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Orders of Grief

Monsignor Robert Weiss  

After the shooting, the media became enamored of Newtown’s quaintness, but until that day, whatever “small town” feeling the town possessed was, the townspeople say, mythological. Sandy Hook is officially part of Newtown—governed by the same town council and part of the same school system—but it is a distinct and separate place. Newtown’s center is ­picture-perfect New England, grand houses settled around a flag. Old-timers remember Sandy Hook as where the riffraff used to live—I heard a legend about a Hells Angels shooting where a guy got his face blown off in front of what’s now Sandy Hook Wine & Liquor—and other than that, it was pasture, “more cows and horses than people,” as Brian Mauriello, who grew up in Newtown, likes to say.

Over the past twenty years, though, ­Sandy Hook has grown into a very ordinary exurb: big houses, bigger lots, curvy roads, and cul-de-sacs. It’s an appealing home for busy professionals, attracted by the real estate and public schools. They work in Hartford, Danbury, Armonk, Stamford, and Manhattan, and at the hedge funds in lower Fairfield County. Until “12/14,” it was a place where busy people watched television after a long day, where parents sending their children to the same school might remain strangers for years. Over lunch at her ­dining-room table, Francine Wheeler told me she can’t count the number of people who approached her after her 6-year-old son, Ben, died in his first-grade classroom to say these kinds of things: “I’ve lived down the street from you for years; I’ve seen you playing outside with your boys; I’ve always been meaning to meet you.”

The tragedy changed the tenor of Newtown, drawing people out of their cocoons and propelling them to something beyond neighborliness. It wasn’t just the meals and the home visits, the endless prayers and letters and offers of help. And it wasn’t just that people started to use their turn signals at the crazy intersection by the flagpole or that they continue to pay it forward at the local Starbucks. It was a kind of solidarity that you see among veterans: When a group of family members helped to draft legislation suppressing crime-scene photos, support in town was nearly unanimous. And when one of the murdered children has a birthday, word often gets around. On the day that Jack Pinto would have turned 7, all the kids in town went to school in their sports jerseys, having organized the tribute themselves.

Herrick and his fellow board members had initially faced two questions: first, how to calculate disbursements to the grieving, which meant drawing lines around groups of victims and prioritizing their grief. And second, how to weigh the immediate pain of the bereaved against the future (and unknown) needs of the town. The fund’s steering committee spoke early on to Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney who after 9/11 found his calling advising municipalities and families on the best way to collect and distribute funds in the event of a mass shooting or terrorist event.

Feinberg’s method is bloodlessly simple: Create one independent fund. Collect as much money as you can in a short period of time. Figure out who the victims are and develop an algorithm for distribution, stipulating that such a calculus will never be fair. Distribute the money quickly, and shut the fund down. Feinberg believes subjective measures of victimhood, like “need” or “entitlement,” should never be part of any such accounting. “Don’t send in your tax returns or tell us how much you have in the bank. We’re not going to say Johnny’s death is worth more than Mary’s death,” Feinberg told me. “Money is a poor substitute for loss. That’s it.”

But the situation in Newtown didn’t subject itself to such cold, actuarial analysis, the board felt. When Adam Lanza opened fire, he hurt everyone in town. As Herrick said, “It’s two degrees of separation.” And unlike in Boston, or Aurora, or in New York City after the 9/11 attacks, where grief could dissipate over a large geographic area or among a great many people, the grief in Newtown was exponentially more concentrated. Here, if you were the relative of a victim, you had many comrades in grief. And your neighbors, who were grieving, too, often expressed their pain in conflicting ways.

Adam Lanza took 40 victims, a number most—but not all—people in town agree on. He shot and killed twenty first-graders in two classrooms. Those are the victims most have focused on, often called, simply, “angels.” Reports say Lanza made eye contact with the children; some of them nestled in their teachers’ arms as he murdered them. Jesse Lewis yelled “run” before he was shot, his mother, Scarlett, says; reports say Noah Pozner was shot eleven times, losing his jaw and his left hand. There were also adult victims, whose deaths have received less attention: Lauren Rousseau and Victoria Soto, the first-grade teachers; two teacher’s aides; the school psychologist; and the principal. In Newtown, the dead make up the first tier of victims: the 26. Over time, that number came to describe not just the victims of Lanza’s massacre but their immediate families, too. These and two people who were wounded would receive compensation under a Feinberg-type plan.