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Orders of Grief

Favorite Things
Newtown parents on the objects their children cherished.

As grief settled on the town, so did money. Cash poured in from everywhere, arriving in envelopes addressed to no one. To Newtown. The town of Newtown. The families of Newtown. There were stories of cheerleaders, having sponsored fund-­raisers, walking around with $30,000 in their pockets. A guidance counselor at Newtown High School reportedly opened the mail to find $1,000 in cash. Around the country, people sold ribbons, bracelets, cupcakes, and sent in the proceeds, five and ten dollars at a time. The Davenport West honor society in Iowa sent in a check for $226.69, and the parents of a 3-year-old named Lillian sent $290.94, donations from her birthday party. According to the Connecticut attorney general, about $22 million has flooded the town since December 14, finding its way into about 70 different charities set up in the wake of the massacre. Very quickly, the matter of disbursing these funds became something else, a proxy fight over how to evaluate grief.

Foundations were created in the names of nearly every victim: an animal shelter for Catherine Hubbard; an autism fund in the name of Dylan Hockley. But there were other funds, started by others in town moved by the tragedy, whose priorities occasionally collided: A handful of gun-­control groups were launched, each endeavoring to claim distinction, in a town where Democrats hunt for fun. Rob Cox and a group of friends who play Frisbee together launched Sandy Hook Promise, a moderate gun-control group that also provides family support; the Newtown Action Alliance is a political-advocacy group; and United Physicians of Newtown, started by doctors, focuses on public health. From their kitchen table, the Accomandos launched My Sandy Hook Family Fund to help the victims’ families cope with the immediate aftermath; within the first month, they raised a million dollars to help parents pay the bills and organized volunteers to cook dinner, make airport runs, shovel driveways, iron shirts. The Rotary Club raised money, and so did the Lions Club. “We have become a town of activists,” says Arguello, a pediatrician and a founder of the doctors’ group.

The biggest fund by far was the one set up by 9 p.m. the day of the attack, under the auspices of the United Way of Western Connecticut. By April, it held $11 million, and local psychiatrist Chuck Herrick was named president of the board of the fund, a position that has made him one of the most unpopular men in town. It was Herrick, along with a handful of others, who had to help calculate the disbursements to the parents of murdered children, and who had to defend those calculations when the bereaved accused the United Way of being unfair, insensitive, condescending, elitist, paternalistic and, in a mantra recited by the grieving, of “raising money on the backs of our dead.”

The tension between the families and the United Way reached its first peak in the spring. On April 9, in a letter sent to the families with a press release attached, Kim Morgan, the CEO of the United Way of Western Connecticut, explained that the board had decided to make an “initial” payout of $4 million. E-mails instantly flew among the families. How did they come up with the $4 million figure (less than half the full amount)? Why was it taking so long to decide what to do with the money? Why should they, the grieving and bereft, entrust this process to a disembodied board, comprising, as the Newtown Patch website said, “local dignitaries”: Herrick; Monsignor Robert Weiss, the Catholic priest; a lawyer; a prominent business owner; and a former town finance officer. Didn’t the money belong to them? “This is when it will get cutthroat,” a commenter on the Patch predicted.

On April 11, Morgan, Herrick, and the rest of the board met with 30 or more family members in an auxiliary room at St. Rose of Lima Church, the enormous Catholic church in town. Chairs were arranged in a circle, remembers one participant, and in a tense exchange, families asked questions. It had been four months, one parent complained. The drawn-out process was adding pain to their pain. What about people who hadn’t been able to get back to work and really needed money right now? asked another. Above all, some expressed fury that the board was making unilateral decisions regarding money they felt was intended for them. The board was less sure. The donations had not been made with a stated purpose, they said, and the fund had been designed from the outset to compensate the victims, yes, but also the community at large. That $11 million reflected a nation’s sympathy, the parents answered; at whom was that sympathy directed if not at them? “Some people were shouting, and some people were crying. It was all pretty new,” says that family member. A few mothers ran out of the room.