Newtown still needs a hug. Don’t be fooled by my hometown’s prickly approach to the media, or even to well-wishers with their legions of teddy bears and letters. It is not a show of anger or entitlement that town leaders are asking the press to allow the community to mourn privately the 20 first-graders and six educators massacred a year ago Saturday at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Newtowners are not shirking a responsibility to remember and record what happened. They just need space and time to heal.
The nation and the media understandably want to connect with Newtown, Conn., and to help pay tribute to the innocent lives taken on that awful day last December. It is a natural extension of the extraordinary love, empathy and compassion shown even by complete strangers from the other side of the world.
But those residing inside the bubble of trauma are reminded constantly of what happened last year — through routine chats at the grocery store, at every glimpse of green ribbon or stickers in car windows. Every seemingly mundane act has taken its own significance in the 12 months since the shooting.
For Newtowners, it has not just been birthdays and holidays that have seemed as if they are being experienced for the first time. There have been the continual reminders that this community of 28,000 will never be the same.
The recent release of the police report and 911 calls reopened the wounds of 12/14. But so, too, have annual landmarks such as the start of the academic year and the first lockdown exercise in schools. Even the incremental processes of local government, whether it’s ratifying the budget or electing school board members, have been imbued with tragic significance.
Nothing has been more consistently difficult than the birthdays of lost neighbors. The sheer frequency of them, 26 in all, serves as a constant reminder of the lives brutally cut short that morning.
We have put purple balloons on mailboxes for Dylan Hockley, our middle schoolers wore their sports jerseys for Jack Pinto, and families lit candles in their windows for Ben Wheeler. As parents of the living, it is nightmarish to contemplate a day without a seventh candle on a birthday cake, or a wedding anniversary frozen in time.
Every holiday since 12/14 has reminded us how embedded our traditions are with rituals designed to engage children and nurture their wonder. Thanksgiving was especially brutal as so many of our neighbors grappled with an empty place at the table. But Halloween, every child’s favorite holiday, was perhaps the hardest, not least given the town’s embrace of the day. Thousands of youngsters paraded down historic Main Street, past the flagpole, the Edmond Town Hall and, sadly, the funeral home that cared for so many of the dead that day.
And though the entire community is toiling through some form of post-traumatic stress, it has united in surprising ways. Sure, there are many latent disagreements — and a few public ones — about what sort of treatment will be needed to help those most affected by the shooting; what to do about guns, laws, America’s violent culture and mental health; how best to help parents; and where the money that came to town should be spent.
Some of these issues will never be resolved and may get knottier over time. In that sense, this New England village is emblematic of the nation.
Yet the town has united on many important matters such as building a new Sandy Hook school, preventing the publication of images from the crime scene, even adoptingnew rules on recreational firearms within Newtown’s borders. From these agreements, there is a hopeful sense that, together, like our great country, we can find a way to ensure that Sandy Hook is not just remembered as a place of tragedy and victims, but one where change began.
For now, though, the families of Newtown, particularly those who lost so much, need to reflect and mourn in their own personal and private ways. It is encouraging that they joined forces this week to create a website with links to the various foundations they started to honor their loved ones.
Eventually this community will be ready to accept the embrace of the world. And it will give a big bear hug right back.
Rob Cox is co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise, a non-profit started after the school shooting, and editor in chief of Reuters Breakingviews.
About Sandy Hook Promise
Sandy Hook Promise (SHP) is a national nonprofit organization with a mission to end school shootings and create a culture change that prevents violence and other harmful acts that hurt children. Through its life-saving, evidence-informed “Know the Signs” prevention programs, SHP educates and empowers youth and adults to recognize, intervene, and get help for individuals who may be socially isolated and/or at risk of hurting themselves or others. Through nonpartisan policy and partnerships, SHP advances gun safety, youth mental health, and violence prevention education at the state and federal levels that protect all children from gun violence in their schools, homes, and communities. SHP is led by several family members whose loved ones were killed in the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. Learn more at www.sandyhookpromise.org