It's been six months since the attack that stole twenty-six people's lives within minutes and left our community instantly traumatized and forever altered. On the one month anniversary of the Sandy Hook School shooting, I wrote a description of life in our town that summarized some common reactions and the varying states of our emotions. But at six months, it's harder to generalize. As one friend who is close to the tragedy put it, not only are many of us in different places from each other, but the same person can have a wide range of feelings and reactions on any given day.
For many of us, there is comfort to be found in events that honor the twenty-six lives. All kinds of organizations in town host activities that bring people together to heal and participate in charitable endeavors and bring us together as a community. Newly formed advocacy groups dedicate efforts to help prevent further tragedy by focusing on correcting deficits in gun legislation, mental health resources and research, and school security. We are still regularly graced with visits from esteemed guests: sports teams, authors, singers and many others who make the trip to remind us that they care - especially for the grieving relatives, teachers and families of Sandy Hook Elementary School.
And yet, sometimes I am concerned that this same group of people, who are dealing daily with excruciating loss and trauma, don't always feel the support and care of the town or the wider community. There is an inevitable isolation that members of the school experience as their days are spent behind police protection, and many outside their sphere have the luxury of putting their focus elsewhere to varying degrees. But nobody who was in the school that day, or lost a loved one, has the option of leaving December 14th behind, now or ever. Some can probably only summon the strength to get through each day at this point, continually reminded of the combination of grief and fear they carry. One only has to look into some of their faces at times, especially the surviving six- and seven year-olds, to see the lingering effects of witnessing terrifying violence and living with the murder of their teachers, friends and classmates.
While the air here seems less heavy lately, many of us still feel the weight of tragedy's aftermath and occasionally find ourselves crying with little warning. We are aware of how our identity as a town has changed, for better and worse. Conversations with others in town, from friends who were closely impacted to strangers in a waiting room, can sometimes cross the line from therapeutic to picking at our emotional scabs.
From what I've learned about traumatized communities, it's inevitable that there will be some friction and strife as we try to cope in the aftermath of tragedy. Newtown is not immune to these challenges. There have been differing and passionate views expressed about the future of the school, with some feeling that their voices were not sufficiently respected. Tensions crop up between people and organizations with political agendas. Some people are just plain tired of all the focus on the shooting and even the expressions of love that have followed.
Many families face emotional challenges as individual members each struggle with their unique reactions. There is a pervasive sadness among many of our youth which requires attention, and not just in the elementary grades or the Sandy Hook section of town. Maybe the most universal reaction at this point is simply exhaustion. Six months of living with heartbreak takes a toll.
Unfortunately, negative responses can easily overshadow the many quiet acts of kindness, especially when they are delivered aggressively and disrespectfully toward us, as they have been online and from some media outlets. It's painful to witness anger and thoughtlessness directed at those who are hurting the most. Some affected people are able to shut out these messages to some extent. Others may feel the full sting as though it were salt in their wounds. My guess is that it depends on the day, or even the hour.
In sharp contrast to the hurtful messages, there is a well of empathy in the vast majority of Newtowners I encounter. We have a lot to be proud of. The combination of mutual support and a resolve to honor the lives of everyone we lost is carried out with compassion here, in ways large and small, every day.
I hear from people who think about "the families" (as we call anyone who lost a relative to the shooting) on at least a daily basis. Sitting at a sixth-grade band concert, one friend told me she was reflecting on all the parents whose children would never play music on that stage. Along with her sadness, she also felt an extra measure of gratitude as she listened to the kids perform Star Wars that spring evening. I wish that all the families and members of Sandy Hook School could experience the undercurrent of compassion that runs through the town and flows in their direction, often unseen and unsaid, but sincerely felt.
It's still really hard to fathom what happened here on that tragic day six months ago. Maybe this simple fact is behind the whole gamut of reactions in and outside of Newtown; from being weighed down by grief to denying that the shooting was real. Occasionally, residents are advised to just "move on," whatever that means. I'm sure that is easier for people who don't live here, or didn't lose someone in the shooting. But for many people in town, we are still affected on a daily basis.
Talking with a friend recently, we discovered that we both feel the need to wear something with a Newtown or Sandy Hook emblem every day, and especially when we leave town. The green and white ribbons aren't worn much anymore except for special events, but many people still sport bracelets, t-shirts or other symbols of our home town and the life-altering events that we are dealing with. The reason is simple, and I think my friend said it best: "It's not over for us."