Mental Health
December 3, 2015

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.

Depression, Loss & Grief

2 thoughts on “Sandy Hook father talks about how to go on after loss”

  1. Reba Scott says:

    My husband just lost his 31 year old son to suicide, we have been married for 25 years so it was my loss also. We still grieve everyday but our faith has been instrumental in getting us through. We live in a very small community, less than a 1000 people, so everyone knows everyone. We were overwhelmed with the kindness around us. The 2 restaurants in town sent food, the local gas station gave my husband a free fill up when he had to take his daughter back to the airport, 180 miles away. Tons of food was brought by, cards were sent, flowers and gifts, visits frim many, everyday we are hugged and consoled. I said all that to just say it all helped.I went to a Christmas play yesterday and cried through most of it, we aren’t rea dy for the holidays but we will get through. Any act of kindness, no matter how small it seems, will be a help to those who are grieving. It even helps typing this out. Talking helps but we may not always want to say anything but just being there for someone is all that is needed sometimes. Doing for others helps us get our minds off us and on them so that is helpful too. Just always be kind to others and love people as much as you can.

    1. Linda Zettler says:

      Reba, first, my sincere condolences to you and your husband on your loss. Our thoughts are with you in your grief. Thank you for sharing your story, including the touching acts of kindness from those in your community. May it inspire others to be as kind and thoughtful. And thank you for sharing advice for others from your experience. We wish you peace. – Linda

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