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December 24, 2012

What now in Newtown? Seize the change, healers say

NEWTOWN, Conn. — The grief will not end. Yet the healing must begin. So as the shock of Newtown’s horrific school shooting starts to wear off, as the headlines fade and the therapists leave, residents are seeking a way forward through faith, community and a determination to seize their future.

At religious services Sunday, church leaders received standing ovations from parishioners they have been helping to cope with the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The gunman also killed his mother and himself.

“This has been the worst week of my life,” said Monsignor Robert Weiss of the St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, which lost eight children and two adults in the massacre. He thanked the community for giving him strength to get through the week filled with funerals.

Meanwhile, a former teacher, Carole MacInnes, said she remembers the gunman as a smart, sweet boy in her second-grade class at Sandy Hook.

To deal with the short-term trauma, the state sent dozens of mental health professionals to Newtown. Sessions were available every day, at a half-dozen locations. Relief also has been provided by therapy and service dogs, massage therapists, acupuncturists and art therapists, from around Connecticut and the nation.

Rick Kaplan was driving back to South Carolina on Sunday with his nine service dogs. His “Canine Angels” usually assist disabled veterans, but he spent several days in Newtown with parents and grandparents of the victims, the victims’ classmates and other town residents.

The families “held dogs, cried, laughed, hugged and thanked us to say that this was invaluable,” Kaplan said. “The love and respect of a dog is something, no doctor and no medicine can compete with what a dog can do.”

The mother of one victim sat with one dog for an hour. Kaplan recalls her saying: “I can’t tell you how guilty I feel because this is the first joy I’ve had in a week. I feel so guilty because I’m not thinking about my son right now.”

After the Sunday service at Newtown’s Trinity Episcopal Church, the Rev. Kathleen Adams-Shepherd received hugs and kisses from a long line of parishioners. She choked up as she read the names of the victims and offered a prayer for all of them, including gunman Adam Lanza and his slain mother, Nancy.

Deacon Rick Scinto of St. Rose of Lima said church officials will be teamed with professional counselors and therapists to provide assistance.

“I don’t see us taking a lead role, but I certainly see us taking a cooperative role in any kind of counseling that they need. We have our niche. We’re religious and we can talk about God and how the Lord figures in this whole mess,” Scinto said.

Things will never be the same here. And that transformation itself — heartbreaking and permanent as it may be — is the key to long-term recovery, say some of those helping to lead the healing of this shattered town.

“This will never leave you and should never leave you. Your tears are proof of your love. The trick is, you’ve got to find a new form for your love,” said Dr. John Woodall, a psychiatrist and Newtown resident.

Woodall is founder of The Unity Project, which has assisted recoveries from such tragedies such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the war in the former Yugoslavia and child soldier conflicts in Uganda. He said it’s impossible to answer the question of why the Dec. 14 tragedy happened.

“The only helpful question to ask is what next?” Woodall said.

Charles Dumais, principal of Newtown High School, came up with an answer after consulting with Woodall. Dumais is exhorting his community to honor the dead through the kind of high character and good deeds that will create a future of resilience — not sorrow.

“If you have not done so already, please take a moment now to think about what you wish the future to look like,” Dumais wrote in an email to his students and staff. “We had no control over this senseless, cruel, horrific act, but we do have absolute control over our response to it.”

People first must survive the present.

Dennis Stratford, who works for the school district, happened to be making a delivery to Sandy Hook Elementary School when the gunman attacked. He saw dead children. He saw the remains of dead children on those who survived. He waited agonizing minutes for his own child to emerge unharmed from the school. Two of his neighbors’ children did not.

“I go home and cry every night, and I cry every morning,” Stratford said.

He went to one counseling session, but the horrific images remain. What helps more is work: sorting through the warehouses full of gifts, delivering them where they need to go or doing whatever else needs to be done for his town.

“There were nine minutes of evil, and an infinity of goodness after that,” Stratford said, sitting on a forklift loaded with gifts. “This is therapy for me.”

MacInnes, the retired teacher, said Lanza did not require extra academic attention and he acted normal socially. She said Lanza was a gentle soul and she never saw him after the second grade. MacInnes first confirmed to The Washington Post that Lanza was in her class at Sandy Hook.

Matthew Crebbin, pastor of the Newtown Congregational Church and leader of the Newtown Interfaith Clergy Association, said the rest of the world will soon go back to normal.

“The bad news and the good news in Newtown is that our community will never be the same,” Crebbin said. “It doesn’t have to mean that this is a world of just loss and sorrow and spiraling disruption if we can draw from this strength and have a sense that we are called to something more and to strengthen connections to each other.”

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