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Monday, December 9, 2013

Newtown Decides Against Shooting Anniversary Event

Photos of Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre victims sit at a small memorial near the school on January 14, 2013, in Newtown, Connecticut. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Photos of Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre victims sit at a small memorial near the school on January 14, 2013, in Newtown, Connecticut. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Residents of Newtown, Conn., have decided against a public commemoration to mark the first anniversary this coming Saturday of the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, which left 20 first graders and six educators dead.

Instead, the town is endorsing a “year of service” and is asking residents to put a candle in their window on Dec. 14, the day of the shooting, to show their commitment to the idea of service to each other.

Newtown families have also announced the creation of the website “My Sandy Hook Family,” where people can post their remembrances.

Newtown resident and psychiatrist John Woodall is an expert on resilience and a member of the committee that decided not to hold a town-wide event for the anniversary. He speaks with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson about the decision.

Interview Highlights: John Woodall

On the decision not to hold an anniversary event

“Unlike 9/11, where it was really a national event in the sense that the nation was attacked by an outside force, it was al-Qaida attacking the country, this was a deranged individual killing very innocent children. So the families experienced it very personally. Although the grief has been shared nationally and internationally, to them it is a very personal event. So I think that they wanted to have this time to themselves for private reflection. Also that what happened last year, with the crush of the media, was more than they could bear.”

On whether a commemoration ceremony would help families heal

“We really felt that the town experienced this as a town. There are concentric circles that radiate out from this horror, obviously in the center of that circle are the families themselves. So our thought also is that we don’t look at grief as something you heal from like it’s an illness, like it’s a cold for instance. We use that language a lot, you know ‘have you recovered’ or ‘have you healed from your grief?’ And we thought, really, what grief is is a form of love, but with the loved one gone, so it’s really the heartbreak of separation from the loved one. So the work of grief is to find a new form for that love, to find a new expression for it, a new commitment, a way to honor the love. And so, again, we came back to this idea that a commitment to transform that anguish into a commitment to compassion and kindness, that’s where we wanted to keep the focus. And that’s something that goes beyond a day. It’s something that we want to be part of the culture of the town.”

On how people are doing a year later

“It’s as diverse as there are people in the world. I have this concept of ‘suffering successfully.’ None of us wants to suffer, but if we’re forced to, we at least want to get out of it the best we possibly can. Again, I think we see everything humanly imaginable here. People who are so overwhelmed with grief that it’s hard to leave the house; you may find yourself being more snippy with your spouse or a little less tolerant of people’s opinions. These are the things we want to mitigate against, so we have wonderful examples already of this spirit of service. There’s a ‘26 days of kindness’ going on right now, actually, in the run-up to the anniversary where people are posting on Facebook and different social media acts of kindness. So I think it’s kind of a race, actually, to make sure these positive forces win in the end—that we have successfully suffered.”

  • Two of the Facebook pages for the “26 days of kindness” can be found here and here.

Guest

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

Residents of Newtown, Connecticut, have decided against having a public commemoration this coming Saturday to mark the first anniversary of the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. We're going to be having a number of conversations about Newtown this week. And right now, we are joined by Dr. John Woodall. He's a psychiatrist and a Newtown resident. He's on the committee that decided not to hold a town-wide event on Saturday. And he's with us from Newtown. Dr. Woodall, welcome.

JOHN WOODALL: Thank you. Thank you. A pleasure to be here.

HOBSON: Well, explain that decision. Why not hold a commemoration on the first anniversary of the school shooting?

WOODALL: Well, it's an important question and it's something that an awful lot of thought was given to. Pat Llodra, who is our first selectmen, asked three of us in town to join her in coming up with a plan for the first anniversary and beyond. And the first thing that Pat did was to ask the families what they would like. And to a person, they did not want a commemorative event. This is a very private event for them.

Unlike 9/11, where it was really a national event in the sense that the nation was attacked by an outside force, it was, you know, al-Qaida attacking the country, this was a deranged individual killing very innocent children. And so the families experienced it very personally. Although the grief has been shared nationally and internationally, to them it's a very personal event. And so I think that they wanted to have this time for themselves for a private reflection. And also that what happened last year with the crush of the media was more than they could bear.

The families have a difficult time just leaving the house some days because everywhere they go in town, there are still reminders of that day. People with all the best intentions still, you know, have ribbons out to commemorate the lost, you know, angels, signs in windows and stickers on cars. So it's difficult for them to just simply try to recalibrate, to have a normal day. So the first priority was to honor their wishes.

HOBSON: And then secondly, we felt that we needed to have a living instead of a stone memorial or single-days event. We needed to have something more enduring. So we came up with the thought that what we really wanted was to transform the anguish of that day into a commitment to service to each other so that the culture and the town itself became elevated as a result of this. We were kind of harkening back to Lincoln, you know, that these honored dead would not have died in vain and so...

Do you think that by not having a commemoration on December 14, that the town, the people will be able to heal faster? Is this going to help people move on with their lives?

WOODALL: It's an important question. We thought a lot about it. There's a lot to be gained by a singular even where the town can gather and be with each other and draw strength from each other. There are a couple of issues. One is the town doesn't have a venue large enough to hold people. And invariably, people would feel left out if they couldn't come to an event. On the 14th itself, we're asking people in town to put a candle in their window as a sign of their commitment to this idea of service to each other.

We really felt that, you know, the town experienced this as a town. You know, there are concentric circles that radiate out from this horror. Obviously, in the center of that circle is the - are the families themselves. So our thought also was that it's - we don't look at grief as something you heal from - like it's an illness or like it's a cold, for instance. You know, we use that language a lot, that, you know, are you - have you recovered or have you healed from your grief? And we thought, really, what grief is is a form of love. But with the loved one gone, so it's really the heartbreak of separation from the loved one. So the work of grief is to find a new form for that love, to find a new expression for it, a new commitment, a way to honor the love.

And so, again, we came back to this idea that a commitment to transform that anguish into a commitment to compassion and kindness, that's where we wanted to keep the focus. And that's something that goes beyond a day. It's something that we want to be part of the culture of the town.

HOBSON: How are people doing a year on?

WOODALL: That's a complex question. It's - I anticipated the question. And for the life of me, I don't know how to answer it. It's as diverse as there are people in the world. You know, I have this concept of suffering successfully. You know, all of us, you know, none of us wants to suffer. But if we're forced to, we at least want to get out of it the best we possibly can.

And, again, I think we see everything humanly imaginable here. People who are so overwhelmed with grief that it's hard to leave the house. You may find yourself being more snippy with your spouse or a little less tolerant of people's different opinions. These are the things we want to mitigate against. So we have wonderful examples already of this spirit of service. There's a 26 Days of Kindness going on right now, actually, in the run-up to the anniversary where people are posting on Facebook and different social media acts of kindness. So I think it's kind of a race actually to make sure that these positive forces win in the end, that we successfully suffered.

HOBSON: John, you're a psychiatrist there. And, you know, we hear from emergency room doctors after traumatic events who themselves suffer because of the things that they've seen and the things that they've dealt with. How are you doing?

(LAUGHTER)

WOODALL: Well, thanks for asking. It's exhausting, quite frankly. It's exhausting and exhilarating both. The thing that my wife and I focus on, it's the same thing I ask people I work with to focus on, is that when you feel overwhelmed, essentially at the powerlessness we all have over such a horrible event, that that's the time to turn to a loved one, that's the time when everything in you is sort of drifting into isolation or to bitterness or anger, any of these things, or fear, that's the time to reconnect with other people. So it's a choice we make. And if you make it consistently and repeatedly, it's like doing pushups. You get better and better at it.

HOBSON: Psychiatrist John Woodall is a resident of Newtown, Connecticut, and the founder and director of the resilience program called The Unity Project. John, thank you so much for joining us.

WOODALL: OK. Thanks for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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