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A Sanctuary of Healing, Born of Tragedy

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By Jennifer Hubbard, Newtown, Conn.

Appeared originally in Guideposts.

Sunday morning, two days after the shooting, two days that felt like two eternities, I sat with my husband, Matt, on our living room couch in Newtown, Conn., staring at the blank document on my laptop, wondering where to start, how to start. How to find the words to write my little girl’s obituary.

Family and friends milled about. A coffee cake sat on the kitchen counter untouched, as if the thought of eating in the face of such tragedy was a kind of sacrilege.

It felt as if we were caught in a bank of fog trying to find our way to some sort of comprehension of what had happened in our peaceful New England village 75 miles north of New York City.

People need to know how much love went out of this world when she died, I finally thought. Just tell them. I willed my fingers to type.

“Catherine Violet Hubbard, age 6, born June 8, 2006, passed away Friday, December 14, 2012, during the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. She is survived by her older brother, Frederick....”

So unnatural for a parent to be writing about the loss of her child. It should be the other way around, shouldn’t it? Catherine should have been a mom herself telling the world what a good mom and grandma I had been, that I had lived long and well and died peacefully after a happy life.

And yet our sweet, loving, beautiful daughter was gone. What more was there to say? Her life was over almost before it had begun, but the void she left felt unfillable.

She could be shy around adults, like lots of little girls. With animals or other kids it was another story, especially with animals. She came alive with love, our own miniature flame-haired Dr. Doolittle. It was as if she couldn’t contain her need to care about every living thing.

How many hours did Catherine spend in the backyard with her friends patiently training our old yellow Lab mix to jump over a stick? Hugging her. Picking her up, though she weighed twice as much Catherine. She had a thing for critters -- her pet bunny, her fish, the crickets in our yard on lazy summer nights, even the worms.

Butterflies were a big deal. She’d gasp with delight when one landed on her hand, which they always seemed to do. Maybe it was because she’d whisper to them, “Tell all your friends I’m kind.” Yes, kind. Catherine knew what she was and how precious kindness is in this world.

Not long ago she made her own business cards with Catherine’s Animal Shelter across the top. Care Taker, she wrote under her name. She handed them out to friends and to her first grade teacher at Sandy Hook. Matt and I smiled at her sense of purpose.

She was never without some kind of animal, usually one of her unbelievably huge collection of stuffed toys. She piled them around her on the bed at night. In the morning she always picked one to put in her backpack for school. As if she had to have something with her to care for, even a stuffed animal.

First grade, going to class all day, had been an adjustment. For her and for me. More me, probably. When she was in preschool and kindergarten I cherished having our afternoons together.

I rushed to get my chores and errands done so when she got home I could give her all my attention, make time for art projects, baking cookies and reading with her. Those hours were precious to me, and so much more precious now that God had called her home.

I didn’t know why Catherine died. The greatest comfort -- the only comfort -- was knowing she was in the safest place of all, in heaven, with no hate and no bullets, only love and life eternal.

I reread what I had written so far. How could all the beautiful things our daughter was even be expressed in words? I typed: “Her family prays that she, all the students of Sandy Hook Elementary, and all those affected by this brutal event find peace in their hearts.”

Peace, a word I had chanted silently to myself since Friday morning.

Matt looked over my shoulder at what I’d written. “Looks good,” he said.

“We need some kind of memorial,” I said. “People are going to want to send donations.”

Matt thought for a moment. “What about the animal shelter?” he said. What was it called? A friend did a quick search on her phone. “It’s called the Animal Center,” she said. “Here’s the address.”

I typed it into the form. “In lieu of flowers...” It wasn’t much, but for now it was all my heart could manage.

I emailed the obituary to the funeral home. We’d spent that Saturday meeting with our priest and the funeral director, planning the wake for Wednesday, the mass for Thursday morning. So many decisions. It was impossible to believe that it could all be actually happening.

I felt both raw and numb, like someone walking barefoot across burning-hot coals and not quite feeling the pain. Not yet, at least.

The casket. The cemetery plot. The music. The question of whether to open the mass and the wake to the public. We’d said yes. Scheduling a time for the services. Our church alone, St. Rose, was holding eight funerals. One choice was easy: We’d decided to bury Catherine with her stuffed animals. All of them.

That was the one thing I knew for certain she would have wanted. So you’ll have something to care for in heaven, my love.

Now with the arrangements done the hours were agonizing. Empty. Our house felt like a prison cell. We couldn’t leave without being escorted by a state trooper. One was assigned to every family.

We’d been told the village was swarming with media, that there were dozens of reporters camped out behind police barricades at the end of our block. I understood that the country and the world mourned with us, but still...

I reran the events of that terrible morning over and over in my mind, how I’d walked her and Frederick to the bus stop, as I always did. The bus coming. Catherine kissing my hand, as she always did, holding it tight against her heart. “Push it in all the way to my toes,” she said.

I’d walked back home and poured a cup of coffee. I hadn’t taken a shower. Matt was in Switzerland on business. I was looking forward to an easy morning. Then the phone rang. A friend whose daughter was in the same class as Catherine. “Come to the school,” she said. “There’s been a shooting.”

I grabbed my purse and dashed to the car. The school was five minutes away. I called my sister Ann and my parents in Pennsylvania. “We’re praying for you,” they said.

