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Newtown, Connecticut’s One Year Anniversary: A cultural shift in public mourning

The residents of Newtown, Connecticut, and the families of the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook School shootings are taking charge and bucking the trend of marking the one year anniversary through a public commemoration. Rather, they’re encouraging folk around the world to punctuate the tragedy of December 14, 2012 through committing acts of kindness and service.

When the continuing news coverage revealed the carnage, the concept of so many innocent children gunned down in their classroom in small-town America rattled us all. The private loss of each of the 26 families became – for better and for worse – a public tragedy. And like all the public tragedies we’ve witnessed and marked in the past, we by-standers, fueled by concern and compassion and disbelief and no small amount of helplessness and incredulity, want to do something. We know we can’t undo what’s done, but perhaps our small gestures of kindness can help lessen the burden and load of pain, for the town, the residents, the families. Hence the torrent of teddy bears and stuffed animals, letters and banners and packages and money sent, both to support the affected and to, well, do something.

Managing this influx of stuff and money takes time and people (and money), and carries its own burden of resource allocation, and before too long the town pleaded with the public: Stop sending us money! Stop sending us teddy bears! Please, give to your own community!

Making the decision not to publicly mark the anniversary is a cultural shift, made in part to avoid drawing the kind of media attention the townspeople nearly collapsed under last December. Amazingly, both NBC and ABC networks are honoring the town’s wishes, saying they have no plans to dispatch crews on December 14.

In the face of powerlessness we all feel, it’s encouraging and inspiring that the families and community have taken charge of what they want and need: to be left alone. Newtown First Selectman Patricia Lloda said something anyone who has experienced trauma and tragedy might take to heart: We can’t change what happened to us, but we have a choice in how we respond.

Michele Gay, whose 7-year-old daughter Josephine was killed, expressed that “it’s very important to all the families that they own their own grieving process.”

John Woodall, a Newtown resident, psychiatrist, and member of the committee deciding against the town throwing a public ceremony, shared the following poignant thoughts about grief:

…We don’t look at grief as something you heal from like it’s an illness, like it’s a cold for instance. We use that language a lot, you know ‘have you recovered’ or ‘have you healed from your grief?’…What grief is is a form of love, but with the loved one gone, so it’s really the heartbreak of separation from the loved one. So the work of grief is to find a new form for that love, to find a new expression for it, a new commitment, a way to honor the love.

Monsignor Robert Weiss of St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, who presided over many of the funerals, and who was the first clergy person on the scene at Sandy Hook, was asked on the public broadcasting program Here and Now something we all can’t help but wonder: How are the families doing a year later?

They’re coping in different ways, he stated. Some privately; some through efforts to impact gun legislation; others have developed foundations, written books, composed songs. But the one thing they all have in common, Weiss said, is this: “They are all broken.”

Broken.

I won’t presume to know precisely what Monsignor Weiss intended to convey through this particular adjective, but it is one we hear from our participants at The Dougy Center as well. Recently one of our teens shared that after her dad died, the kids at school started calling her the “broken girl.” After a while, she came to think of herself as changed, sad, affected, but not “broken.” A quick dictionary search reveals a range of meanings for the word, including fractured; incomplete; not functioning; crushed by grief; exhausted or weakened; overwhelmed with sorrow or disappointment; thrown into a state of disarray; out of working order; lacking a part or parts.

I’m reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s words near the end of his novel, A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” I’m reminded daily, through the resilience of the families we serve at The Dougy Center, that one can be both broken and strong. I am inspired by the actions for positive change that families in Newtown have generated in memory of their loved ones. And I am even more convinced that there are no formulas for coping with grief, only individual paths.

It’s said sometimes that we live in a death-denying society, but I disagree. We’re surrounded by death and dying: just watch the news, read a novel, attend an opera, flip through TV channels. We’re seeped in death-related media reality;  even President Obama was caught taking a funeral selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say we live in a society that doesn’t deal well with the aftermath of death, with the long-term, life-shifting, bone-chilling suffocating pain of the loss of a loved one. The residents of Newtown, and the families whose loved ones died, have set a good example to all of us: We can’t change what happened, but we have a choice in how we respond.

Donna Schuurman
Chief Executive Officer, The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families
Portland, Oregon