What It Feels Like to Lose Your Child in a Mass Shooting

Nicole Hockley describes her son’s death in the Sandy Hook shooting, and the long grieving process that the parents of 19 children in Uvalde now face.

An illustration featuring Nicole Hockley's face
John Moore / Getty; The Atlantic

Nicole Hockley has done all of this before. The bewildering phone call in the middle of the day. The anxious drive, followed by the waiting, the endless waiting, alongside other frantic or frozen parents. Then, at last, learning the impossible, mind-numbing news: Your child is dead. The tiny person you made with your own body, whom you fed, dressed, and taught to say thank you, was shot to death in his classroom.

Hockley’s son Dylan was 6 years old when he was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012. To listen to Hockley describe that day is to hear a mother recount an event that life did not prepare her for, does not prepare anyone for—an event that goes against all expectations of parenthood, of human existence. Hockley, who has since co-founded a gun-violence prevention group called Sandy Hook Promise, did not cry as she told me the story of Dylan’s death and what happened afterward. She has been telling this story for nearly a decade—how parents wailed in the Newtown firehouse; how teddy bears began to arrive from all over the world; how unfamiliar Dylan’s small body looked in his casket.

I spoke with Hockley yesterday morning, two days after 19 more families experienced this same earth-shattering event in Uvalde, Texas. I wanted to ask her what it’s like to lose a young child in a mass shooting—and how these families can possibly cope. Hockley’s advice to them: People grieve in all different ways. “Know that you will find a way through it,” she said.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Elaine Godfrey: I want to start with that day in 2012, when you found out about your son. Put me in that moment with you.

Nicole Hockley: It started as a very normal Friday. I got my two kids up, dressed, and took them up the driveway to catch the bus to school. I was supposed to be going in later that afternoon to Dylan’s class to make gingerbread houses. In the morning I was going to my exercising classes. A friend called the kickboxing class, and the instructor answered the phone and brought it over to me. That was when my friend told me that there was a shooting at the school, where both of our children were at. One of my friends got me into a car, and we drove across town to get there. It was just absolute chaos, and you couldn’t get close. I jumped out of my car and started running toward the driveway to the school, but instead was funneled into the firehouse. There were people crammed together in every room of the firehouse. All the kids had been brought there from the elementary school, and they were all sitting on the floor or the couch or in the chairs. I found another first-grade class, but I couldn’t find Dylan’s. I eventually found my other son, Jake, who was a third grader at the time.

There were rumors circulating at that point. Someone asked me who I was looking for, and I said Ms. Soto’s class. And this woman said, “Oh, I heard she’d been shot.” And I got really angry. I said, “Don’t you dare say anything unless you know it’s true!” Then I ensured that one of our friends was taking [Jake] home safely. Jake said, “Where’s Dylan?” I said, “I don’t know, but I’m going to find him.”

Eventually all the kids left with their parents, and there were several of us left, walking around looking for our kids, but they weren’t there. Then we were asked to go to the back room. I didn’t realize at that point what that meant. I was in absolute denial. I think some parents had started to figure things out by then, or they were reading things on their phones. I wasn’t. Eventually they told us that there had been a shooting and that several people had died. We were asked to write down our child’s name on a list being formed, and what classroom they were in. It was just an interminable wait. There were people crying. I was very quiet; I just shut down. Quite a while later, Governor Dannel Malloy came in. I didn’t even know who he was back then. He was the one who told us that if we were still there waiting, it meant that the person we were waiting for wasn’t coming back.

That’s when absolute chaos erupted in the firehouse, screaming and crying and people falling to the floor. Even then, I was like, ‘No, that can’t be. My son’s probably hiding somewhere or he ran or he’s still with his special-education assistant, because she would have never left his side.’ It was later that I found out he had been killed, and had been found in the arms of his special-education assistant, who had died while trying to protect him. That was the first 15 hours of that day.

Godfrey: The waiting. That just seems so torturous. I can’t even imagine it.

Hockley: It’s horrible. And of course you hold out hope that there’s been a mistake or that, no, they’ll find my son alive. It was just hours upon hours, and then having to hand over details of what clothes they were wearing that day, because that was how they were going to try to identify the kids. It wasn’t until, like, 1 o’clock in the morning or 3 o’clock in the morning when police and clergy arrived to confirm that Dylan had been identified among the dead. Even then, you can’t let go of hope, that there had to have been some serious mistake.

Godfrey: So what did you do next? Did you go home?

Hockley: They assigned each family a state trooper to help gather details of what they were wearing and then help us get back to our home. We were assigned to a trooper who looked after us and actually was with us for a couple of weeks. There was a lot of media and well-wishers and activity here. I couldn’t go back home, really. We were renting a house, and it turns out that our house was effectively across the street from the shooter’s house. They had cordoned off our area of the street because they were investigating his house, where his mother had been killed that morning.

I wasn’t sure I could go back to that house anyway. I didn’t want to see Dylan’s bed. I just wasn’t prepared for that. So our neighbors from, like, three or four houses down—Jake’s best friend is their son, and they had taken Jake from the firehouse, so we went and met them there. I couldn’t form words at the time. So my husband had to tell Jake that Dylan had been killed. And Jake just howled like an animal. It was horrible. And then the three of us just crawled into one of the spare bedrooms upstairs. Jake was very chatty for a little while. He went into painful detail about everything he had heard and seen. Then we all just fell into a kind of a reckless sleep, until we were awoken when the police arrived to confirm that Dylan was dead.

Godfrey: How did you go about your life in those next few days? Did you eat dinner? Did you go to sleep?

Hockley: I’d say the first year after Sandy Hook, there are things that I can’t remember a single thing about. It’s kind of like when you have a dream and you can’t remember the details until someone says something. I have no idea if I ate, what I ate. I’m sure our bodies fell asleep at some point, but I don’t remember sleeping. I just remember lying there, staring at the ceiling. I do remember my mom being very concerned because even a week afterwards, my weight had plummeted. I was just picking at food. For the next year, my hair was falling out. The stress and trauma on your body—there are physical manifestations that you just don’t expect.

Godfrey: In those first few days, what did people do that actually helped you?

Hockley: A very, very tight circle of protection and support formed around us. Our friends Bill and Lisa in particular were helping in terms of church services, setting up the meeting with the funeral-service director, selection of the urns, the viewing that we had privately of Dylan’s casket. I remember Bill being like, “I’m sorry, Nicole, but if you want to have flowers at the service, today is the day we need to go do that.”

Godfrey: When the memorial service came, do you remember what that was like, seeing Dylan in the casket?

Hockley: That is one of those memories that I have in very exquisitely painful detail in my head. That was my birthday, December 18. Originally, we were going to have his service that day, and I didn’t want the service linked with my birthday. So it was the viewing day. You know, there are no good decisions. I remember looking at him, and we’d been told, ‘Don’t touch him, because you might not like what you feel.’ We could see that there was a bit of an awkwardness to how he was lying. Now I know it’s because he’d been shot five times and his torso had pretty much been destroyed, and the back of his head. But he looked perfect otherwise. He just looked like a very pale version of Dylan. He looked taller in his coffin; I realized I’d probably never seen him lying full-out straight; he usually curled up.

I remember looking at his hand, holding his hand, and seeing the little torn cuticle that he had from where he’d been picking at his hands, which was one of his habits. His very long lashes sitting on his cheeks. And some of the makeup that they put on—I remember looking at his lips and just being very conscious of the different color of them. And seeing that later on politicians and celebrities I would meet—that same kind of makeup—it always triggered me. It was very bizarre holding his hand, because I’d expected that sort of warm softness. Instead, the lively, gorgeous boy that I’d known was now this cold stonelike figure. It was very hard to comprehend even in that moment that he was dead, because I couldn’t make the connection between the corpse and my son.

Godfrey: By this point, Dylan’s picture and the other other kids’ photos were on the news. What was that like, seeing his face, and watching the coverage of the shooting?

Hockley: I stayed off of sites for several weeks afterwards. It was more towards the middle or end of January that I really started looking at things. The thing is, I didn’t understand the scale and the ripple effects of this across the country. I was just very focused on my son and my family, and I couldn’t look outward. So it was very surreal seeing his image, learning about the other 25 kids and teachers that had died, meeting them and learning their stories.

Godfrey: How did you move on as a family?

Hockley: I remember around Christmas, someone organized a Santa Claus and a Mrs. Claus to come to our house. I had all these presents for Jake, and I didn’t know what to do with the presents we’d bought for Dylan. We had cremated him in the new sweater that my mom had gotten him for Christmas that he never saw. I’ve got these pictures of us standing around the fireplace. I’m standing there with Santa Claus and Jake, and we’re looking at the camera and we’re smiling, but our eyes are just dead. I don’t even recognize myself in the photo. It was a very sweet gesture for someone to try to give Jake that Christmas experience. But we just don’t know what to do in these moments. Do you try to form normality and routine, or do you not?

