POLITICS
03/04/2013 11:13 am ET Updated Mar 06, 2013

After Sandy Hook, Newtown Continues To Cope As It Plans A Future Beyond Tragedy

NEWTOWN, Conn. -- The streets of this picturesque New England town were quiet on a recent Monday afternoon.

At 12 Dickenson Drive, six orange traffic cones were stretched across the entrance to a long driveway that leads to Sandy Hook Elementary School, the only visible markers of the site where a lone gunman shot 20 first-graders and six educators on Dec. 14, 2012, one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history.

Ten weeks later, traces of the violence and anguish that transpired here are disappearing under a blanket of undisturbed snow. A white painted sign that used to read "Sandy Hook Elementary School, Visitors Welcome," has been taken down. Someone has hung a 6-inch tall, red tinsel wire heart from the signpost.

"Nothing will ever be the same," Tom Mahoney, a lifelong resident of Newtown who runs the stately Edmond Town Hall theater, told The Huffington Post. "Everything stopped that day."

Mahoney was one of approximately 70 Newtown residents who gathered at Edmond Town Hall last Monday for a discussion hosted by TV anchor Katie Couric. The conversation brought together Newtown victims' families, mental health experts, clergy, legal scholars and survivors of other mass shootings. It will air Monday afternoon on Couric's daytime show "Katie."

Couric invited The Huffington Post to attend the taping, and over the course of a day in Newtown, conversations with residents revealed a community still in shock more than two months after the tragedy at Sandy Hook. With the cameras largely gone, and media attention shifted to debates in Washington over gun control and budget cuts, people in Newtown are only just starting to come to terms with what happened here in December.

A few minutes after he sat down with HuffPost, Mahoney, a grandfather with thinning gray hair and a round, rosy face, removed his wire-rimmed glasses to wipe away tears, as he struggled to recall how many of his friends and neighbors lost loved ones at Sandy Hook. He couldn't. "There are just so many," he said.

"Each day now is getting harder, not easier," said Nicole Hockley, who lost her 6-year-old son, Dylan Hockley, at Sandy Hook. "I still expect Dylan to come out of the next room at any moment."

Joyce Rousseau, whose stepdaughter, Lauren Rousseau, a teacher, died protecting her students, said she is "doing worse today than I was the day after the shooting."

Families in Newtown are at the "very beginning, and they have a very long road ahead of them," explained Wendy Davenson, a Newtown-based therapist who has worked with families and teachers impacted by the shooting. Right now, she said, "they're still numb. As the numbness starts to wear off, you begin to feel the pain."

Over the course of a two-hour dialogue, Couric's own experiences of loss, which she shared with her guests, became evident. The former anchor of the CBS Evening News lost her husband, Jay Monahan, to colon cancer in 1998 and her sister, Emily Couric, to pancreatic cancer in 2001.

"[S]ometimes a ton of sleep is the only escape [from acute mourning], because you can forget," Couric told Davenson. "But then, 10 seconds after you wake up, there it is again."

During a follow-up interview, Couric told The Huffington Post that her decision to return to Newtown for an in-depth discussion was drawn from her sense of how the Sandy Hook tragedy affected the country at large. "We felt this story deserved more than a week's worth of coverage," she said, "and this setting offered the people of Newtown an opportunity to direct most of the conversation. For us, it was a chance to show this community that the rest of the country is still here, and we're moved by their courage and grace."

While the families of Sandy Hook victims have received the lion's share of the media's attention, Couric's guests described how the teachers and first responders who were at the scene of the horrific crime have struggled to cope with their own unique challenges.

After Christmas break, classes resumed for Sandy Hook students in an unused middle school eight miles away in Monroe, Conn. State officials announced in January that the middle school, formerly known as Chalk Hill, would be permanently reopened and renamed Sandy Hook Elementary School. Davidson said therapists are currently working with both students and teachers at the Chalk Hill campus.

For some Sandy Hook educators, however, the crushing weight of the tragedy -- coupled with the pressure to keep teaching -- can be overwhelming. "At night [these teachers] cannot take care of their families, and they cannot take care of their own children, because they're absolutely exhausted," Davenson said.

Like teachers, many Newtown first responders continue to struggle with restoring normalcy to their lives after Sandy Hook. The adrenaline that got them through the initial aftermath of the moment has faded. But the scars from that day have not.

"Many of the first responders in this community are very young, a lot of teenagers and young adults who never imagined [this] when they signed on to be a volunteer firefighter," said Monsignor Robert Weiss, known to his congregation at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church as "Father Bob." "Some of them haven't been able to go back to work, [while others have] asked for a different position because they just couldn't handle another tragedy."

Yet even as people cope with trauma and uncertainty, there are signs that Newtown is also looking towards the future, and planning for ways to prevent tragedies like this from happening again. A recently created nonprofit called Sandy Hook Promise has been built to help the town with the trauma it endured by encouraging community-wide and even nation-wide dialogue on violence prevention.

"Everybody felt the need to do something," said one of the co-founders, Lee Shull. "This couldn't stand as a final chapter."

David Wheeler, who lost his 6-year-old son Ben, said the key to engaging parents across the country in violence prevention would be convincing them that Sandy Hook could happen anywhere. "One of the things we hear a lot is, 'I can't imagine what you're going through,'" he said. "But I want parents in this country to [try to] imagine … themselves in this position, getting a visit from the police. Because if [they] don't, then nothing will change."

The type of conversation that needs to happen "isn't just about gun safety," said Bill Sherlach, who lost his wife, Mary Sherlach, a school counselor at Sandy Hook. "It's about mental health, school safety and parenting."

Sherlach likened the impact he hoped Sandy Hook Promise could have to the campaign against drunk driving that began in the early 1980s. "In the 1970s, there was no such term as a designated driver," he said. "But when my kids were growing up [in the 1990s], every time they went out at night there was a designated driver."

Another Sandy Hook Promise co-founder, Tom Bittman, said that while the organization hopes to rise above the divisiveness that characterizes the Washington gun control debate, it also recognizes the need to engage the political process.

"Some of us who came together to start Sandy Hook Promise are gun owners. We hunt, we target shoot, we protect our homes, we're collectors, we teach our sons and daughters how to use guns safely," Bittman said at a press conference in January. "We're not afraid of a national conversation … about responsibility and accountability. And the thing is, we know there are millions of people in this nation who agree with this."

Nine weeks after Sandy Hook Promise was founded, Shull told The Huffington Post that the families are preparing to take a more active role in the debate over gun safety, both in Hartford, Conn., and in Washington, D.C.

"Right now we're approaching questions of gun safety more from a listening and learning perspective, than one of strident advocacy," he said. "We'd like to do things a new way and start with a focus on the goals we can all agree upon, then work towards solutions."

CORRECTION: Lauren Rousseau's last name was spelled incorrectly in a previous version of this story.

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