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Orders of Grief

The Wheelers are among the most active of the Newtown ­families. In January, David Wheeler gave passionate testimony before the Connecticut State Legislature. In April, the Wheelers stood by the president in Hartford as he pressured Congress to pass gun-control legislation. Just before the vote, Obama handed his weekly video address to David and Francine, who wept as she remembered her son, who wanted to be an architect and also a paleontologist. In May, the Wheelers did a long interview with Bill Moyers, both of them breaking down when David mentioned December 13, the day before the day their lives became unrecognizable to them.

The Wheelers’ very public displays of grief are incomprehensible to some, though Francine says their outspokenness is a way to make connections with others and continue being good parents to both of their sons—to Ben, who died, and to Nate, who is 10. If they can change the politics of gun violence by telling their story, she believes, they can save lives. But David, formerly an actor, now a graphic designer, always looks devastated, with basset-hound bags beneath his eyes. Francine’s face is more motile, sparkling one minute, crumpled the next.

It’s not so hard to be public in public, the Wheelers tell me. They’re both performers; it’s only natural, says David, that trauma would force them back into comfortable roles. It’s much, much harder to have to be public all the time, Francine explains—in Newtown, the families of the 26 carry the celebrity of all tragic figures. Everyone in town knows their names and the names and faces of their dead; they are perpetually exposed, even in their everyday routines. There are three groceries in town, but Francine likes Caraluzzi’s best, and she has a hard time there, even now, because she visited so frequently with Benny. She would let him loose in the aisles, to the annoyance of the other shoppers. It is horrible, she says, to have to break down in a place where everyone knows exactly who you are, and what, exactly, happened to your kid. “My greatest need of strangers is to treat me like a stranger.”

Stories circulate among the 26 of those who, in stabs at empathy, have said entirely the wrong thing: “Move on,” or “This too shall pass,” or “Will you hug me for me?” The rest of the town, even those very close to the grieving, find themselves on eggshells, constantly worried they’ll misspeak, or misstep. Nelba Márquez-Greene can feel how much other people in town want her to be better. “We are the face of every parent’s nightmare,” she says. But nothing makes her feel better. “I feel terrible, and I’m giving myself permission to say I feel terrible.” She is a tiny, neat person, with a dispassionate way of talking, and is working for Sandy Hook Promise now, busily giving keynote speeches and a TED talk, but the idea that her work life might console her, or ease her pain, is laughable. It’s as if, she tells me evenly, you needed a liver transplant and someone came up and gave you a heart.

Every day, Francine Wheeler makes a list of the things she’s grateful for, and she always includes her morning coffee. Around her neck, she wears a tiny picture of Ben in a tiny square frame and a silver pendant in the shape of a treble clef. When I admire it, she tells me that Ben’s ashes are enclosed in the necklace. “He had perfect pitch,” she says.

When I visit them at home, David shows me his amulets, too, more ashes in a pendant, a bracelet of green agate, another one, on a leather thong, strung by Ben’s counselor at camp. But by three o’clock, the Wheelers are distracted. Nate is due home from school, and they’re listening with all their nerve endings for the squeak of the bus. Nate was at Sandy Hook Elementary School on 12/14 as well. When he arrives, on time, he shows his parents the new Guinness book he got that day at school. He has his brother’s ashes in a pendant, too.

In October, a coalition of gun groups announced that it was declaring the first anniversary of the shooting “Guns Save Lives Day.” Pat Llodra, the first selectman, was flinty in her response. “We will not host a political rally of any stripe on that day and we hope that all such inclined persons understand that they and their agenda are not welcome. We ask for privacy and expect that all caring folks, including the media, will accommodate us.” And then, like the schoolteacher she used to be, she added the unveiled threat of her own judgment: “Those persons … who choose not to accede to our request … show the world their own personal and ethical fiber.”