Reflecting: Of The Sandy Hook Tragedy, A Mother’s Spirit And The Holiday Season

Seven years ago today the state of Connecticut – and the entire country – was rocked by the brutal tragedy of what took place at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown. This story was published on RaceDayCT on Dec. 14, 2013, one year after that tragedy in Newtown. 

Like so many others one year ago today, I stumbled into the live news reports coming out of local Connecticut TV stations and I was transfixed.

I’ve always been a “Breaking News” junky. Always been the one that gets glued to the television once something takes on the magnitude of making everybody go live to it.

To me, Dec. 14, the anniversary of the murder of 20 first graders and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown is a JFK type “do you remember where you were when?” type of day. It might not be like that for everyone, but for me, I can recount nearly the entire day minute-by-minute.

And that fact is as much about the instant tragedy of that day that gripped a nation as it is about the slow, somber tragedy I was living that day, and every other day last December.

It was a day where I fully learned and felt the full spectrum of tragedy.

Color me jolly, I’ve always reveled in the spirit of the holiday season. I’ve always embraced my inner 10-year old and carried the giddiness of Christmas expectations from Thanksgiving to that big day when the presents came.

That spirit was dimmed significantly last year, and I’ve found myself fighting this year to find that childlike glee for the holidays that burned in me for so long.

December 2012 is still sapping the excitement.

In early November, 2012 my mom came home from the hospital for the last time. A decade of fighting emphysema had left my 66-year old mother ravaged. Her body left defeated by the illness that had slowly taken so much of her vibrant spirit away year after year. In November 2012 her doctors shared with our family the news we long knew would come some day, but we only hoped would never really arrive. There was nothing more they could do to treat her.

My mom decided she wanted to spend the time she had left at home. Home hospice meant my father, my sister and I watching over her, taking care of her needs, making her as comfortable as possible.

I really didn’t think I was ready for what was to come, but in some ways, I’ll always be grateful for the way it happened. Knowing the end is coming has a way of breaking down walls and enforcing the understanding of making every single second count that much more.

On Dec. 14, 2012 I watched from home in the morning as early news reports trickled in about a school shooting in Newtown. Many of the early reports on local TV stations characterized the incident in a seemingly sort of isolated manner, as a parent vs. administrator meeting gone bad.

On that day my plan was to go stay with my mom for the afternoon and evening and give my dad a chance to go hunting for the day. As I drove to their residence I listened to continuing news reports flowing through Sirius radio.

Before leaving my house I had been fixed to local television and nothing close to the magnitude of what had taken place had even been talked about yet. It was in my car driving down Interstate 84 in Vernon, with the simulcast of MSNBC playing on Sirius, that I heard the first report that possibly as many as 20 people were dead.

My instant reaction was of total disbelief. This had to be wrong. They had to have gotten some awful mistaken report. I had just left my house hearing about a possible dispute between an administrator and a parent and now as many as 20 people were dead?

When I arrived to my parents’ residence it was at that point that factual reports of the death toll were starting to come through.

My mom was sleeping when I first arrived. I sat with my dad, aghast at what I was seeing and hearing on the TV. My dad left for his afternoon hunting trip and not long after my mom woke. We turned on the TV in the makeshift former den that now was her place and we watched the TV.

She held my hand, and teared up at times watching the coverage, hearing the reports of 20 children slaughtered. She told me she couldn’t even bear the thought of losing one of her children. I thought it strange in a way that we were setting there with the full knowledge that her time with us was waning by the day, and yet she would say something like that.

As we watched the news coverage on TV my mom slipped in out of sleep, as the medications flowing through her to help ease her pain would cause her to do.

As I sat there with her I thought about the torturous heartbreak being endured by the parents of those first graders who had been murdered. And I started to think about the spectrum of heartbreak.

There I sat with my mother knowing that her passing was soon coming. Despite knowing that, there wasn’t a day during that hospice that I could really come to grips with the fact that she would be gone soon. Even when her and I talked about it openly, I still couldn’t let myself believe it. There I was knowing her death was going to happen and I couldn’t handle it, and I thought about the parents of those children. Parents who sent their kids to school that day thinking they were safe. Surely never even for one second could those parents have thought that something so awful could happen in their lives.

