There is a good chance that you may never read this. Or maybe you will read it sometime far away in the future. Weeks, months, or even years from now. I hope that somehow, someday, this finds you, and that you do read it eventually, because I can feel your hearts, and they are hurting. I hear your pain, and it is gut-wrenching. And I know that if you ever do read this, it will not be right now. Right now, as I type these words, and as the country argues over gun laws and school security and mental illness, you are sitting or standing or being interviewed on TV somewhere, and you are in deep shock. People keep saying you are so strong, as you aimlessly wander through endless funerals and speeches and burials, and you are stunned and you are numb and you are changed with each new second of horror that you face. You are living this new reality – this new world that you never asked for. You are just trying to breathe and make it through the next day, the next hour, the next minute. If you did happen to read this right now, you wouldn’t remember it anyway. You are living in the fog of grief. Welcome to your new life.
Happiest Day of my Life
It is a life I am very familiar with. Last year, on July 13, 2011, 17 months and 5 days ago (because that is how I count things now), I woke up to this new life at 6:30am when my phone wouldn’t stop ringing, over and over and over again. “We have your husband”, the hospital said on the phone when I finally picked up. “You need to get down here right away.” Even though my husband Don was only 46 years old, in very good health, was not sick, and had absolutely NO symptoms of anything ever, I knew by their words in that moment that he was probably in a coma or dead. Why? Because I was married to an EMT, and one of the things he always told me was that hospitals are not allowed to inform you that your loved one has died over the phone. They have to tell you in person.
So I rushed myself into a car service and got myself to the E.R., the whole time saying out loud to myself over and over and over: “This isn’t happening, this isnt happening, this isnt happening.” I ran faster than I have ever run in my life into that waiting room. Nurses and doctors whispered and tried to calm me down. They brought me into a private room and made me sit down, at least 15 of them surrounding me, offering me things like water and tissues. One of the doctors sat down and said a whole bunch of words that ended with the only ones that were important: “He didn’t make it. We are so sorry.” The sound that came out of me was something that, at the time, terrified me. Since that day, I have made similar type sounds many times in the throws of grieving. Sounds that have become my everyday norm. That morning, the love of my life went into work, and never came home. He collapsed on the floor of a Petsmart while working his 2nd job stocking dog and cat food and helping with animal adoptions, a passion of his. I never got to say goodbye. I never got to tell him I love you. We didnt even say good morning. While I lay in our bed fast asleep, my husband lay on a cold ,hard floor, dying. Massive heart attack, they said. Cardiac arrest.
Since that awful morning that changed everything forever, I have become a different person. I am now the kind of person that writes letters like this to people I don’t even know, or will probably never meet. Because when something like this happens to you and shatters your world, you feel a connection and a bond and a secret understanding with anyone else whose life is torn apart in the blink of an eye. Or the stop of a heart. Or the shot of a gun. You want to embrace them. You want to tell them that things will never be the same, and that they will not ever get over it, but they will get through it. You want them to know, more than anything, that there is someone out there who feels a tiny piece of what they might be going through, but at the same time, has absolutely no idea what they are going through. You want to give them all of the tools and the maps and the directions on how to cope and how to make it through the next moment. You want to help.
So, today, Newtown families, just days after your entire world has been stolen from you, when everyone else is busy arguing and debating about why this happened – I want to deliver a different message. I want to talk with you about a Monster that attacks everybody at some point in their lives. We all know it’s coming, but we don’t know when or why. It doesn’t matter anyway, because when it comes for you, it takes over your entire being, and you are drowning in the ocean and choking on salt water just to stay alive. I am talking, of course, about the monster called GRIEF.
Every single day, I am learning, still learning, how to handle this evil monster. Although I don’t yet have all the answers, and probably never will, I would like to share with you some of the things that I have figured out so far, in the hopes that it might help you to get through that next cup of coffee, that next Christmas, or that next death anniversary. I am not sure if I would call what I am about to write here “advice”, suggestions, or just words. Maybe they are just words, but sometimes, words can resonate, and they can move you. And by putting words out there, you never know who might read them.
1. People often ask me different versions of the question: “Are you doing better? Are you getting better? Do you feel better?” No. Please know that there is no such thing as things getting better. This is not a scratch on your elbow or your knee that heals. It is not the flu. Your child, or your brother or sister, your mom, your grandchild, your cousin or aunt … is gone. It does not get better. That reality is never, ever okay. It gets different. It gets easier, very slowly, because you pick up coping skills along the way. Skills that help you fight the monster. Skills that help you sit with the monster in silence, and realize that he isn’t leaving. Ever. Skills that show you how to get along with the monster, and ask him if he wants a cup of tea. You don’t accept. You adjust. You don’t move on. You move forward. You try and live, because they no longer can.
2. Cling to anything that works. Anything that helps you. (Let me clarify. If drinking, drugs, or other things that will harm you or others are the things that help you, please don’t cling to those things. That would not be good, and in the end, you are only prolonging and postponing the monster. He will come back with a vengeance.) Family. Religion. Music. Hobbies. Reading. Exercise. Volenteering. Cooking. Sailing. Whatever it is. Something I wrote awhile back which I think is the extreme truth is this: Everything hurts, but some things help while they hurt. For me, writing slightly helps. Connecting to others who “get it” slightly helps. Being creative helps. Humor helps. Helping other people, and finding ways to honor my husband’s kindness helps. Please know that sometimes, many times, absolutely nothing helps. Sometimes, you will just scream or sob or lose your freakin mind because you miss them so powerfully that you actually cannot breathe. In those moments of complete hopelessness and sorrow, what I try to remind myself of is this: Everything is temporary. These intense emotions will not last forever. I will feel differently soon, and then they will change and shift again, and again. It hurts, but it also helps to know that any emotion or feeling I have, is fleeting. Joy. Anger. Hope. Fear. They all go away and return, just like the moon and sun. Try to embrace that. It helps.
3. People are clueless. They say stupid and thoughtless things, and then other people will tell you that the reason for this is that they just dont know what to say. Hmmm … well, for people who don’t know what to say, they sure do have a lot to say! There are an endless number of insensitive comments you will receive from mostly well-intentioned people, but here are a few of my all-time favorites: God Needed Another Angel. / It was God’s Plan or Will. / He/she is in a better place. / God Never Gives you More than you can handle. / It’s a good thing you have other children. (or in my case – at least you didnt have children.) / You are young – you will get over this. / Be positive. / Time heals All Wounds. / I know how you feel. / Its time to put this behind you. / Be strong. / (to surviving sibling) Now you are the man (or woman) of the house. When you encounter these types of comments, try to remember that these people have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. They do not live inside this, and they just don’t know. Sometimes, remembering this helps me from wanting to smack them into the next time zone. But only sometimes.
4. Do not expect any of this to make sense. Because it doesn’t. The grieving, the feelings, the emotions, the why did this happen? Why us? Why him/her? The endless questions you will keep taunting yourself with: Were they scared? Did they know what was happening? Did they wonder why I wasnt there to help them? WHY DID THIS HAPPEN??? These are all things that will plague you on a constant loop in your mind, and you will drive yourself nuts with it. There really are no answers, and only time will make you feel a bit less awful about it. If religion helps you with some of these types of questions, then lean on that to comfort yourself. If it doesn’t, then try not to take outside opinions on the subject to heart. Feel whatever you feel, and never apoligize for it. With grief, the only way out is through. If you go into this knowing upfront that it won’t make any sense and that everything you are feeling, no matter how dark or foreign, is normal, then you will be a small step ahead. I wish someone had told me this in the beginning, in those first 5 or 6 months after his death, where I felt like I was literally losing my mind.
