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How a Pulse Nightclub Survivor Learned to Forgive the Gunman

"He would say, 'Demetrice, you hold a grudge way longer than I do.' I thought there was a part of me that needed to grow up"

Ever since the massacre at a gay nightclub a year ago, Demetrice Naulings positions himself in bed when he goes to sleep so he has a view of his apartment's front door in case anybody tries to get in.

Darkness often takes him back to that moment when gunshots shattered a night of drinking and dancing during "Latin night" at the Pulse club in Orlando.

"That is a flashback that gets me every time," Naulings said recently.

He escaped, but he lost friend Eddie Justice, who was among the 49 people killed after gunman Omar Mateen started firing a little after 2 a.m. on June 12, 2016. Dozens more were wounded in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Naulings and Justice took refuge in a bathroom, but Naulings decided it was a mistake to stay. Justice begged him not to let go of his hand, and they ran out of the bathroom holding hands. But in the panicked crowd of 300 people trying to flee, Naulings let go. He made it out alive. Justice did not.

Justice was always a guiding light for Naulings, and now Naulings beats himself up about that night and thinks about what he would say if he could see his friend just one last time.

"I'd tell him, 'I miss you,'" Naulings said. "I hope he's not disappointed, and I hope he knows that I would have done anything to change it, and I didn't leave him ... And one day, I'm going to get to a place where I won't beat myself up."

The massacre shocked a world in which mass shootings happen constantly. Mateen, who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, was killed in a shootout with police after a three-hour standoff.

About nine months later, in February, Naulings heard that Mateen's wife had been charged with aiding him and obstructing the investigation. Noor Salman has pleaded not guilty but remains in jail awaiting trial.

The news about the gunman's spouse reopened old wounds. Naulings had moved from living in a hotel to an apartment in downtown Orlando after receiving $25,000 from a fund created from the more than $30 million raised for the victims' families and survivors of the massacre.

Naulings did not talk to anybody about Salman's arrest for several days, and then he thought about what Justice would do in his shoes.

"He was forgiving," said Naulings, a makeup artist by trade. "He would say, 'Demetrice, you hold a grudge way longer than I do.' I thought there was a part of me that needed to grow up."

It dawned on him that the 4-year-old son of Mateen and Salman would likely grow up not knowing his parents. His heart went out to the young boy.

"I lost a best friend, and now that kid lost a mother and father. And I felt I had to forgive on his behalf," Naulings said. "Because you can only imagine having your mother taken away from you at a young age, how much hate you will have against everyone."

Before her arrest, the boy's mother filed a petition in California court to change the name of her son, who is partly named for his father.

Naulings sometimes imagines what he would say to Mateen's son: "You know what? I forgive your father. It's not your fault."

He said he would not want the boy "to grow up with the same hate that his father had in him, to do something hateful like he did." 

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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