Seven Autumns of Mourning in Newtown

The weeks between Halloween and December 14, the anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, are heavy with memory for the entire community.

A memorial for victims of the Sandy Hook shooting.
John Moore / Getty

Seven years ago, in Newtown, Connecticut, Halloween was canceled. We were working to dig ourselves out of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, finding detours through a maze of roads closed by downed trees, keeping kids busy through a full week of “storm day” school closings, and improvising meals on hot plates as we waited for full power to return.

Newtown normally hosts Halloween along its lovely downtown thoroughfare of colonial-era meetinghouses, churches, and historic homes, all radiating from “the flagpole,” the landmark that pulls us all together, the center of things. The homeowners go all out decorating their facades, and welcome all comers. The Episcopal church hosts a pumpkin-carving contest that runs the week before, and on Halloween night, scores of carved jack-o’-lanterns light up the corner of Main Street and Church Hill Road.

But in 2012, all of this was canceled. My family was a few minutes’ drive from the flagpole then, in a rented house in the village of Sandy Hook. We’d just moved to town a few months earlier. In those early days, our sense of living in a small town was shaped by leaving behind a larger landscape of freeways and rivers; coming from Charleston, South Carolina, we were used to referring to ourselves as living outside the expressway.

In Newtown, our kids spent a lot less time in the car, and by Halloween, more than a week into the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we’d fallen deep into the easy community of the place. None of our neighbors had any power, and we were working together, with generators, to save the contents of our fridges and ration warm-shower time. That Halloween night, rather than heading up to Main Street, our hearty band of neighbor kids went trick-or-treating around our neighborhood. My son Willem, then in the fourth grade, had a new familiarity with the neighborhood after notifying neighbors about an upcoming food drive, his citizenship project at school. So he led a band of smaller kids up the mostly dark lanes and driveways.

Less than a week later, the lights back on but the night brutally cold, Main Street held its trick or treat. Willem and my husband made it all the way down Main Street; my younger son, Luke, and I made it halfway down the block, then retreated to the warmth of the car. That was November 4.

Since then, almost all of my friends have told me about that night. I’ve heard where they were and how long they lasted in the new cold that signaled the end of fall and the coming of winter. Almost everyone I know remembers that night really well. That trick-or-treat night, for so many in Newtown, was the last public moment of celebration before we would find ourselves inside an aftermath that lasted longer and hit harder than a hurricane’s, one we’re still experiencing. Talk of that cold Halloween night in Newtown leads inevitably to talk of a brisk sunny morning five weeks later when 20 first graders and six educators were murdered by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Now each Halloween marks the beginning of a new “season.” Not the holidays, but the season that comprises the weeks from October 31, when, seven years ago, Newtown was emerging from a deluge, and December 14, the date none of us is ever fully prepared to see again, even as the years pass.

In those weeks between Halloween and the anniversary of the tragedy, even from my own distance from the events of that day, I find it hard to stand up, hard to go on. The weather changes, the trees go bare. In spring and summer, the grocery store is the site of lingering chat sessions with moms I run into, their kids in soccer uniforms fresh from the pitch, or headed to dance practice or theater rehearsal. In these weeks, I trudge up the aisle with my head down. When I do look up, I can see it on everyone’s faces: We are trying to show up for one another and especially for those in our town who are experiencing so much worse, but the days and the light have gotten shorter, and we feel anew the coming dark. Some years I can manage to get to the annual tree lighting in early December at the Ram’s Pasture, a classic New England green. Other years I can’t face it. The impulse in this season of mourning is to stay home, close the curtains, and withdraw.

The Saturday morning that dawned after the day of the shooting, December 15, 2012, was the deadline Willem had set to collect those food-drive donations for his citizenship project; on the flyer he’d distributed that stormy Halloween week, he’d told neighbors to expect him that morning.

The day before, he’d endured an hours-long lockdown at his school (not Sandy Hook, but nearby Hawley Elementary), until parents came to claim their children. On the way home, I told him the barest of details about what had happened. Now President Barack Obama was on his way to Newtown. The names of those killed had just been released. People all over town were mobilizing meal trains, babysitting—all kinds of support for those directly affected. The funerals would start that week and run for several consecutive days.

I explained to Willem that many of our neighbors would be learning that their friends had been killed the day before, and maybe we shouldn’t knock on their doors. His teacher would understand. But he wanted to go, and we decided to try a few houses just to see. People answered their doors with donations in hand, expecting him—happy, somehow, to see him. In a photo of him from that day, the donations cover our kitchen table and spill onto the floor.

I have some pictures of him from that following spring as well—in his basketball uniform, at the picnic the PTA threw as he finished the fourth grade and then began a new school year. In fifth grade, the four elementary schools in Newtown integrate into one student body at Reed Intermediate School. That year my son’s world expanded to include friends not just from Hawley but from Sandy Hook, Head of Meadow, and Middlegate. He started fifth grade aware that a quarter of his classmates had been inside Sandy Hook during the shooting. Every class period that year was an exercise in bridging the distances between those who’d lost loved ones, and those who’d been inside the school, and those who’d been nearby yet not close enough to ever fully understand. Those distances will never close, but it’s important to reach across them.

Sometime in the first fall following the shooting, during those brisk weeks after Halloween, I was at a small house party. It was a leaf-raking and campfire party, the kind of party you can have in a town full of blazing maples and elms. I ended up alone in the living room with a friend of mine who had lost a child in the shooting. It was dark, our children were outside, and we were waiting for the host to return with party pizza—a specially sized two-foot rectangle of pizza from a local restaurant that is the modern equivalent of loaves and fishes. My friend was asking about Luke, now a first grader. Who was Luke’s teacher? What was he into? Out the window, some of the heartiest leaves still clung to their branches. I saw my friend’s surviving child, older and taller than Luke, walk up to him to point out a constellation as we stood in the picture window watching them. I saw Luke trace the trajectory and then find the constellation. For a second I feared my knees would give out under the crushing pain and beauty of the moment. But then I thought, if my friend can stand here, then I damn well better figure out how to stand too.

Every fall as the new school year approaches, I become aware that the season of mourning is on its way. The Newtown Bee posts the school-bus schedules, and as I page my way through, I can’t help but remember those weeks after the tragedy, when putting a child on a school bus felt like an almost impossible act of faith. Some of our friends and neighbors last saw their children when putting them on these very buses, and we will never be certain again that our own children will return on these buses each afternoon.

Every year on December 14, a lone trumpeter plays at the front door of the Episcopal church at the start of an interfaith service. The jack-o’-lanterns are gone by then. He stands out there alone, no matter the weather. Someone told me he drives each year from Montreal to share this one act of community with us; I’m not sure if that’s true, but I know that he doesn’t live in Newtown. I’ve only overheard him speak a few phrases in French, and he’s careful to leave us alone in the sanctuary. But he’s there.

Over these past seven autumns, I’ve learned that just showing up for neighbors during these difficult weeks between Halloween and December 14 can help lift at least some of the weight we carry. The isolation of a family’s loss never goes away, but that doesn’t mean they have to mourn alone. I’ve seen the citizens of Newtown show up for one another in many ways—some have taken to the steps of the Supreme Court, to the voting booth, or to Congress. Others practice smaller, almost private acts of devotion: a bugle on the steps of a church, or food set aside for the boy who’s coming bright and early to collect it in the morning.