Expect the unexpected. Emotions will change and shift like the wind. In one hour, you can go from joy to bitter, anger to fear, hopeless to elation. Things that you never thought would affect you, will affect you greatly, and other things might not. The first round of holidays without him, I worried and worried about Christmas Day, because it used to be my favorite day of the year. That day passed without much crying, but then New Years Eve sent me into a tailspin that I never in a million years expected. We didnt even celebrate New Year’s Eve! But I was at a party with my parents that night, and just minutes before midnight, I said to my mom: “I HAVE to get out of here. I feel like I cant breathe.” We got in our car and left. “Turn the radio off”, I said. I could not hear the countdown to midnight. I just couldnt do it. The one thought inside my head was this: My husband will never see another year change. He will never countdown to a new year. He has no more years. 2011 is the last year he will ever know. That thought filled me with pain, and I sat in my bed until 2am, crying for him and all the things he would never get to do or see. You never know what will hit you, or why. You cant prepare for what you will feel, but you can prepare by knowing it’s all a big, fat clusterfuck.
5. Get help. In any way that you can. By as many people as you can. When community or friends or family offer to help, take them up on it. Let them. A lot of people will offer to help you in the beginning, and sometimes, you just want everybody to leave you alone. Here is something you will soon learn: one day, you will look around and realize that you got your wish, and everyone has left you alone. In the end, people move on with their own lives, and they will help you when they can. Or not. But you are the ones that have to live inside this grief. You are the ones who won’t be taking your little girl to school tomorrow, or watching your little boy open his Christmas gifts. You are the ones who go to bed every night, knowing and remembering what you will wake up to tomorrow. Forever. It can be extremely isolating, even with all this media attention. One day you may be in a big room somewhere, surrounded by hundreds of people, and you will think to yourself: I have never felt more alone. Take the help that is offered. Talk to people. Create a support group with the other families of this horrific loss. They will be the only other people in the world who truly understand. You will find a complicated love and bond with one another – one that can only be created through mutual pain. Seek grief counseling. The support groups I have joined and my private counseling sessions have been two lifesavers for me. It is impossible to go through this alone. Your soul needs help. It is broken. Please don’t be ashamed or embarassed to ask for help. It took me awhile to figure this one out, because I don’t like to burden people. Now, whenever I ask for help, my friends come running.
6. Trauma creates trauma. You have been through and will continue to go through a traumatic event. When someone dies suddenly, with zero warning, that is a trauma that creates all kinds of fun issues for those of us who are left behind. Physical, mental, psyhological issues. Things like anxiety, panic attacks, migraines, muscle aches, heartburn, ulcers, vertigo (that is my latest one, most likely brought on by severe stress), dietary changes, lack of sleep, depression (which is very different than grief), joint pain … the list goes on and on. Add to the trauma of sudden death the extremely violent nature in which their lives were taken, and you have a recipe for years of P.T.S.D. (post traumatic stress disorder.)
Just to warn you, there will be many triggers, and they will be different for each of you. In some of you, they may show up right away – maybe when bringing your other children to school, or when hearing a gunshot of any kind. For others, the trauma can lie there, dormant inside of you, and show up at some random and unexpected time. For me, because my husband died of a sudden heart-attack and I was told his only symptom at work that morning was that he had a mild stomach-ache and used the bathroom a couple times, I convinced myself one ordinary Tuesday morning, that I, too, was dying of a heart-attack, because I had a stomach-ache. What was actually happening to me was my very first ever panic-attack. I started to get similar feelings whenever driving by the hospital where he died and where I sat in that cold, tiny room with him as he lie there, no longer alive. Since he was an E.M.T., anytime I see or pass by ambulances, I get a nauseous feeling everywhere inside me. I still can’t go into the Petsmart where he collapsed, and when I see anyone in a paramedic, cop, or firefighter uniform, I want to run up to them and hug them, because their uniforms ALL remind me of my husband’s.
