In Newtown, memorials are gone but reminders are everywhere

As first anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting approaches, residents say images, sounds and places still haunt them

A memorial in honor of Sandy Hook's 26 victims last Christmas Eve.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

NEWTOWN, Conn. — Just two weeks after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December, the elaborate memorials that drew hundreds of mourners from around the country came down.

Gone were the 26 Christmas trees — one for each victim — that lined the road leading to the Sandy Hook firehouse, where parents learned the fates of their children. The wooden angels staked in a hillside, where many stopped to pray, were pulled from the ground. The bouquets of flowers were picked up, the candles collected. Town officials said it would all be processed into “sacred soil,” perhaps to put at the site of a permanent memorial.

Residents of Newtown had bid farewell to 20 of their children and six more of their neighbors and sought a sense of normality.

Yet nearly a year after the massacre, even after the school itself has been demolished, they struggle to make sense of what they saw and heard that Dec. 14 and in the days that followed. The images, they say, are seared into their memories, and although the physical memorials are gone, they see them every day.

It could be putting a daughter on the school bus, hoping she will return that afternoon. Or picking up a son at school and seeing a police officer in the lobby, knowing why he’s there.

It could be at the gas station where they were when they heard of the shooting or the office they were in when the hearses rolled by. 

It could be at a youth soccer game, seeing a child who they know escaped from the school that day. Or at their son’s or daughter’s piano recital, crying tears of joy for the youngster’s performance and becoming overwhelmed with tears of sadness for the kids who will never have similar moments.

Agni Pavlidou Kyprianou, 45, of Sandy Hook, who hurried to the firehouse to check on two children for a friend the morning of the massacre, is reminded of that day when she visits downtown Sandy Hook. The two children, she said, were not harmed.

“I see the teddy bears and the flowers covering all the sidewalks,” she said. “I see the firehouse and the road leading up to the firehouse covered in police cars and nobody can get through. Now that it’s getting cold and the season is back again, it’s getting more vivid in my memory.”

She is bracing for the return of the television news trucks and the tears sure to follow on the first anniversary this Saturday.

“When we see those trucks go down Church Hill Road," she said, "it’s going to bring it all back.”

Saba Quraishi, 50, of Newtown, who lives across the street from Honan Funeral Home, which buried many of the children, watched last year as mourners streamed in and out, day after day. There were throngs of media on the sidewalk near her home.

“It was just incredibly heavy and depressing, and it was really difficult to do much,” she said. “It was paralyzing.”

Now when she looks out her window and sees people gather for a funeral, she remembers the funerals for the children.

“Basically, it is the visual imprinting that happens, and the trauma comes back a little bit, and we deal with it,” she said.

For Kevin Nash, 60, a Newtown resident for 18 years, the buzz of a helicopter can trigger a reminder of the massacre. It was the sound of helicopters that prompted him to turn on the television that morning and check the news.

“It’s still there, in the background,” he said of the shooting. “It’s something that’s not going away anytime soon.”

He said it hasn’t gotten much easier to deal with.

“It’s kind of like losing a member of your family,” Nash said. “You learn to live with it.”

Moving forward

Experts say residents are experiencing traumatic-stress reactions, which are normal after an incident like Sandy Hook. Having those experiences, they say, does not necessarily mean they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Dan Jones, director and chief psychologist at the Counseling and Psychological Services Center at Appalachian State University, who has helped war veterans and sexual-assault victims, said reminders of a traumatic event can last a lifetime.

“It usually diminishes over time, but sometimes you talk to people from World War II — they will tell you that there are things that bring back events all the way back to the war,” he said.

Charles Figley, a professor at Tulane University who is an expert on disaster mental health and has studied PTSD for decades, said people should embrace those memories and work to process them.

“I see the triggers not in a negative way,” Figley said. “The triggers indicate there’s more work to do. These scenes are gradually replaced by scenes that happened more recently.”

Upon being confronted with a traumatic event, he said, people should ask themselves questions, including, What happened? Why did it happen? When something like this happens again, will I be able to cope?

It helps to write down the answers and talk to others about it, he said.

“It’s a way of fully appreciating and taking advantage of these provocative scenes and memories they evoke,” he said.

A couple of years after a traumatic event, the memories are often “even more vivid,” he said, but “the emotional charge goes away.”

Just as there are stressful sights, others evoke a different feeling. Pavlidou Kyprianou said that when she sees the parents of the victims, she sees hope.

“They chose love over anger and despair,” she said, “and they are channeling it around town in unbelievable ways.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter