Friday, January 19, 2018
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Newtown's year: Horror, grief and tough choices

NEWTOWN, Conn. — A year later, inside the big house on Berkshire Road, dolls fill the shelves of a living room and flowers and rainbows decorate a kitchen window, next to a little girl's name: Avielle.

Outside, all around town, Christmas lights shimmer again. But so, too, do the 26 bronze stars that sit atop the local firehouse, one for each adult and child gunned down at a school one unimaginable day.

In so many ways, this is a place frozen in time. Ribbons of green - the Sandy Hook Elementary School color - stay tied to mailboxes and storefronts, just as a curly-haired girl smiles from a framed photograph that remains atop a mantel inside Jeremy Richman's century-old home.

People might assume the hurt that accompanies tragedy fades with time. But, says Richman, who last Dec. 14 lost his only child, "I miss Avielle more every day."

It's been a painful and frenetic year, for the Richmans and for all of Newtown. From horror came despair and, soon, attempts at moving beyond one of the nation's deadliest shootings. There were the logistics of recovery to tend to and decisions about whether to raze the school where so many perished.

The Labor Day parade marched on, and as foliage turned red and yellow, small survivors filed back into school with their parents' shaky assurances they would be safe.

Now, with winter on their doorstep once again, the people of Newtown are bracing for the day everyone here simply calls 12/14.

"For us, it's not an event. It's something we live with every single day of our lives," says Newtown First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra, who called together a panel of community leaders, mental health experts, clergy members and residents to consider what to do about the anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting. To avoid drawing more media attention, they decided not to hold any formal remembrances. Llodra and the victims' families have urged people to mark the date with acts of service and kindness.

"We can't change what happened to us," Llodra says, "but we have a choice in how we respond."

And so they will do what they've done for a year: balance trying to remember with wanting to forget, and help one another cope with seasons' worth of grief few outsiders can fathom.

• • •

On a frigid December night, only hours after Adam Lanza carried out his rampage, Llodra stood before a church overflowing with stunned townspeople. As some outside sang "Silent Night," she took the podium to address those gathered inside for a candlelight vigil.

"It will be in my head forever to look out at their faces and see how much they were wounded," she says.

From that day, through Christmas and the long winter, the families and the town endured immense grief, beginning with an unrelenting procession of funerals, as they grappled with the toll of the tragedy - 20 first-grade children and six educators gunned down in minutes by a troubled and socially isolated young man with a semi-automatic rifle.

Among the clergy members who counseled families that night in the Sandy Hook firehouse was Monsignor Robert Weiss, pastor of the St. Rose of Lima church, who tears up as he remembers the brother of a young victim asking whom he would play with since his sister had been killed.

Father Bob, as he is known in town, presided over the funerals for eight of the children. But his lowest moment came two days after the shooting, when he had to ask worshippers to leave halfway through a Mass because of a call from someone threatening to finish the job Lanza started.

"That's the moment that changed me," he says. "I mean, what is safe for us anymore?"

Llodra, a 71-year-old former high school teacher and grandmother, had been Newtown's top elected official for three years. She felt despondent herself, but she told the crowd at the vigil to put one foot in front of the other, and she steeled herself not to give in to emotion. She drew on lessons from the loss of her own child, a 44-year-old daughter who had died three years earlier, and the advice of officials from Littleton and Aurora, Colo., and Blacksburg, Va., who called to talk over how they had dealt with their own mass shootings.

She learned from them that there is no handbook, no one way to lead a town through tragedy.

"I used all of their advice in one way or another," she says. "It was to try to find a way to try not to get overwhelmed. It was to find a way to arm yourself with strength, because the emotional impacts are going to be huge."

Richman and his wife, Jennifer, were barely functional. And yet as they gathered with friends who offered support, an idea emerged on the day of 6-year-old Avielle's funeral for a way to channel their grief and try to prevent other such tragedies - a foundation to support research into the brain pathologies behind violence.

Other victims' families began pursuing their own advocacy projects, trying to create a legacy other than loss. Some immersed themselves in the push for new gun laws. Another group worked to find ways to make the country's schools safer. Still others tried to occupy themselves with charity work in memory of their loved ones.

For the Richmans, the chores of applying for the appropriate tax status and setting up a website for the Avielle Foundation became welcome distractions. Eventually, on Feb. 1, Richman returned to his research job at a pharmaceutical company. He still wasn't in a good place, but he had bills to pay. He assured his co-workers he wanted to talk about his daughter, and hear about their children, too. But it was clear to his colleagues that Richman was elsewhere.