There was this huge influx of gifts from around the world that were kept in a warehouse and brought to our homes. For years, I actually had everything still in boxes, most of them not even opened, in a spare bedroom. There was a lot of jewelry with his face on it, blankets with his face on it, artwork that people sent. I kept some of the paintings that people did. They’re around my home office.

Godfrey: Did it feel weird to have strangers sending you stuff with pictures of your child on it?

Hockley: I loved and appreciated the fact that people just wanted to help. They didn’t know what to do. So they thought sending a teddy bear to each of the siblings would be a good idea. We had thousands and thousands of teddy bears sent to Newtown. We had a gentleman from Kenya reach out yesterday to my organization: He said, “All I have is a cow. I want to donate my cow to you.” People just are desperate to do something. I appreciate the generosity of people. I realize that there is more good than bad in the world.

Godfrey: What were you and your husband talking about in these moments? What were your conversations like?

Hockley: I don’t have any memory of it at all, how we worked together, how we didn’t work together. I remember we wrote our memorial speeches separately, and then I edited them together. After Christmas, we went on a trip to Disneyland, in California. I was crying all the time, and I had real trouble even faking a smile. We went to this Star Wars show. Of course, they started shooting with their Storm Trooper guns, and I just looked at my husband, Ian, and I said, “What the hell are we doing?”

We didn’t blame each other or anything like that, but Dylan’s death tore us apart. We’d been married for 20 years by the time this happened, and we separated shortly after. We were divorced in 2015. We’re still incredibly good friends and co-parent Jake to the best of our ability. But we just—we couldn’t find each other again through the pain.

Godfrey: Throughout all of these early weeks and months, what do you think was your dominant emotion? Were you angry?

Hockley: No. I was just absolutely empty. Shocked, numb. So sad, I couldn’t even communicate it. I was grateful for the support of family and friends, but I was just going through the motions for a while. I remember towards the end of January when I was reading things and seeing comments about “This didn’t happen. It was a false flag.” I remember that made me just very confused that people could possibly think that. Then I was very focused on “What can I do to help prevent anyone from feeling this way?” I talked about that at Dylan’s funeral: This is going to be a time for change. I don’t know what that is going to be, but something good will come from this. I can’t let his death be for nothing.

I still get very, very angry about what happened, at the person who did it, at politicians. There’s just a lot of anger constantly under the surface, and I just control that to stop it from coming out, in the same way that I control my grief. It might sound a little bit stupid, but I try very hard not to cry in public, because I don’t want to just be seen as this victim. Sometimes if people are faced with emotion that they can’t handle, they turn off or turn away. I want people to hear what I have to say.

Godfrey: How do you deal with the grief, and the anger? Have you developed any coping mechanisms?

Hockley: Well, I spent a long time in therapy. I went through a few different therapists. For me, my coping mechanism is my work. When I’m stressed or the PTSD comes out again, I really double down on my work. Exercise used to be my mechanism, but I stopped all forms of exercise after 12/14. I had no motivation to do anything. And then my body kind of broke down. I put on weight. Now I’m getting back into exercise, but after two hip replacements and back surgery, I’m much more limited to hiking and cycling. So getting outdoors and being grounded in nature is also a space that I can maybe quiet my mind for a moment. Between my work and just trying to ground myself and make sure I’m spending time with my surviving son—dedicated, focused time with him—those are probably the three main things that I do.

Godfrey: This has happened again. All of these families in Texas are probably going through very similar experiences right now. I’m wondering what your feelings are about this moment, and maybe your thoughts and words for these families.

Hockley: I remember being deeply afraid over time that I was going to forget my son, what he sounded like, what he smelled like, how he moved. And you don’t. You never forget. So that’s not a concern. You’ll always remember your child. If people want to journal through this, so they remember certain times, I’ve heard that’s a really good thing to do. Then you can go back a year, two years, three years later, and see that you’re finding your way forward. I had no energy to journal at that time. You have to go through this in your own way, whatever that means. Everything you do, it’s the right thing for you to do at that time. Respect each other’s journey and respect your own journey. Know that you will find a way through it, no matter how hard it seems at the time.