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Orders of Grief

As mourning came to Newtown, so did an outpouring of sympathy and money. Which has sometimes made the mourning even harder.

A memorial in Newtown, Connecticut.  

For weeks, nobody slept. On the first night after the shootings in December, Raul Arguello lay awake in his bed in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, listening to the sirens coming from the direction of his daughters’ school. His children, thank God, were warm and breathing under his roof, but the sirens reminded him that bodies—twenty of them first-­graders—were being taken from the building under the cover of darkness and brought somewhere, maybe the morgue. The next day, in their large, comfortable house on a high hill, Robert and Debora Accomando made meatballs and spaghetti sauce for all the families, feeling that it was the least they could do; one of the murdered boys had been on the same wrestling team as their son. Twenty minutes down the highway, in Waterbury, Lisa Brown was riveted to the cable news. Ten years earlier, her own daughter had died, suddenly, of an asthma attack, and now she felt the parents’ pain like a hole in her own heart. Lisa heard her daughter that first night telling her what to do: Raise $15,000 to buy a bronze angel, and donate it to the town in honor of the dead.

It was ten days before Christmas; the gift-giving ­season was in full swing. And so the outpouring began. The governor and the news crews came at once; the president arrived on Sunday. By the ­following Thursday, the town assessor, Christopher Kelsey, had an ­additional job, which was to sort, catalogue, and store all the stuff that well-wishers were sending, unbidden. The quantity was astonishing: 63,780 teddy bears by Good Friday; 636 boxes of toys; 2,200 boxes of school supplies. Backpacks, bicycles, and paper products, much of it tissues from Walmart. “Tissues seemed to be popular. There was a lot of crying going on. Tissues made sense.” Kelsey found a spare warehouse and, with the help of a crew from the Seventh-day Adventist church, led an army of sifters and sorters. Five hundred and eighty volunteers spent hour upon hour separating iTunes gift cards from Starbucks cards. Every item earmarked for the families went into huge, pallet-size boxes upon which victims’ family names were printed. Soto, Lewis, Barden, Hubbard. Books, cards, angels, Christmas-tree ornaments. Charm bracelets bearing a particular name.

Children have not been to school at Sandy Hook Elementary since the morning of December 14. The community recently voted to raze the school and erect a new one in its place—the demolition has begun—but this past December, it was where everyone wanted to be, and an enormous shrine grew up in the grassy space by the road, spreading down the main street and into the central intersection of Sandy Hook, by the Subway shop and the hair-cutting place, a seemingly boundless jumble of flowers and cards and signs and votive candles and more stuffed animals and more Christmas trees and more ornaments and angels. “Someone would put a teddy bear down, and all of a sudden there would be, I don’t know, twelve bouquets of flowers and a partridge in a pear tree,” David Brooker, a local artist, told me. A crew from out of town appeared one day with tents to erect atop the offerings, and Kelsey strung utility lights, so the constant pilgrims could at least see their way.

The residents of Sandy Hook were both overwhelmed by the world’s attention and infuriated by it. Shrines, news trucks, and tour buses filled with well-wishers clogged the town’s arteries so much the place became virtually unrecognizable. You couldn’t drive anywhere; you couldn’t park. The writer Renata Adler, who has lived in Newtown for 35 years, told me she got lost on the way to the post office.

“You’d pick up the phone,” says Patrick Kinney, a PR man on loan to manage the influx of offers, “and it might be a quilter in Appalachia” looking to donate a blanket she’d made with 26 appliquéd angels. “Or it might be Quincy Jones.” On the night of the shooting, Harry Connick Jr. drove to Newtown from wherever he was to keep company with the family of Ana Grace Márquez-Greene; her father, Jimmy, had played in Harry’s band. Giants receiver Victor Cruz paid a visit to the family of Jack Pinto, who had been buried in his Cruz jersey. James Taylor gave an invitation-only ­concert at a church in Bethel nearby; up front, as Taylor sang “Sweet Baby James,” sat the Mattiolis. James was the name of their 6-year-old son.

The goodwill of the world descended on Newtown, yet the people there received it in unequal measure. The Bethel church holds only 850, which in a town of 28,000 meant some who felt that the tragedy affected them were excluded from the concert. There were trips on Air Force One, but only for the family members who would lobby lawmakers for new gun laws; there were 4,000 free tickets to a July Yankees game, an amazing boon, but 4,000 is less than a fifth of the town. NASCAR memorialized the Sandy Hook victims with a special car at the Daytona 500, and the fire chief who had stayed outside Sandy Hook Elementary that morning had the honor of unveiling it, not the police chief, who had entered the school.