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Orders of Grief

This is the question before the town now: how to lay claim to an uncertain future, to move forward without moving on, and build unity among the various factions. What is an acceptable tribute? What is too much? Some locals have told me that, when out in the world, they try not to say the name of the place they live; “Newtown” evokes in outsiders such horror. “This is a good town,” says Arguello, the pediatrician. “We don’t want to be remembered just for that day.”

Monsignor Weiss has a hunch that the future of Newtown will not include him. Pastor of St. Rose for fourteen years, he is haunted, he says, by the memory of crunching glass under his shoes, for when he approached the school that day, a police officer asked if he cared to enter and give the children a blessing, and he declined. “It gets me,” he says, beginning to cry. “I said, ‘You know what? These children don’t need a blessing. They are with the Lord already.’ ” He turned around and went back to the firehouse, feeling that the living needed him more.

But that memory, and the eight funerals he performed in five days, and self-doubt over his leadership these past months continue to torment him. He never wanted to be the face of the town, he says, the small-town priest consoling his decimated flock. But walking away from the firehouse late that first day, he was mobbed by reporters, and “all of a sudden,” he says, “you find yourself talking to Katie Couric.” He’s chronically ill now; his digestion is shot; he can barely control his emotions. “I feel like I’m a museum piece. Everywhere I go, people stare at me. I think I make people uncomfortable.” Friends in the priesthood are counseling him to save his health and find another post or another parish, and he is taking their advice seriously. “Every time I stand at the pulpit, I wonder, Am I a reminder of 12/14?

Llodra has taken a different approach. Petite, blonde, and 71, she had been in her mayorlike position for three years and was getting ready to retire when Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary. The events of 12/14 forced her into a role she could hardly have imagined and to which, by most accounts, she magnificently rose: She was the sensible, compassionate den mother to a collection of people screaming in pain and acting out, as people do, in anger and selfishness and love. It was Llodra’s idea to ask the wrecking crews at the school to sign stringent nondisclosure agreements such that no photos of the interior ever appear online and that no souvenirs from the school ever show up on eBay. She re­deployed her staff to cope with the influx of goods and visitors; she tried to smooth relations between the families and the board. In the waiting room to her office on the day I was there hung the green sign that has become the hopeful mantra of so many: WE ARE SANDY HOOK. WE CHOOSE LOVE. (Some I spoke to rolled their eyes at the phrase, knowing how fractious the town has been.) She introduced the metaphor “sacred soil” to describe the shrines she cleaned up last winter, a deft bit of wordsmithery that allowed the entire town to feel good about turning a nation’s love into compost. Llodra is a pull yourself up, brush yourself off kind of person, and now, she feels, enough is enough.

“It’s not all about the victims,” she told me during an interview in her office. “It could have been any one of these children. By ­happenstance, he turned left instead of right.” Newtown must not become absorbed in its own victimhood, she believes. It must “grow through that specialness and not become the thing that defines them.” In July, Llodra announced on her blog that the town would no longer be hosting special events. And last month, as the anniversary approached, she asked well-wishers to keep their gift-giving impulses in check and to express their generosity through other means.

For many people in Newtown, the killing of those 6- and 7-year-olds resurrected the pain of previous trauma or loss. In interviews, I heard about the death of a brother in a car crash; the near death of a child; an attempted rape; a gunshot wound. Llodra is one of these. Four years ago, she lost her 42-year-old daughter ­Sharon, and Llodra believes that her own experience with grief helped her understand the incomparable suffering of losing a child. Many in Newtown, she believes, have been like families stuck in the initial phase after a death, when the women with casseroles are still coming by to stock the freezer. The next phase is harder, and more personal, but necessary. “I would give anything to have my daughter back,” she told me, “but I like who I am now better than who I was then.”

Llodra is no longer planning to retire. She has a lot of things to do: resolve the acrimony around Fairfield Hills, the campus of the dilapidated psychiatric hospital in town, which is now the focus of a development fight. Manage the issue of armed guards in the local schools, on which the town remains divided. And, of course, rebuild Sandy Hook Elementary School. The 400 Sandy Hook kids have taken over an empty school building in Monroe, ten miles away; parents are complaining about the length of the bus ride and the stress on their kids. Once again, Llodra is in the position of having to acknowledge generosity without bowing before it. Monroe has been great, but “these are our kids,” she says. She wants Newtown to become again what she knows it can be: a place where there are great schools, and playgrounds, and where parents on the sidelines of sports events, she says, can be overheard “crabbing about taxes.”