The road to Sandy Hook Elementary was blocked by dozens of police cars, fire trucks and ambulances. I parked and raced to the firehouse, maybe 100 yards from the school, past cops and emergency workers who looked dazed and in shock.

Parents, hundreds of people, were coming from all directions. Everyone was asking the same question: “Did you find your kids?”

I ran into the firehouse. I saw Frederick with his third-grade class and his teacher. Thank God... Then he yelled to me, “I can’t find Catherine!” I went to him and held him tightly against me. “Don’t worry,” I said. “She’s OK.” But even as I said the words I could feel my chest tighten.

I searched everywhere for her, in the firehouse bays, outside, everywhere I could go. But not inside the school. It was sealed off and there was no sign of Catherine. Or her teacher. Her class. Other parents were collecting their children and leaving.

A woman gathered Frederick and the other kids that remained and led them behind a partition where there was a TV and snacks.

Someone ushered me to a conference room crowded with parents whose children were also unaccounted for. Matt called from Switzerland. He’d seen the news on his phone. He knew more than I did. I told him I didn’t know where Catherine was, that maybe she was still inside the school.

“I’m coming home,” he said. He was crying. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Soon was a relative term because time seemed frozen inside that room. I waited for the inevitable, only dimly aware of the muffled cries, husbands and wives holding each other, people pacing all around. At some point a priest sat beside me and took my hand. “She’s gone,” was all I could say.

No one had to tell me. I felt a strange sense of peace. My daughter was safe with God. I clung to that one solitary thought like a lifeline. My mind, my whole being was in shock.

Finally we were officially told what I’d known for hours. I went to find Frederick. “Catherine’s in heaven,” I told him. “I know,” he said. I knelt and wrapped my arms around him, my heart pounding. I didn’t want to ever let him go. My family had arrived by then and we left to go home.

When we opened the doors to the firehouse we were facing a sea of television cameras and lights, reporters yelling out at me. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, couldn’t process the words.

A psychologist came by that night to counsel us, to talk with Frederick particularly. “How do we do things as a family again?” I asked. “Even just a meal?”

“At first all you can do is pretend,” she said. “Pretend as if you can go on without her. It won’t be easy. You must give yourself time.”

I thought of the saying, “Act as if you have faith and faith will be given to you.” I had faith. But I didn’t have Catherine. How could I act as if I did?

Matt got home at 2 a.m. on Saturday, escorted from the airport by state troopers. We held each other for what seemed like forever. “I’m so sorry,” he said over and over.

More than 400 people came for Catherine’s wake. They stood in line for hours. The air was thick with grieving. With pity. With unchecked emotion. I’d never seen so many people so sad. I’d written a few thoughts I wanted to share at her funeral. This time I didn’t have to think about it. The words came easily.

“I know that God has a specific purpose for us,” I said. “And while I may not understand how I will muster the strength to fulfill his purpose, he will provide what I need to move forward.”

We attended two more funerals and four wakes. Then Matt’s and my families left. “You need time alone,” my sister said, “to start healing.” She was right, of course. But starting was hard. What to say? How to act? How to resist just falling to pieces?

“We’re going to get through this,” we told each other. I believed that with all my heart. The task seemed overwhelming, though, the healing so impossible. How do you survive a child’s death? I spent hours talking to God. Lord, I know Catherine is with you, but I need to feel her with me too. Please.

One afternoon Matt said, “I’m going to drive out to that animal shelter. We should tell them about Catherine’s memorial.” He took Frederick. I’d just sat down on the couch with a magazine when the phone rang. It was Matt.

“I’m here at the address we put in Catherine’s obituary. But it’s not the shelter. It’s just somebody’s house.”

“Oh no!” I said. What had we done? I got online, found the phone number for the Animal Center and called them. A woman answered. She sounded kind.

“We’re animal rescue volunteers,” she explained. “We don’t have a building or anything like that. We’ve been wanting to call you, but felt we should, you know, wait a bit. I think it would be best if we met in person.”

A few days later, two pleasant, unassuming women came to the house. Their expressions puzzled me. They looked almost embarrassed.

“Can I ask how much in donations you’ve received?” I said.

“It’s about $175,000,” one of the women said. “The donations are coming from all over the country. All over the world, actually. And they keep coming.”

I looked at Matt. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! “That’s a lot of money,” I said. “What are your plans?”

“Well,” the woman said, “we’ve always dreamed of starting a wildlife sanctuary. A place where both animals and people could find healing. It would be calm and serene. Peaceful. There would be walking paths and places to sit. And there would be opportunities for people to work with the animals.”

Care taker. Catherine’s business card burst into my mind. It was almost as if she were there with us again, a butterfly resting on the back of her hand as she held it aloft: Tell all your friends I’m kind.

“Catherine will love that,” I said, and hugged them both.

Today, six months after the brutal murder of 26 children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary, the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary is becoming a reality.

We want it to be a place of peace, peace born of terrible, incomprehensible violence. Peace, like the peace of Christ, that is the only answer to evil. Because no amount of hate, no gun or bullets, can kill love. Especially the love of a child like our daughter, Catherine Hubbard.

Download your FREE ebook, A Prayer for Every Need, by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.