Discover how one Sandy Hook shooting victim’s parent is healing after tragedy
By Scarlett Lewis
After my son Jesse died at Sandy Hook Elementary School a year ago, I did what my heart told me to do.
I learned a lesson in Bible school that has stayed with me. Matthew asked Jesus how many times he should forgive, and Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but 77 times.” I’ve tried to live by that—I have forgiven a lot in my life. In fact, I forgave everyone, deserved or not, because that’s what I was supposed to do.
But that teaching was tested one year ago, when my beautiful, precious little boy, Jesse, along with 19 other first graders and six teachers and administrators, were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School by a disturbed young man who mercilessly gunned them down in the hallways and classrooms.
A mother’s worst nightmare
When I heard about the shooting, I raced to the firehouse where the children were evacuated. I said to myself over and over, “Nothing could happen to Jesse. He’s fine. He is fine.” I watched tearful and relieved reunion after reunion between parents and other children from Jesse’s school. No sign of Jesse. I waited for hours, along with many others, hoping that Jesse might have been hiding somewhere in the building, or even the woods.
As time went on, reality and a sense of dread began to sink in. My son JT, who was in middle school, joined me and Jesse’s father at the firehouse (I am a single parent). I sat across from JT in our folding chairs, my arms wrapped around his shoulders, our knees touching. I prayed for the words to comfort him. Somehow, they came out: I told him that even if something had happened to Jesse—maybe even the worst and he had been killed—that he was in heaven and that he was fine now. I told him that we were going to be OK too.
He looked up into my eyes, and with tears streaming down his face he asked me, how I could say that? It wasn’t going to be OK and we would never be OK. I took his face in my hands and said, “We are going to be OK.” And at that moment, weeping myself, I knew we would be.
Finally, after hours of waiting, a doctor came up to us and knelt down on one knee. “There is no easy way to say this. Your son is dead,” he said. All I could do was hold on to JT’s hand. I had to be strong for him. Our family, who’d traveled to Connecticut from all over to wait with us at the firehouse, embraced us. I felt a moment of gratitude because I realized I still had JT and we could strengthen each other.
Leaning on family
JT and I were numb when we went back to my mother’s house with my family for the night. Thankfully my stepfather gave me a sleeping pill and JT and I fell asleep together. My family took care of the press and the FBI’s midnight visit, confirming Jesse’s death.
The next morning when I woke up, I began to say the prayer I say every morning, which starts by thanking God for all my blessings. That’s when reality struck like electricity shooting through my body. Jesse. I had this out-of-control adrenaline feeling, like right before a car accident—but it lasted for weeks. The sensation was so unbelievably horrifying that I felt as if I could disintegrate. I also felt a seething hatred for Adam Lanza, the man who murdered my son.
At the same time, though, I knew that force of hatred was the same emotion that contributed to Jesse’s death, and so many others’. Deep down I was aware that I had to get past my anger somehow, in order to access my grief for Jesse.
Over time, facts started coming out about Adam and his mother, Nancy. The pair lived alone in Newtown. Adam may have been bullied as a child, and he had emotional issues and was isolated. He reportedly hadn’t spoken to his father in two years. Nancy, who was a single mom, found a common interest with her son in target shooting. She did this presumably as a way to bond with him.
To my eyes, there was enough similarity between our lives and the Lanzas’ that I couldn’t help but feel that we weren’t much different. I could understand, as a single mother myself, how hard it might have been for Nancy. I have also dealt with severe emotional issues within my own family and I know how difficult it can be to obtain help for someone who is legally an adult, as Adam was. That gave me a base from which to work toward forgiving the Lanzas.
And truthfully, the fact that both mother and son were dead helped me move into forgiveness more easily than if they had survived and I had to see them in the media every day. Any mistakes Nancy made, she ultimately paid a price for them.
But the biggest factor in my forgiving Jesse’s killer was making an affirmative decision to put them behind me and focus on moving forward, for myself and for JT. I did not want to become stuck in a revolving door of anger and hatred.
It’s funny how the mind works, though. I spent a lot of time and thought figuring out how to forgive Adam and his mother. But I realized that to find peace, there was another person I had to forgive: myself. For months after Jesse died, regret crept in—thoughts of things I should or should not have done. Like a time-out I gave Jesse one day—it was questionable whether he deserved it but I gave it to him anyway. Or how I snapped at him one morning because the pants I had just bought him were too small and I couldn’t button them and I was irritated and I was late for work. Not his fault.
My mind would swirl with these ideas and torture me endlessly. I consciously tried to replace the regrets with memories of good things that I did do and correct choices that I did make. I had to forgive myself the universal transgression of not being a perfect mother. This gave me some peace and the internal fortitude to go on and to be the best mother I could be to my older son.
Of course it isn’t easy. When my mind is quiet, I see unexpected flashes of Jesse’s last moments, and feel how scared he must have been. I also think of the days I should be celebrating with my son: Christmas, New Year’s, Mother’s Day, his seventh birthday. It is then that I feel rage that I have been deprived of these pleasures. I feel murderous and vengeful. The anger is like a black cloud that descends upon me. It weighs me down, and I can feel my fists clench and anguish drop into the pit of my stomach. I feel myself getting lost.
That’s when I take a deep breath and make a conscious choice, again, to forgive. I say the words in my mind and feel them flow through my body. I breathe in the promise of eternal life, and I remember the message Jesse wrote on our kitchen chalkboard just before he died that reads, nurturing healing love. The anger flows out from my fingertips, and I feel relief. I refuse to go down the same torturous path as Adam, who perhaps started with an angry thought, which turned into blaming others for his problems and feeling like a victim, and then into a rage that he took out on innocent people.
On days when I’m feeling low and angry, I look skyward and exclaim, “God, I guess you think I am strong enough to handle this.” Then I step back and remember that forgiveness is for me—for my life and for the lives of those around me—and I forgive once again.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Jesselewischooselove.org, the author’s foundation, aims to foster forgiveness and compassion.
SCARLETT LEWIS is the author of Nurturing Healing Love from Hay House Books. This article was first published in Women’s Day. We at INSPIRED wishes Scarlett and all other victims of the Sandy Hook shooting a continued path to a blessed recovery.