En español | Losing a grandchild is tragic under any circumstance. But when the loss is born of an act as unspeakable as the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Dec. 14, the anguish can barely be comprehended. How do grandparents cope when their grandchild is taken from them in such a brutal and public way? How do they begin to console a son or daughter drowning in grief, even as they struggle with their own? On the first anniversary of an atrocity that shocked the nation, AARP The Magazine visited grandparents of four of the children murdered at their Newtown, Conn., school. With generosity and grace, eight men and women told us how they have endured these last fitful months — through birthdays, holidays, never-ending tributes and commemorations, political windstorms, media invasions and countless everyday moments that remind them of the bloody day that reshaped their lives.
Laurine & Alfred Volkmann
Grandparents of Jack Pinto, age 6
"Al and I first heard about the shooting when there was a news flash on TV," recalls Laurine, 72. "We were just finishing breakfast, lingering over a second cup of coffee. When they announced it was our grandchildren's school, we just couldn't believe it. We contacted our daughter Tricia immediately, then got into the car. We were living on Long Island at the time, about two and a half hours to Newtown. As we made the trip to Connecticut, we listened to the radio, and reports of casualties kept coming in. We were in constant touch with Tricia. She was at the local firehouse, waiting with other parents to be reunited with their kids. As the number of parents there dwindled, Tricia realized — I think we all did — that the children who hadn't been brought in were probably the ones who had been killed.
"When we arrived at their house at about 3 o'clock, Tricia was curled up in a corner, shaking. I have never seen anybody in such pain. I just wanted to be alone with my daughter and hold her. But I couldn't. The house was bedlam. The phone was ringing constantly, and the media were camped out on the front lawn. At one point, a reporter tried to sneak in through the garage. Fortunately, a state trooper was assigned to each family and helped keep things under control."
"Tricia is normally very smart and organized, someone who can find solutions for everything," says Al, 73. "When Jack was born, he was a constant crier — just wouldn't stop. Tricia bought a white noise DVD, of waves crashing, and rain. It immediately calmed him down. But this time, she didn't know what to do. It was such agony, such torture."
"After they learned the news about Jack, Tricia and her husband, Dean, had to get their older son, Ben, and tell him what had happened," says Laurine. "A newspaper reporter took a photograph of the three of them walking away from the school, crying. That picture will be in my mind forever. When Ben got home, he crawled into bed under the covers. We sat and talked with him later on. He told us he felt bad because he was mean to his brother sometimes, but that he really loved him. We cried. I told him crying is nothing to be ashamed of. It helps.
"In the following weeks our family received hundreds of cards and letters. Tricia and Dean have a room filled with tokens of love from all over the world. They're still there; it's like walking into a museum for Jack. It's wonderful, but at the same time a constant reminder of that awful day.
"We have been trying to cope with our own grief. But what hurts the most is watching Tricia, Dean and Ben trying to deal with theirs. On Jack's birthday in May, Tricia and I visited each child's grave, in four different cemeteries. It was difficult, but we needed to do that.
"Over the past year, Tricia and Dean have become resentful of the people who are trying to turn all this into something political. There have been people who used Jack's name without permission to raise money. Sometimes it is well-meaning, but there was one woman who claimed she was raising money for her grandchild, and that wasn't true. She raised a lot of money and was finally arrested. We've learned this sort of thing happens after every major tragedy."
"There have been other things, like conspiracy theories," says Al. "Some of the crazy stuff, you just have to ignore. If you let it bother you, it interferes with grieving. Tricia and Dean just want to be left alone, to mourn Jack."
"We hang on to the memories," says Laurine. "Jack was an amazing child. He was energetic, witty, always smiling. He played football, baseball, and learned to ski in one lesson. Ben was the more bookish of the two. Now Ben often goes into Jack's bedroom to sleep. Jack's bedroom is exactly as it was the day he died.
"I keep a card that the boys sent to me last Mother's Day, one of the kind that lets you record your voice. On it, Jack said, 'Happy Mother's Day, Grandma! This is Jack!!' I hope the battery never dies. It's on my desk. I would like to hear that forever.
"Until Jack's death, we had been so fortunate; our family had not experienced any tragedy. This stunned us: the realization that in a minute your life can change so dramatically. In a way, this makes me grateful that I'm at the age I am, that I don't have to carry this sorrow with me for the next 60 or 70 years. But our children do."
Next page: Terry & Henry Moretti. »