How could they even go on with life?

That evening I left my mom, stronger in my spirit because of all I had seen that day. I felt like I had to be stronger. Stronger in some way for the parents of those children in Newtown who were facing such unimaginably grave news. If they could endure, if they could live another day after having that unfathomable tragedy take over their lives, I could be stronger too.

The next afternoon I sat with my mom and coverage of the Sandy Hook Shootings dominated on TV. The news junky in me wanted to absorb it all. But after a few minutes watching it my mom asked if I would change the channel. She said she couldn’t handle watching it any more, that it was too sad.

I remember she said she would rather watch happy things on TV. She said “Let’s be happy today.”

I’ll never forget that. I was broken hearted each day knowing my mom was leaving me soon. But she summed it up in the way only a mom can fix things. “Let’s be happy today.” If she could be happy with all she was going through, with all the pain she was enduring, how could I not do that for her?

Three weeks to the day following the Sandy Hook tragedy, on Jan. 4, 2013, my mom died.

I’ve thought since then a lot about her saying “Let’s be happy today.” I think about it when I’m having those bad days because she’s not here. And today I thought about it in relation to the families who had to endure the tragedy of one year ago. I pray for their resilience and strength to move forward in the face of such heartbreak and loss. And I pray that they can have their times when they say “Let’s be happy today” despite all the pain they must forever bear.

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  1. Wow, Shawn, I applaud your courage for sharing such a sad personal story. Thank you. Like you, my mom became seriously ill, having suffered a stroke. Like you, my dad brought mom home, not being able to see her in a hospice. That was in 2014. Mom passed away on January 4, 2019. And like you I had a really hard time coping, knowing her end was near, and coming up on the one year anniversary still do. The Sandy Hook tradegy was the first of what would become many mass shootings, but what kills me is how someone could shoot a bunch of little kids. Even mom couldn’t explain it. One of the last things she said to me was that I should stay strong, and not give up on people, because for the most part people are good, and loving. Even on my worst days, mom would remind me to hold my head high, and think happy not sad. So thank you again for sharing that with us. That day, unfortunately like so many others is one we should never forget, we owe it to those children and their families.

  2. It’s a RaceDayCT tradition. With minor changes the 5th appearance on the same date each year. It still packs a wallop.

  3. The real tragedy is that the government could have made sure events like this never happens long before this ever happened with legislation, yet to this day refuse to do so.

  4. Another infamous event for December 14th,. The battle of the bulge.although for extremely different reasons, many many lives lost that day. But now December 14th will always be remembered for the Sandy Hook shootings. My prayers to the families of both.

  5. I can’t believe 7 years have gone by since the lives of 20 children and 6 adults were taken in Sandy Hook. The pain the loved ones feel will never cease, it will just hurt a little different every day. I know because I lost a daughter due to a motor vehicle accident. A day I will never forget, a day that profoundly changed my life forever.

    Rob P, I really don’t believe that government will ever be able to prevent gun violence totally unless they legislate the people’s ability to legally protect themselves from those who illegally possess the means to harm.

  6. 100% agree with you Earl.

  7. There are 3 of those days in my life like Shawn mentioned where I can remember exactly where I was when the news broke – JFK assasination, 9/11 and Sandy Hook. I always hope there wont be anymore days line those that I will never be able to forget. But I also remember the very first race I ever attended at Plainville Stadium on a Sunday afternoon some 50 + years ago and Billy Greco winning it. Been a race junkie ever since. So not all those seminal moments have to be bad ones. As far as legislating guns , all that is to me is an opportunity for politicians to do what they do best – get in front of a camera and pontificate about something they know they can never actuallly fix. When bad people want guns they will find a way to get them and no amount of government intervention will ever fix that. But these useless people we now elect to “represent” us prey on our emotional response to tragedies like this and come off looking like heroes. i’ve heard it said that the most dangerous place to be on earth t is in between our esteemed Senator Blumenthall and a TV camera. .

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