On December 19, 2012, one year ago today, I attended a funeral for a perfectly sweet and innocent 6 year old girl who had been gunned down in her 1st grade classroom. A first grade classroom in a school located in a peaceful, picturesque Connecticut town. And not just any school, but a close-knit elementary school filled with love and light, paintings of rainbows, a principal who poured her heart and soul into each and every act as an elementary school leader, staff that dedicated themselves to their children and an energy toward positivity.
It was inconceivable that anything like this could happen at all to these beautiful, innocent children, let alone HERE. We were all stunned and just shattered. I was reeling. You cannot put into words what goes through your body and mind when you watch a stuffed animal be placed on a tiny casket by a little boy who lost his sister.
During the funeral, I sat next to my mother, the woman who had always been my rock. Now, it was her job to lead the school district, her staff, the parents and seemingly everyone through this tragedy. She had little or no time for her own grief and I know she felt devastated – these were all her kids and her staff.
It was 6 days before Christmas and we were just numb. We were overwhelmed with the questions, the anger and shaken to the core that this had happened and it happened HERE.
For a long time after the tragedy, I hugged my children tighter and longer than I ever had before and was overwhelmed with gratitude for every moment I had with my boys. But I couldn’t shake this feeling of guilt. Unlike 20 families, our child came home from school that awful day. Unlike the 6 families of the brave women who lost their lives, we had our loved ones. Those families were going to have a painful time celebrating the holidays. How could we celebrate with such joy when so many families could not?
We did our best to shield our young kids from the broken world that we were witnessing. And we put on our smiles for the holidays, but it was hard to find joy. Our Christmas came and went, and our kids may have been none the wiser. It all seemed like a blur. I think my family (really, the adults only) struggled with being able to enjoy the true spirit of the holidays. My mother was able to join us for a little bit of the holidays, and even thanked us for the time with her grandchildren. It helped her find some joy, but it was fleeting. Reality wasn’t going away and she had to carry on with the duties of her job and help provide the right people for supporting those who had survived.
Many moms I spoke to those first few weeks, especially during the holidays, said the same thing, “I want to keep the holidays special and joyful for my children but I cannot stop thinking about the parents. Those parents who cannot for a second push aside the pain or the reminders. And to have to suffer through so much during the holidays.”
We were grateful but what we were feeling was mostly guilt. We suppressed our joy because we were overwrought with guilt.
Again, how could we celebrate with such joy when so many families could not?
A year has gone by. And what has happened in the past year is astounding. The parents and family members of the victims lost on 12/14 have taught all of us something about resiliency and compassionate grieving.
These families have found ways to show the world that evil and anger will not win. Love wins.
Playgrounds are being built to continue providing JOY for other children. The passions and joys of these women and children have come to life through projects, foundations, charities, etc. And all of the families have spread the message of kindness, giving and hope. 26 families – and the entire community – have taught us that their loss should not be honored by our continuous fear and grieving.
When Brené Brown has spoken of gratitude, she discussed her research interviewing people who had suffered tremendous loss. She asked these people how we, as a community, can help show compassion for or honor those they have lost.
“And you know what the answer was, over and over? Gratitude. ‘If you could be grateful for what you have, it honors what I’ve lost. Don’t shy away from loving your child and being grateful for your child, because I’ve lost mine. Because when you honor those ordinary moments with your child, you honor the profound nature of my loss.'” Brené Brown (From Insights at the Edge)
My wife and I had a conversation this past week about last Christmas and how we didn’t allow ourselves to really appreciate what we had because we seemed to really just be numb and unable to embrace any joy. If we’ve learned anything about gratitude, compassion and resiliency this year, it’s that we cannot spend our time lingering in the pain but we have to find the joy and cherish the moments.
We have both made a promise to ourselves (and secretly to the boys) that we will not forget the victims and their families, not for a second. But we are not honoring them by suffering in guilt. Our promise is that we would continue to honor all of the children lost by really embracing what we do have and allowing ourselves to feel pure and complete joy. We will celebrate the life and love that we all have together and enjoy each moment we can.
Happy Holidays to All!