12/15/2013 09:22 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Beyond Newtown, One Family's Grief After Gun Tragedy 'Doesn't Get Easy'

Sheila Gaskin

WASHINGTON -- One year after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., left 26 dead and a nation in shock, the anniversary was marked with quiet remembrances, vigils and moments of silence.

The images of that day remain harrowing. The grieving family members of the victims are imprinted on our consciousness. Though Congress failed to act on gun-control reforms in the wake of the shooting, Newtown remains a singularly horrifying moment.

But the shock of the Dec. 14 tragedy didn't mean even a temporary reprieve from gun violence. It continued to take lives that night and the next day and the next and so on. Schools continued to become crime scenes. There have been at least 28 school shootings since Sandy Hook -- including one at Arapahoe High School in Colorado the day before the Newtown anniversary. At least 194 children have lost their lives to gun violence since Newtown.

While President Barack Obama and thousands of others stopped on Saturday to ponder the horror that overwhelmed Newtown, a lot of families affected by gun violence dealt with their grief in private.

In Conway, S.C., Sheila Gaskin is still trying to save enough money for her grandson’s headstone. Last Christmas, 2-year-old Sincere Smith swiped his father’s loaded pistol off a table, and accidentally shot himself in the upper chest. He died hours later from his wound. Gaskin’s visits to her grandson’s bare gravesite are a daily pilgrimage.

“I just go and talk to him,” Gaskin says. “Every day, I go there.” On Sincere’s patch of earth, she placed white and tan landscaping rocks, and a tiny Christmas tree. She added ornaments -- the same ones Sincere hung on her tree before his last Christmas.

There’s still more to do. Gaskin bought two poinsettias for Sincere’s grave and has gathered some toys she wants to place around his graveside tree. The blue Spiderman bike she bought him for Christmas just before his death is still a point of controversy. No one is sure what to do with it. Gaskin says they are considering taking the wheels off the bike and planting it at his grave.

The grief, Gaskin explains, “it doesn’t get easy.”

Gaskin says her daughter, Sincere’s mother, “wants to shut down.” Her daughter has complained that Christmas decorations now depress her. But since Sincere’s death, Gaskin can’t bring herself to take down two Christmas trees from last year, even though her daughter moved in with her after the shooting.

When her daughter isn’t at work, she spends most of her free time asleep. “She’s not here,” Gaskin says. “Her body is, but that’s it.”

Everyone knows where Sincere’s father, Rondell Smith, is. After pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter, he was sentenced in August to five years in prison. Now behind bars, he keeps a journal documenting his grief. Every memory he has of Sincere counts as something to reflect on. He thinks often of driving with Sincere, and looking back at him in the rear-view mirror, he tells HuffPost during a call from prison.

Smith thinks the grieving has only gotten harder. “I was a good father,” he says. “I miss my son dearly.”

Two weeks before the accident, Smith bought the .38-caliber handgun for protection after he thought someone tried to break into his home. He turned his back to call Sincere’s mother who had visited a friend. He’d left Sincere out of his sight for just that moment.

Soon after his son’s death, Smith told The Huffington Post about his last moments with Sincere as he rushed him to the hospital. “He couldn’t really talk,” Smith said. “Last thing I heard him say was ‘Daddy’. He kept trying to say ‘Daddy.’ Believe me, I hear it every day.”

On the Newtown anniversary, Gaskin visited Sincere. This time she brought along two grandchildren and a friend. They planted the two poinsettias, and added a toy cement mixer and two toy motorcycles. Sincere’s bike is on hold. Gaskin thinks it might get stolen if she leaves it at the cemetery.

The two grandkids sang “Jingle Bells” at Sincere’s grave. The mood was light with a lot of talking and even a little laughter. “This wasn’t a tearful day,” Gaskin says. Her last words to Sincere were the usual: “I love you and I miss you. And I'll see you tomorrow.”

Gaskin still needs $270 for Sincere's headstone.



Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting