warzone. There's 49 people there drowning in their own blood. There's somebody trapped in a bathroom with five people half of them are either dead or injured. The police are outside. There's 50 sirens. Everyone is holding an assault weapon. In an instant.”
Wolf said some people push for quick recovery, so they can feel good about moving on. He recalled an event at which he and other Pulse survivors were being honored. He was standing with another survivor, who had been injured and now used a cane. He said a bystander told Wolf he was very lucky to be standing “next to such strength. Look at how he’s recovered and he’s so strong now. I am so proud of him for that.”
Wolf reflected on how that might make the survivor feel.
“Knowing that the world is waiting for him to be well, so they can move on. So they can be well. When in reality 25 years from now he will still have the same issues that he has today. And when at what point did survival become about physical fitness? Rather than emotional healing?” he asked. “To be a survivor is not to check boxes. It's not to be lucky. Or proud. It's to fight for your life every single day. You don't ever stop surviving that experience. You just keep reliving it over and over again.”
Wolf said Pollyanna thinking can be toxic.
“That doesn’t allow us to find a solution. Because we’re so stuck on the idea that we have to close the book, that we can’t write the ending,” he said. “My purpose has to bring some good out of it. That for me is what actual closure looks like. That we find the hope in it all. That we find the humanity in each other. So that we can do things that make us all better.”
Mary Tolan is a fiction writer and journalist. Her first published book Mars Hill Murder, a mystery set in Flagstaff, will be published by The Wild Rose Press in autumn of 2023.