One year later: A Newtown native on dealing with tragedy away from home
Mary Hamula | 1/13/14 10:58am
I always hated growing up in a small town.
Living in suburban Connecticut for most of my childhood, I was always jealous of my friends who grew up in cities or coastal communities. In high school, our catchphrase always was “nothing ever happens in Newtown.” We were a community that didn’t lock our doors. The front page of our newspaper was once a cat getting stuck in a tree. We were the poster town for New England.
Until one day, our world was shook upside down.
December 14, 2012. Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and took the lives of 20 children and six teachers, along with his mother’s and his own. I will never forget waking up to my sobbing mother’s phone call, frantic friends posting messages of prayer on Facebook and watching CNN news anchors compare my hometown to Columbine.
I watched the vigils, the speeches and President Obama talking in my high school auditorium from my dorm room 300 miles away. That was the worst part about it. I wasn’t at home with my dad or brother who were both in the high school down the road, or there to comfort my mom who had lost a sense of safety.
My brother, sister and I had all gone to public school in Newtown nearly all our lives, and everyone in town felt a connection to the event. Our lives would never be the same. And here I was, stuck in a city that didn’t feel like home yet, on a nearly empty campus trying to study for finals.
Tragedy is never easy and it’s even harder when the ones you love can’t surround you. Nikita Srivastava, a sophomore at AU who is also from Newtown, felt similarly after the events of Dec. 14 as one of her best friends lost her little brother in the shooting.
“I was focusing a lot of my energy on supporting her and her family,” she said, “but at the same time I had people who would just be there if I needed them.”
Many affected by tragedy turn to their friends, as I did, as a source of comfort. Knowing people are there to support you can often be uplifting on its own. Kianna Miller, a sophomore at AU who was affected by a family tragedy this year, felt the support of her friends at school was an important part of her healing process.
“I have been around so many people who haven’t pried when I briefly mention the situation,” she said. “They don’t ask for details but every single one of them has told me that they are there for me if I need anything. Just the knowledge that I have those kinds of people around me is helpful on its own.”
While returning home to your family after tragedy strikes is often not an option, surrounding oneself with friends and one’s family away from home is often option. This helps one return to a normal routine and conquer the overwhelming sadness that comes with dealing with loss or grief.
In the direct wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, it felt as if the whole world felt the grief along with those of us from Newtown. We received many generous gifts and donations of both time and money from people all over the world. Our sleepy little New England town was thrown into the national spotlight before we could even come to terms with what had happened.
But slowly, the nation began to lose it’s interest and moved on. Leaving us, the residents of Newtown, to deal with what happened alone. As I went back to school after winter break last January, I felt a new sense of loneliness.
People often didn’t understand the emotions I was still dealing with, along with my newfound anxiety every time someone asked me where I was from. Those of us from Newtown attending college away from home learned to be as vague as possible with this question. Often, I just said “Connecticut,” and then “Fairfield County”.
My good friend Anna Hodge, a student at Syracuse University, wrote a piece for the Huffington Post blog about this topic.
“Since 12/14, in what should be one of the most casual conversation topics between two individuals who are just meeting, we are forced to break down an emotional boundary, often confronted with awkward questions and uncomfortable body language that is difficult to respond to,” she wrote. “We have to get deeply personal much too quickly.”
We found ourselves forced to answer questions such as “Did you know anyone?” “What’s it like there?” and “How did you feel that day?” before the person even knew our names. However, we found true comfort in healing by ourselves without the eyes of the world watching. In the days and weeks following Dec. 14, the town became so crowded with visitors and news vans that we found it difficult to drive around.
There were reporters camped out at every memorial and church in town, nearly every resident found themselves in a newspaper or on TV at some point. Huge TV personalities took their downtime at our local Starbucks, discussing what to make their next headline as my friends and I exchanged college stories a few seats over.
As much as it meant to all of us to know that the world was standing behind us, we had become overnight celebrities in ways we could have never expected.
When the media finally left, we began to feel more comfortable talking about it, as if the eyes were off of us. The topic came up at every party, social gathering, and meeting. We couldn’t go a day without talking about it, but we found comfort in people that understood us.
In our colleges, we often felt as if no one could identify or understand us because we had gone through such a massive tragedy. There were times many of us, myself included, considered transferring closer to home. But we knew we couldn’t run home, we had to work hard and make our town proud. We knew it was up to us to change the legacy of Newtown.