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Oppenheim: One Life In Orlando

It was about 8:30 AM. I was flipping through the Sunday morning shows. The breaking story had not yet hit the air. So I went to work on my laptop, at one point turning to a website to check a fact.

And then I saw it. The number fifty. Fifty - the number of dead in Orlando.

I said something aloud like – Whoa! – expressing that initial shock a number like that can bring.

The TV went back on. At first, I reacted more like a reporter, absorbing information almost as if I might be responsible to tell someone else. I got the identity of the shooter, the suspicion of a hate-crime and questions about terrorism.

Throughout Sunday, I kept checking back. The shooter’s family spoke out. Names of the victims began to emerge. Survivors told their accounts.

I wanted to know what was going on, but I didn’t really want to feel too much, to allow my emotions to rise. I know that sounds bad, but I have my reasons.

Much of my career as a reporter dealt with tragedy. Professionally, I relied on some block against raw emotions, just so I could do my job.

But lately, as a viewer, there’s something else. I’ve honestly become exasperated. Though I’ve been told the frequency of mass shootings has not actually gone up, it feels like it’s a regular thing which never leads to constructive change. My defenses against feeling anything are more powerful than ever.

And with all that, something snuck up on me. Next day, I heard the story of Eddie Justice. Eddie was the 30 year old patron at the Pulse nightclub in the bathroom messaging his mother Mina. It was his last text to her; he didn’t survive. I made another sound – Ohh – suddenly feeling something I hadn’t before.

This is a phenomenon I talk about with students. When bad things happen and many die, numbers can be numbing. Many of us don’t want to – or can’t – get our heads around what it means for 50 lives to end in a massive act of violence. Somewhere past maybe twenty or twenty five, the number becomes too much, too abstract, the totality beyond capacity.

But when I watched Mina Justice interviewed on television, though her demeanor was flat, I could see her grief was palpable. And for me, what happened to Eddie was a reminder there may indeed be a way to understand this loss. And that is one person at a time.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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