Sandy Hook father talks about how to go on after loss
When facing tragedy, it can be hard to put one foot in front of another. Here’s a small lifeline, from someone who’s been there.
When someone dies suddenly — in a car crash, a shooting or any other misfortune — family and friends are left reeling. The grief that envelops people dealing with the sudden traumatic loss of a loved one can feel shocking, numb, unreal, physically painful or all of those things — and it can be crippling.
If you are dealt such a blow, life changes completely in an instant. How do you function under such emotional weight?
“First and foremost, forgive yourself for being incredibly self-centered” as you grieve, says Jeremy Richman, Ph.D., a neuroscientist who lost his 7-year-old daughter, Avielle, in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012. Nineteen other children and six adults were also killed in that attack. Richman and his wife, Jennifer Hensel, founded The Avielle Foundation to support brain research and community engagement that can prevent future violence.
Navigating grief means wading through rocky emotional waters, Richman said, in comments after a talk he gave in November 2015 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center about the foundation’s work. He understands personally how, in the depths of heartbreak, you might not feel you can even get out of bed in the morning. Richman explained several things that helped him and his wife cope. They might offer you an emotional lifeline, too.
- Ignore the “shoulds.” Well-meaning people will tell you what you “should” do to feel better. The only things you really should do, Richman said, are the things that are actually helping you cope, whatever they are — not necessarily what other people think you should do.
- “Every day try to keep your eyes open and your heart open to try to find something of beauty.” It might be as small as somebody opening a door for you; any tiny, kind act. “You’ll be shocked, because it will make you so hopeful,” Richman said. “Because it’s really easy to find the beauty when you’re looking for it.”
- “Make yourself give something of beauty back to the world every day. That’ll help to really heal you,” though it’s harder to accomplish than finding beauty in front of you.
If you want to help someone grappling with loss, Richman added, the best comfort is to be present. You can’t make everything better. But “being present” can take many forms. Let them talk about it if they want to. Be willing to listen without offering solutions.
“Don’t ask what they need. They don’t know what they need,” Richman said. So bring something to them. Food is good. They might not even eat it, he added, but that’s OK. Just being kind will help them know you care. (More advice on the best ways to help a family in crisis, here.)
Even the smallest gestures of solidarity are comforting. Richman pointed to the outpouring of sympathy for France after the terrorist attacks on Nov. 13, 2015, that killed more than 120 people. Many Americans added a blue, white and red screen, the colors of the French flag, to their Facebook profile photos. Insignificant as that might seem, Richman said, that says, “We are with you. We care.”
Driving around in western Connecticut after the Sandy Hook shooting, Richman appreciated seeing the proliferation of green ribbons that commemorated the community’s loss. It told him that people remembered and cared.
“I miss my daughter Avielle more every minute of my life,” Richman said. “But I have the choice to go on or not to go on, and I choose to go on. And I’m going to do it in a healthy, happy optimistic way. And I’m going to try to help other people do so, too.”
If you are struggling to cope with grief many weeks or months after losing a loved one, counseling and support groups can help. This list includes resources in the Nashville, Tenn., area. There are also national organizations that help people in mourning.