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Orders of Grief

Among the families of the 26, there are a few who became full-time warriors, and Lafferty-Hassinger is one of these. She believes that she has been freer than members of other families to agitate against the United Way, because she does not live in Newtown and is thus protected from the judgment of her neighbors. In February, she had discovered that families were being asked to fill out paperwork to claim any emergency funds (held separately from the $11 million), a fact she found outrageous. Many of the 26 families had still not gone back to work; some were still not getting out of bed. “One of the families said they’d rather lose their house than go hat in hand and go begging,” she told me. On February 25, she posted the following message to her Facebook page: “The United Way of Western Connecticut gallantly stepped up to manage the influx of donations, but who are they really helping? They offered their trusted name to evoke confidence from eager donors, but more than two months later the victims’ families are being asked for proof of hardship before even the smallest disbursement is issued. Proof of hardship?”

Many in town found the public fights about money distasteful. One person told me the phrase “embarrassment of riches” came to mind. In March, Monsignor Weiss told a reporter for the Hartford Courant that the $11 million must not become a “perverted lottery” for the bereaved.

But Cristina doesn’t really care what people think of her, and she doesn’t believe that grieving people ought to face judgment for simply claiming what’s theirs. She quotes Tom Teves, a new friend who lost his 24-year-old son in the Aurora theater shooting: “If I want to gamble my $200,000 away at a Vegas casino, who cares? My son is dead—it’s none of your business.” A lot of the families agreed with her, Cristina told me, but felt inhibited to speak. “They don’t want to walk into the grocery store and have someone whispering, ‘They’re asking for money because their kid died.’ ”

“The process of grieving is as individual as your fingerprint,” Francine’s husband, David Wheeler, told me. Many of the 26 will not speak to the press. Some of them are on TV all the time. Scarlett Lewis was on the Today show last week, and as she sat there waiting to talk to Matt Lauer, she thought, This is so surreal that at times your brain just explodes. The 26 may be a fractious group, but those I spoke to defend one another’s right to be idiosyncratic—ugly, compassionate, silent, loving, selfish, spiritual, depressed—in their grief. There are also those who feel Sandy Hook Promise has claimed too large a role for itself. And there are those in town who discount Lafferty-­Hassinger’s persistent agitating as a symptom of her deeper, broader anger. “It is hard,” Morgan says, “to argue with someone who is suffering.”

After the April meeting, under pressure from the governor’s office, the board announced that it would not disburse the funds a little bit at a time, as it had planned, but in one lump payment of $7.7 million. And Ken Feinberg was invited to Newtown to advise the board and meet with the families.

Still, the families were unsatisfied. At a meeting over the summer, when some of them queried the board how it arrived at the $7.7 figure, Second Selectman Will Rodgers pushed back. The families were lucky to be getting anything, Rodgers suggested, according to people who were there. (When asked about his comments, Rodgers says he was speaking about the possibility that other organizations less committed to victims’ compensation could have taken control of the fund early on, and that this recollection takes his comments out of context.) In August, each of the 26 received a check for $281,000. The two got $75,000 each. And the twelve got $20,000.

Some in town believe that the twelve were shortchanged. I raise the issue with Lafferty-Hassinger. Don’t these kids, who have been through so much, deserve the benefit of a safety net? She responds with a quip she has heard among the 26. “Okay, it sucks. You only got $20,000. Want to trade?”

Ben Wheeler appears to his mother in dreams. Recently, ­Francine says, “he just came and hugged and kissed me. I said, ‘Oh, no, it’s a dream. Is it going to turn into a nightmare?’ But no, he just kept hugging and kissing me.” Early on, in January, she had a dream that she rode an elevator all the way down, and when the door opened, Ben was there. “Mama,” he told her. “I’m so happy. I’m loved. I’m okay. I’m so happy. I’m okay.” And then, “Don’t let them trademark you, Mama.”