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Orders of Grief

Chuck Herrick  

But there is another group that Herrick’s committee also hoped to take into account. These are the twelve children in the two classrooms who survived—one little girl in Lauren Rousseau’s class and eleven children in Victoria Soto’s, six of whom survived by running as the shooter reloaded his gun. These kids have been called “survivors” and are also known as “the twelve.” One person I spoke to heard the following version of that morning from a 7-year-old girl: The bad man shot my friend. And then he shot my other friend. And then he stopped, and I took my friend’s hand, and we slipped in blood, and we bumped into the bad man, and we ran and ran and ran and ran. They found their way to a neighbor’s house, where he discovered them, sitting in the driveway and crying and reportedly saying the most unbelievable things. “We can’t go back to school.” “He had a big gun and a little gun.” And: “There was blood in her mouth and she fell to the ground.”

The parents of the twelve were, with the two and the relatives of the 26, initially part of “the 40,” but they have since seceded, forming a separate and nearly impenetrable clan. They are estranged from the 26; they rarely speak to the press. Their kids saw unimaginable things, and the parents are protective above all, worrying about nightmares now and PTSD and behavior problems down the road. But as the town began to weigh and measure degrees of grief, the parents of the twelve saw that in their plight was a horrible paradox and found themselves unable or unwilling to fight very hard for their share of the funds. Their children may have to cope forever with the memory of what they saw. But at least they can be kissed good night.

To describe the way grief afflicted the town, many people invoke the metaphor of concentric circles, the ripples created by a rock in a lake. At the center are the 26, and then the two and the twelve. Beyond that are all the teachers and children who made it out alive, including the children of Robert Bazuro, who skipped school on the 14th in order to honor their uncle, who had recently died. “I feel that my brother saved the lives of my children,” says Bazuro.

Then there are the cops, and the firefighters, and the EMTs. There are all the people connected to the people at the school that day: parents, grandparents, cousins, and friends. There are scoutmasters, camp counselors, coaches, pastors, and clerks: the lady at the checkout with a special fondness for a certain kid she’d been saying hi to since he learned to walk.

Herrick and his colleagues on the steering committee believed that the needs in Newtown would be great, and that they would be unforeseen. They talked to folks in Columbine, Colorado. They talked to folks at Virginia Tech and in Oklahoma City. They learned about the slow unraveling that occurs in a community after an event like this, the rise in divorce, spousal abuse, alcoholism, teenage truancy and drug use. They thought that while some of the $11 million might go to the victims’ families, to help them start to heal, some could be used as insurance against such outcomes, to pay for mental-health support and other kinds of preventive services. They saw themselves as the most conservative type of guardians, hoping “to prepare,” as Herrick put it to me, “for the long term.” In an audit this summer, the Connecticut attorney general acknowledged to Kim Morgan and Chuck Herrick that the foundation had not violated donor intent—of the 20,000 envelopes and cards the A.G. inspected, only 1,373 were addressed to the families. But he also slapped their wrists for mishandling the process: “I am, however, concerned,” he wrote. Poor communication by the board “facilitated the misunderstandings about and inaccurate public information related to the fund.”

Until June, families were allowed to schedule walks through Sandy Hook Elementary School with police escort, and, just before the school was shuttered for good, Cristina Lafferty-­Hassinger, daughter of the slain principal, Dawn Hochsprung, took the police up on their standing offer. Cristina, who is 29 and has four young children, lives in Oakville, a 30-minute drive from Newtown, and had never seen her mother’s workplace. Her mother was fierce, a fighter, and Cristina was having trouble getting a picture of that morning right in her mind; her stepfather, George, came along for moral support. Together, they stopped at the spot where Dawn was gunned down. “I know she didn’t have time to think,” George said later. “But if she did have time, she would have said, ‘Look at you, you scrawny little shit. I could take you.’ ” On the edge of her bathroom sink on the day I visited Cristina, there was a green rubber bracelet of the Livestrong variety. It said WWDD: WHAT WOULD DAWN DO?