"If I'm leading a meeting and I'm talking and suddenly I'm somewhere else, they'll pause and say, `Hey man, come on back.' And I'll come back," he recalls.

• • •

Spring brought some of the first steps toward reimagined lives, including a meeting to decide what to do with the school building.

About 25 chairs had been set out for the public at the May gathering, but more than three times that number of parents, teachers and others crowded in. While some argued that knocking down the school would be giving up too much to the gunman, teachers pleaded to not have to return to the site. A father said he wouldn't want his son going to school where his sister was slain.

A week later, a task force decided the building would be razed. Says Llodra, whose own three children attended the school in the 1970s, "It always was a school that was a happy place."

Work settled into more familiar routines for officials such as Newtown Police Chief Michael Kehoe, who worked seven days a week for months as his department helped watch over a town on edge. But his officers were still recovering, too. Those who responded to the shooting were shattered by what they saw and needed time off.

"You kind of always want to answer the question `why,' and there's not a lot of answers," Kehoe says. "But you have to work through that to understand that it's not because of you it happened, and you're not responsible for it and that you did the best that you could. And now you have many more responsibilities - to be resilient, to heal and recover."

For Richman, the spring brought bittersweet progress as he announced an advisory board for his foundation. An invitation to a White House event on mental health led to a meeting with President Barack Obama. Then the bombings at the Boston Marathon in April set him back by bringing up memories of the massacre.

He found some solace in running, working out in his shed and surrounding himself with friends, including other parents who lost their children at Sandy Hook. They began gathering occasionally on weekends to watch sports, and to remember.

"We have a lot of discussions, and that's the best therapy - talking to different people . . . about life and joy and how to enjoy life," he says. "We visit with Avie's friends and see how they're growing. That brings a lot of joy."

•••

In October, as the leaves turned, fences with no-trespassing signs went up and work began on tearing Sandy Hook down. Within weeks, the school was rubble.

Some victims' parents joined a commission to begin considering ideas for a permanent memorial as the town focused more on trying to move forward.

Halloween displays went up as usual, but Weiss, the priest, was glad to see the themes were happy and less macabre than in years past. Still, the costumes and monsters made it a difficult time for some children, and Weiss counseled some for whom the nightmares returned.

The children who survived the attack still struggled to cope with the horrors they witnessed. Many even now cannot sleep unless they are in their parents' beds, and others won't go outside without holding somebody's hand. At Weiss' parochial school, there has been more emotion and more physical aggression.

Nobody in town can escape the stress, he says. Even everyday greetings have taken on a new meaning.

"When they look at me and say, `How are you,' I know what they are asking," he says. "They are asking something much deeper than how are you feeling. They are asking about everything that's going on here."

One late October afternoon found Richman at home, with his dog stretched out at his feet, delivering a lecture by webcast from a front room filled with his foundation's paperwork. As he addressed his audience, he discussed the levels of violence in America and the efforts of his foundation.

He touched briefly on the loss of his daughter, but had to wipe a tear away only once, when he said tomorrow's innovators will be the ones who today are playing in sandboxes.

•••

Three days before Thanksgiving, investigators released their final report about what happened inside Sandy Hook. It shed no new light on the gunman's motives but dredged up the horrors of that awful December day. And a little more than a week before the one-year anniversary, the 911 calls made that morning were released.

Many victims' families are planning to be out of town on 12/14. Richman says he and his wife will be somewhere with friends.

"We just want to be thinking of Avielle and where she would have been at 7 instead of at 6," he says, "and hopefully what we can do to prevent somebody else from feeling that sadness."

Christmastime has returned to Newtown and, along Main Street, families have been putting a single electric candle in each front window of the mostly Colonial houses. On side streets, elaborate displays of colored lights twinkle. Wreaths are going up in businesses, and every evening more trees can be spotted in shops and homes.

A few days before the anniversary of the day that scarred them, townspeople plan to gather in a park at the foot of Main Street for the annual tree lighting ceremony. The event, to which hundreds of candle luminaries lead the way, is usually both fun and solemn, and surely will be again this year.

As always, a big crowd is expected as Newtown, in its way, takes another step forward.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Pat Eaton-Robb, Dave Collins and John Christoffersen in Newtown.

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