The Newtown families, as they’ve already come to be called, stand on the precipice of an unknown future. Joined by tragedy and violent loss, they are the focus of a president’s prayers — and a nation’s. They have received gifts: teddy bears, visits from therapy dogs, warm meals, notes, cards, flowers. The 20 murdered children have been transformed by a mourning people into angels — represented as Christmastime ornaments at the Washington National Cathedral and becoming the subject of songs. Maybe the grieving families find some of these expressions of kindness and sympathy, commonly referred to as an “outpouring,” helpful.
Soon, though, very soon, the quotidian business of life will distract most of us from our secondhand pain, and we will go about our lives. And the families will be alone with their loss and horror.
Already, our collective itchiness is beginning to show. Not a month after the shooting, news headlines are beginning to use words such as “healing” and “closure.” “Newtown, Conn., asks how to move on after tragedy,” wrote the Associated Press on Dec. 23. But, as anyone who has lost a child (especially in an event of unforeseen violence) will tell you, healing is a tortuous, incomplete process. Closure is impossible. Some years ago, while reporting for Newsweek, I spent time with Adele Welty, who lost her son Timmy, a firefighter, on 9/11. He was 34 years old when he died: athletic, handsome, mischievous, kind. At the mention of the word “closure,” Welty grew fierce. She did not want to talk about “moving on.” She lived in a house he had renovated with his own hands. Several years after his death, she continued to revisit those moments when she’d lost her temper at him with regret.
There are too many families in America and the world that have had to survive the violent, sudden and unexpected loss of a dear one for no comprehensible reason. And though the Newtown families are joined with one another and lifted up in the eyes of the world through their common catastrophe, their differences — in personality, in outlook, in resilience — will begin to emerge over time. The work of living with heartbreak will begin. In the years to come, they will cope as individuals, not as a collective entity. Through example, other families that have suffered losses can offer lessons on how the Newtown families might find a way forward.
Get involved in a cause. Some Newtown family members will become visible spokespeople for an issue. They will start foundations. They will become heads of organizations. They will advocate for gun control, or school security, or improved mental health treatment. They will go on the “Today” show and give quotes to reporters and testify before Congress and through all that effort hope to feel that some small measure of good can come from their immeasurable loss. A number of the parents of students killed in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre banded together to found the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, which has as its mission the improvement of safety and security at colleges and universities around the world. After the killings in Newtown, the foundation’s president, Joe Samaha, made the following statement: “Helping all to deal with the aftermath will take a lifetime of love and dedication.” He should know. He lost his daughter Reema when she was just 18.
Move far, far away. Others will want to avoid the spotlight. Their neighborhood, their old friends, the site of the shooting, familiar landmarks will be like open wounds, constant reminders of the day their worst nightmare came true. Ted Zocco-Hochhalter was on a business trip when he learned that his daughter Anne Marie had been shot at Columbine. She survived, though she was paralyzed from the waist down. Her mother, Carla, committed suicide. Depressed and inert, Ted moved to an isolated, forested mountaintop where he would cut down trees for hours at a time, he told Britain’s Guardian newspaper in 2009. The idea that reverberated in his brain was this one. “You send them off to school and they’re meant to be in a safe environment,” he told the Guardian. “It’s still raw. Real raw.”
Understand that things change. More than a decade after 9/11, lives have taken unpredictable shape. People have gotten remarried, divorced, married again. Children have grown up. Babies have been born. “We have healed,” Jay Winuk told me, “but with time, because that’s what time allows you to do.” Winuk lost his brother Glenn, a lawyer, in the South Tower on 9/11. “It’s hard to imagine that you’ll ever heal. But to provide a happy life to your children or other people, you have to heal. It doesn’t mean that the pain ever goes away. The questions remain. How could people go so wrong as to cause so much pain in so many innocent lives?” It is impossible to imagine now, but some of the Newtown parents will have more children; they will pour their love into the children they do have; they will delight in nieces and nephews and, eventually, grandchildren. They will start a business or write a book.
Find comfort in signs and blessings. Monica Iken lost husband Michael on 9/11, and though she has since remarried and is the mother of two girls, she says Michael is still a crucial part of her life. “I feel like we’re very connected spiritually,” she told me. “He sends me signs. I’m always aware of his presence. Rainbows come out of nowhere. Butterflies.” Iken consulted with Michael, she says, when she was thinking about getting married again. “It’s been a very powerful, spiritual journey,” she said. She is convinced that Michael is somewhere else, safe, and wants her to be happy. “I didn’t move on,” she told me. “I moved into my new life.” Iken was raised Catholic but now calls herself more spiritual than religious. She was helped by what’s often called faith. Not everybody can find it when faced with such heartbreak.
None of this is “moving on” or “getting over.” It is the grueling business of survival. Everybody, Winuk reminds me, has their tragedies. Most of them are neither so nightmarish nor so public.
For Lisa Miller’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/onfaith.