It doesn’t have to be a horrible memory that creates a terrible physical sensation inside you. No. Sometimes the happy ones are even harder. Like Christmas. I can’t stop thinking about how this awful, evil thing happened to all of you so close to the holidays, and so now the holidays will forever be sprinkled with heartache. My husband proposed to me underneath the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in December of 2005, because that is how much I loved Christmas. Now? All the things that I once loved bring me intense pain. I can’t even go near that tree. I tried. A couple weeks ago, I found myself walking to our tree, where I sat down and sobbed into my hands for almost an hour. I wasn’t ready, and I will never try and rush through my grief again, because it feels awful.
Trauma creates trauma. Month or years after this day that changed your world, something else will happen in the world that will bring it all back again. Some other type of traumatic event or something similar enough in your heart, that it screams out to you and stabs at your soul. This school shooting did that for me. It brought me right back to the morning when my world collapsed, and it affected me and continues to affect me on a very intense level. To be honest, I am not entirely sure why. My husband died just 3 months shy of our 5 year wedding anniversary, so we hadn’t yet started our family together. I am not a parent. I am, however, a college professor, so it hit me on that level, from a teacher’s perspective and just trying to imagine the horror of something like that happening.
Would I act as bravely as these incredible women did? Would I be like Victoria Soto, or Principal Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Rachel D’Avino, Mary Sherlack, or Lauren Rousseau? I can only hope so, but I just don’t know. This event also hit me as the widow of an E.M.T., Air Force veteran, and animal lover / activist. My husband wanted to rescue everybody, especially children and animals. I remember asking him one time how he copes with seeing people, patients in pain and sick and dying. He said: “I do it for that moment where I can save them and make them better and help them. That moment when we save one person is worth everything.” His heart would break whenever he couldn’t save a child, and it would soar when he could. And so; when I think about the unthinkable that happened just a few days ago, I think about my husband, and how he would have given his life to protect or save those kids. I think about all the heroes that emerged that day, and how he was a hero to me. I think about all of the kids and teachers, and how just looking at their pictures and hearing their stories touches me to my core. How I feel an intense desire to read about and listen to their stories, because they were here and they lived and they existed, and I want to honor that. It’s so important to always honor that, because people forget too easily. People move on when the next big media story comes along. They take their cameras and their reporters and their phony, anxious concern – and they sprint away to the next thing. But because of what I have been through and what I have lost and who I have become, I will never ever forget. Nor do I want to. They have all touched me in some way, and their lives matter. They matter.
Daniel Bardun mattered. He was 7 years old and he took after his musician dad, by forming a band with his brother and sister. He played the drums. Rachel D’Avino mattered. She was 29 years old, loved animals and photography, and her best friend was planning a surprise marriage proposal to her on Christmas Eve. Charlotte Bacon was only 6, and she was an outgoing, energetic girl who loved pretty dresses, and school.
Oliva Engel, 6, sounds like someone I would have loved to spend time with. She loved theatre and dance, and she was very bright and grateful, leading Grace at the dinner table nightly. Dawn Huchsprung was a mom, a wife, and the principal at Sandy Hook. She pushed her body toward the killer’s in the hopes of stopping him and protecting her schoolkids. I can’t stop thinking about her husband, and how he is now widowed, like me. It’s not fair. It’s not fair that Dylan Hockley, a 6 year old who loved trampolines and video games, was in the wrong place at the wrong time after his family relocated from England to smalltown Newtown, Connecticutt. Josephine Gay mattered too. She had just turned 7, and she loved riding her bike and selling lemonade in the summertime.
I never knew Emilie Parker, 6, but I will never forget her name or presence. Her grandmother, Betty, was just widowed 11 weeks ago and is part of an online support group I belong to called “Hope for Widows.” When it was posted on Facebook by the group leader that little Emilie was Betty’s granddaughter, my heart sunk instantly and I cried for her. Emilie’s father described her as having an “infectious laugh”, and said “the world is a better place, because she was in it.” A born leader and avid reader at only 6 years old, Madeleine Hsu was so loved by her family. Chase Kowalski, 7, also mattered. He loved baseball, Cub Scouts, and completed his first triathalon at the young age of 6. Catherine Hubbard, the beautiful little red-head, was a girl after my own heart. Just like my husband, she loved animals more than anything, and she dreamt of growing up one day to open her very own animal shelter. Catherine was just 6 years old, and her family asks that those who wish to honor her, to please do so by donating to the Newtown Animal Center.
Jesse Lewis was 6 years old and his life mattered. He loved riding horses, and was excited to make gingerbread houses at school that Friday. Ana Marquez-Greene, 6, took after her jazz-musician father, and loved to sing. She was beautiful and vibrant, and loved her little brother. Anne Marie Murphy was a 52 year old mom, and a hero. She was found by first-responders with her body covering young children, as she attempted to shield them from the gunfire. Grace McDonnell, 7, was one of those young children. She wanted to be a painter, and she wanted world peace. James Mattioli was 6 and 3/4 old, as he loved to tell people. He looked up to his big sister, loved to eat, and enjoyed swimming and diving. Jack Pinto was 6 years old, and he loved wrestling, basketball, and football, especially Giants star receiver Victor Cruz, who paid tribute to the boy by penning “Jack Pinto: My Hero” on his cleats before the last big game, and by meeting with his family.
Caroline Previti was 6 years old, and although I was unable to find any information on her, her life mattered greatly. Messages on her Facebook Memorial Page call her a sweet little Angel. Noah Pozner was a 6 year old boy who “lit up a room” with his mischievious smile, said his family. Jessica Rekos had a passion for horses, and was often referred to as “our little CEO” by her family, due to her intelligence and wit. Avielle Richman, 6, also loved horses, and recently had her first loose tooth, which she excitedly wiggled for her family. All these children matter, and their lives and stories need to live on. Lauren Rosseau, 30, wanted to be a teacher ever since she was a little girl, and was hired as a permanant substitute teacher at Sandy Hook. Mary Sherlach was the school psychologist, and she was with Hochsprung when they heard popping noises. She was shot to death while going out into the hallway to see what was happening. Mary was 56, married, and was the proud mom of two daughters in their 20’s. Victoria Soto, 27, was another hero. Moving her students away from the classroom door, where gunfire was erupting, she protected them from harm’s way, before the shooter burst into the room and shot her without saying a word.
Benjamin Wheeler, 6, loved lighthouses, the # 7 train to Sunnyside, Queens, and The Beatles. (The Beatles? Seriously? How cool does this kid sound?) Allison Wyatt, also 6, loved to draw and wanted to be an artist. She once gave her snack to a complete stranger on an airplane. Nancy Lanza, mom of two boys and seperated from her husband, would become the first victim of her son’s killing spree. Ironically, it would be the guns that she bought for protection, that would be used to murder her, and 26 others.
27 people. Here one second, gone the next. Their entire lives in front of them. Dreams unrealized. Futures stolen. And you. Their family. You are left behind to put together the pieces, to figure this out, to live a life. There will be some days when you don’t want to, or when you don’t think you can. There will be times when you just want to leave this world, and go be with them, somehow. In those times; try and focus on the love. Try and think about their light. Their joy. Try and capture what made them so special, and then find ways to honor it. Honor them. Sometimes it is the only reason to keep breathing, to honor them and to make sure that others know how incredible they were.
Tell their story. Be their heart. And please, be gentle on yourself. Grieving is the hardest thing you will ever do. Just get through today, and then eventually, you will find that you are getting through tomorrow. It takes time. And it will hurt. But if you aren’t afraid to live inside of it, you will come out the other side. You will make it. You will use their strength to guide you, and on their wings, you will soar.
For a list of where and how to donate to families of Newtown, go here: