10 years after Sandy Hook, a family finds bits of joy amid shards of pain
At the new Sandy Hook Memorial reflection pool, Jen Hensel leans over a granite stone engraved with the name of her daughter, Avielle Richman.
"Avi," as she was called, was one of 20 first graders and six adults who were killed by a young man with an AR-15-style rifle on Dec. 14, 2012 — exactly a decade ago — in their elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Visiting on the day the memorial opened last month, Hensel's youngest, Owen, squats on the edge of the pool. In the center is a young sycamore tree symbolizing the young lives lost. The tree is surrounded by a ring of perpetually swirling water and a band of 26 granite stones engraved with the names of those killed.
Owen watches intently as 26 wreaths launched into the water that day float by.
"Is that one Avi's?" Owen asks Hensel again and again. When Avielle's wreath finally comes full circle, Owen and his sister Imogen jump to their feet and follow it around the pool.
Hensel's family of three is completely different from the one she had a decade ago. In the past 10 years, she's welcomed the births of Owen, now 6, and his big sister Imogen, 8. But in the same span, she has mourned the loss of not only her daughter Avielle, but also her husband, Jeremy Richman, who died by suicide in 2019.
Seeking 'bits of joy' amid the hurt
To Hensel, one of the big things about marking 10 years is making it 10 years.
"Yeah, we're here," she sighs. "I honestly think that's quite a remarkable accomplishment. I feel like I'm living again, which I wasn't for a really long time. And I needed to do that for my children."
It's a choice Hensel makes over and over again every day — to hone in amid her hurt on what she calls the bits of beauty. She finds them in things as mundane as the perfect foamy white top on her morning coffee — "Look!" she exclaims, "It's gorgeous!" And she finds them in moments more profound, like the way Imogen's smile and Owen's sense of humor remind her of Jeremy, or the way the two of them practice martial arts with the kind of grace that Jeremy did.
"When they're out there spinning around in the yard, I get to see Jeremy in this most beautiful way," she says. "I see Jeremy in the house all the time through them."
Hensel also catches glimpses of Avielle in the kids, in the way Imogen throws her hands on her hips in indignation or the way they share that same broad smile. And it warms Hensel's heart to see flashes of Avielle's creativity in the artwork still hanging up around the house.
But embedded in every such joy is perpetual pain. It's no longer the raw, relentless kind that made it hard to stand up 10 years ago, Hensel says. But it's still sharp enough to blindside you and bring you to your knees.
Hensel's dear friend Francine Wheeler, who also lost her 6-year-old, Ben, at Sandy Hook, agrees. They share an aversion to the word "closure" and bristle at the very idea of a "10th anniversary" — and the implied expectations around where they should be in the arc of their grief.
"To the rest of the world, it is definitely like, 'Wow! So much time has passed.' But to me. It's another f------ day that we don't get to have our kids," Wheeler says. "It's just another day. And we just keep moving forward the best we can."
But 10 years on, every step forward is also a step fraught.
The goodbyes aren't rushed
Owen's first day of kindergarten this year was Hensel's first time putting both her kids on the school bus, as she did with Avielle on that day Avi and so many others didn't come home.
As Owen raced around the yard and up a tree, full of excitement, Imogen counted out the beaded bracelets Hensel wears every year on the first day of school in memory of Avielle and her classmates, who would have been starting 11th grade this year.
"This one is for Ana Grace, this one is for Ben," Imogen pointed out before Hensel snapped a picture to send to the other moms, who share the tradition.
Moments later, the bus arrived and everyone trades hugs and goodbyes.
"Take care of your brother today," Hensel reminded Imogen as she scurried onto the bus behind Owen.
Transitions are hard for all of them.
"We all have attachment issues," Hensel says. "We had to build in protocols for how I say goodbye every day to them." That morning before school is typical; Hensel makes sure the goodbyes are not rushed, intentionally looking each of the kids in the eyes as she hugs and kisses them and wishes them a good day.
Hensel just recently started sharing a little more with Imogen about Avielle's death, explaining there was a man who was sick, who felt like he needed to hurt as many people as he could.
Eventually, Hensel says, the kids will understand the connection between the school shooting and their father's death, and how his grief overtook him.
But for now, Hensel keeps it simple, framing it as Jeremy himself saw things, in terms of "brain health"
"I said your dad died because his brain was sick. And he fought really hard with the good side of his brain to not let the sick side of his brain take over, but the sick side of his brain was very, very sick, and it caused his death."
Imogen's first question was whether the same thing might happen to her mom.
"I just hugged her and said, 'I see my doctor. I don't think my brain is going to get sick like that.' "
Grappling with the 'tragic irony' of Jeremy's death
Still, Hensel continues to struggle with how this happened to Jeremy.
As a neuroscientist, he devoted his life after the shooting to a foundation they set up in Avielle's honor to research the neurological underpinnings that make people more and less prone to violence.
Jeremy traveled the U.S. imploring audiences to "see violence as the disease that it is — a disease of the brain. It's a consequence of abnormal chemistry or structure." Through the foundation, he also offered what he called a kind of "brain health first-aid course," teaching people how to spot signs that someone might be at risk of hurting themselves or others, and how to intervene.
"In a time of crisis," Jeremy said, it's critical to be able to "reach into a toolbox and find something of meaning and value to you that you can then apply in your life." That was five days before he took his life.
"That's the tragic irony of all this," says Hensel. "It makes me angry, actually."
Because Jeremy was so familiar with the signs, she says, he knew how to cover them up. Even in retrospect, she says it's hard to connect the dots and to understand what was a symptom of his ongoing grief and exhaustion and what was a sign that he was at risk of suicide.
"He hid so much from us," Hensel says. "And when it was getting harder and harder and harder for him to hide it, he pushed the people closest to him away."
Including Hensel. Jeremy's suicide left her not only mourning her life's love and her "champion," as she put it, but also tortured by the "whys" and "what ifs" — just as she was when Avielle died.
"I was fighting for my life at this point," she recalls. "I was so desperate, so desperate for help."
Still doing the work to deal with grief
Hensel decided that just treating the symptoms of her trauma wasn't going to cut it for her and that she needed to treat the trauma itself. A scientist herself, she dug into the research on how psychotropic drugs like ketamine are being used to treat people with severe depression and PTSD. Last year, with a psychiatrist and a therapist, she started ketamine treatments, delving into the excruciating loss of Avielle and Jeremy, the guilt she felt at not being able to save either of them, the distress around having to live without the answers she craves, and the need to focus on herself.
"It was terrifying," she says, adding that it has helped enormously but with a lot of hard work.
"I'm still doing the work," she says. "It never stops."
Indeed, a moment later, as if on cue, a siren wails outside her house. Hensel stops talking mid-sentence and leans back in her seat.
"Sirens still get me," she says softly. "That's what it sounded like the day of the murders — just nonstop."
When it happens, Hensel says, she takes a moment to give a prayer to Avielle.
"I just give thanks for her that I had her for as long as I did. And I always apologized to her that I wasn't there. I say, 'I wasn't there, baby. I'm sorry.' "
It's a similar gut punch, she says, every time the nation suffers yet another mass shooting.
"I actually vomited the day I heard about Uvalde," she says, referring to the Robb Elementary School shooting in Texas that left 19 children and two teachers dead. "My whole trauma came rushing back to me, and I was just paralyzed."
Her friend Francine Wheeler can relate. "I was in bed for a couple days," she says.
It's exasperating, both women say, that their kids' murders didn't become that transformative moment that they hoped would finally compel the nation to do more to curb the scourge of gun violence. They were among the many Sandy Hook parents who started calling for tighter gun laws right after the shooting. Wheeler even sat in for then-President Barack Obama to deliver his weekly radio address.
"Help this be the moment when real change begins," she said on the broadcast, choking through her grief, still raw, just months after the shooting. "Please help us do something before our tragedy becomes your tragedy."
'We wanted the mile. We'll take the inch.'
Since that horrific day, nearly 2,000 more Americans have been killed or injured in mass shootings.
"That is one of the saddest pieces of history that our country will have to live with — that it didn't end. That Sandy Hook didn't matter enough," Hensel says.
Connecticut passed strict gun control legislation within months of Sandy Hook, but it would take nearly a decade for Congress to pass even modest new federal gun legislation. Signed into law in June, the federal measure expanded background checks for young people seeking to buy a gun, incentivized states to make it easier to take weapons temporarily from people deemed dangerous, and it added dating partners to the list of domestic abusers who can be denied a gun.
To Hensel, it was still too little, too long overdue. But when she was invited to the White House to celebrate the law, she went.
"We wanted the mile. We will take the inch," she says. "You have to give the moment what it is."
It was an emotional day, reuniting on the South Lawn of the White House with so many other parents she's come to know this past decade through their shared heartache. They locked eyes and embraced.
President Biden bellowed from a podium, enduring shouted criticism from some but insisting this was just the beginning.
"We finally moved that mountain, a mountain of opposition, obstruction and indifference that has stood in the way and stopped every effort at gun safety for 30 years in this nation," he said. "And now is the time to galvanize this movement, because that's our duty to the people of this nation."
At one point, Hensel retreated to the shade of the giant, centuries-old maple and oak trees on the edge of the South Lawn, seeking refuge from the summer sun. She ended up next to some of the members of the Unites States Marine Band. One of those guys seemed to get exactly where she was coming from.
"He said, 'How do you feel today?' " Hensel recalls. "The perfect question, right? How do you feel today? And I said, 'I feel good today.' And I said, 'Play something joyful for us.' "
Indeed they did. But as has been the rhythm of the past decade, such highs — and lows — quickly swing hard the other way.
Testifying against Alex Jones
In September, Hensel would be thrown even deeper into her grief, when she was called to testify at the defamation trial of Infowars conspiracy monger Alex Jones. The absurdist lies he spread that the Sandy Hook families were liars and the shooting a hoax meant to spur support for gun control tormented many people like Hensel and fueled relentless harassment by countless Jones acolytes.
Hoaxers flooded social media with crackpot conspiracy theories. They pirated and doctored families' old online posts to cast doubt on their losses. They even threatened to dig up one boy's grave.
"It would come at us like the floodgates were opening," Hensel testified through tears.
She told jurors how conspiracists hid in the bushes around her house, taking pictures they thought would help prove that grieving parents like her and Jeremy were just actors, and that the kids, like her sweet, spitfire Avielle, either never died or never actually existed in the first place.
"She was such a big presence," Hensel testified, sobbing. "How do you, how do you negate a presence? How do you do that? How do you do that?"
The ongoing harassment and intimidation, including calls to her home, compounded her grief.
"That continual noise of all of the people saying that we faked this and that it never happened" was unbearable, she told jurors. "It makes it hard to get out of bed every day. [It's] hard to just push that away."
After Jeremy died, Jones doubled down on his conspiracy theories, suggesting his death, too, was part of a plot. Hensel testified that hoaxers started showing up at Jeremy's grave. Still reeling from his death, Hensel hadn't yet managed to design and install his headstone, so they pounced on that and made videos at his grave intended to bolster their bogus stories.
"That was enough proof to say that [Jeremy] never died or that I was making this up," Hensel said on the stand.
Jones would later admit under oath that he knew the Sandy Hook shooting was real and that real people really did die. His trial ended in a jury award of nearly a billion dollars for Hensel and eight other plaintiffs.
"I was in shock, I couldn't stop shaking," Hensel said that day as she walked out of the courthouse.
Feeling vindicated, she said she hoped the verdict would send a message.
"The idea behind all this was to stop him," Hensel said. "This is not OK to be doing this, [or to be making money] off the blood of innocent children who are murdered, and their teachers. The abuse that we have suffered over the past 10 years is overwhelming."
Imploring people to face the horror of gun violence
It's unclear how much money the families will ever collect, but it'd be poetic justice, Hensel says, to invest some of it into projects like the brain health research being done by The Avielle Initiative (formerly The Avielle Foundation) or Ben's Lighthouse, the program set up by Francine and David Wheeler in their son's honor to help foster kids' social and emotional wellbeing, or the many other groups set up by other parents.
"It's time to do the work," Hensel says. "The mass shootings aren't stopping. They're getting worse."
Ten years out, it's hard to accept that public focus has long since moved on from Sandy Hook, Hensel and Wheeler say. It's precisely why they're willing put themselves through the pain of pouring their hearts out so publicly.
As Jeremy often said, change will come only when more people are willing to face the unvarnished horror of gun violence. He was endlessly frustrated by the many, many people who would always say, "I can't imagine what you're going through."
"I want people to hear the reality of it," he told NPR in 2018. "A child was killed. She was brutally blown apart with a large gun."
"You can imagine it. You have to imagine it," he implored one of his many audiences that year. "You can't back down."
A decade after Jeremy started making that plea, Hensel and the Wheelers are doing what they can to pick up where he left off, beseeching people not to turn away from the horror, but to face it.
"Be brave! We need you here," says Wheeler. "You must, you must, you must. Because it could be you."
"It's not just us," Hensel nods. "There's going to be a threshold when every one of us is going be directly affected, and soon."
A permanent reminder of lives and death
The new Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial also serves to bear witness to the magnitude of the tragedy, with its "sacred sycamore" standing as a poignant reminder of the lives lost.
"Oh my god, I just sat there bawling," said Pam Pietrafesa, who came from nearby Fairfield, Conn., to reflect at the memorial shortly after it opened.
"All these little lives lost so tragically," she said, still sobbing as she walked up one of several winding paths from the memorial. The walkways are meant to represent the different paths people take in their grieving, with different directions, slopes, speeds, twists and turns. The area is surrounded by flowers and woodlands. After the leaves fall, as they will every year by Dec. 14, visitors can see the rebuilt Sandy Hook school through the trees, and hear the life now emanating from it.
"When the kids come out on recess, you can hear the kids," Pietrafesa said. "You hear their little voices. It touched me deeply."
A decade on, Hensel celebrates the small wins
The new Sandy Hook school is still a place Hensel avoids. She sends her kids to a different school. But over the past 10 years, she has managed some other triumphs over her trauma.
She no longer has to take a detour to avoid passing the Sandy Hook firehouse, where she waited in agony for hours, only to learn that her daughter was one of the 26 murdered.
And for the first time, she finally managed to take Imogen to see the Rockettes' Christmas Spectacular in New York City, the same show she was supposed to take Avielle to see on the day Avi died.
And it's no small feat that this year, both Hensel and Wheeler are preparing to not just endure the holidays, but embrace them.
"Yeah! We're actually decorating Christmas stuff," Wheeler says to Hensel. "That's a miracle. I like doing that stuff now!"
"Me too! It is different," Hensel replies. "I'm going to ... pull the tree up today."
One of the gifts Imogen and Owen will find under the tree is a digital picture frame filled with memories of their dad, cooking dinner or making goofy faces.
As has been the case every day for a decade now, the holiday will bring bits of joy and shards of pain. Hensel and the kids will make cookies for Santa, and for Avielle and Jeremy. And as has become their tradition, they'll light two candles today, to mark Dec. 14, that will stay lit through Dec. 25.
One light for Jeremy, who's not been with them for the past three Christmases, and one for Avielle, who's not been there for the past 10.
If you or someone you know might be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. For suicide prevention resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, click here.
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