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Sandy Hook Grandparents Share Stories

Their journey since the tragedy last year has been through unparalleled pain and numbing grief into a struggle to move on

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.

The Grandparents of Newtown (Dan Winters)

Dan Winters

The Volkmanns received scores of cards and letters: "wonderful, but at the same time a constant reminder of that awful day," says Laurine.

Laurine & Alfred Volkmann
Melbourne, Fla.
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."

The Grandparents of Newtown (Dan Winters)

Dan Winters

The Morettis read to their grandson Dylan a week before he was killed. His favorite part? " 'The sharks.' I can still hear him say that," says Terry, left.

Terry & Henry Moretti
Cranston, R.I.
Grandparents of Dylan Hockley, age 6

"I'd been out doing some Christmas shopping, mostly presents for our grandkids," says Terry, 66. "When I came home, there was a garbled phone message from our daughter, Nicole. I knew something was wrong and assumed something had happened with the school bus. I called her immediately. 'Mommy, there was a shooting at the Sandy Hook school,' she told me. 'You have to be kidding,' I said. 'It only goes to the fourth grade.' She couldn't really talk. She just said, 'Jake' — our older grandchild — 'is OK, but we are still waiting to hear about Dylan.'

"We turned on the television, and the story was all over the news. Our son-in-law, Ian, called at about 1:30. They still hadn't heard anything about Dylan. We were all hoping that maybe he ran into the woods when he heard gunshots. 'It's been a lot of hours,' I told my husband. 'I'm not feeling good about this.' At 3:30 p.m., Ian called again. All he could say was, 'Dylan is dead.' I couldn't speak. He couldn't speak. I know I talked to my daughter after that, but I don't recall what we said.

"Dylan was autistic but very high functioning. He had a special education aide, Anne Marie Murphy, age 52, who adored him, and he adored her. When the shooting started, she threw her body over Dylan's to protect him. Her arms were wrapped around him when they found them. It was an enormous comfort to us that Dylan was with someone who loved him, and he loved back, in those final seconds. Mrs. Murphy had children of her own. I never met her, but I pray for her every night.

"Our grandson was absolutely the sweetest boy you'd ever want to meet. Every night, Nicole and Ian read the kids to sleep. When I was with them, I would do the same, and tuck them in. I visited them a week before Dylan was killed. We were reading Going to the Sea Park by Mercer Mayer. Before Dylan went to sleep, I asked him what the best part of the story was. 'The sharks,' he replied. I can still see him and hear him say that. When I went back to the house after the shootings, that book was still on his bed. Now every night I read it to Dylan. I think he hears me. I will read it every day until I see him again.

"It's hard to cope with your own pain when your child is so shattered. My daughter is my flesh and blood, but there is nothing I can say that can help her feel better. The first year is the worst — the birthdays, the holidays. Dylan's birthday was last March; he would have been 7. Now he'll be forever 6.

"I don't think any of us will get over this. When my daughter visits us now, I hear only three car doors open instead of four. When they leave, I have a good hard cry. I still have the pictures Dylan drew for me. And the letter he wrote to me from school is on the fridge. 'Dear grandma, will you play with me, love Dylan.' He loved the trampoline in the yard. He'd push back against the net and say, 'Push me, Grandma, push me.' Being autistic, he liked repetitive things. I would push him until I thought my arms would fall off. He'd laugh and laugh.

"One of the things that's really helped is advice my daughter got from Vice President Joe Biden, who lost his wife and infant daughter in a car accident in 1972. When Biden met Nicole after the shooting, he told her to rate each day from 1 to 10 — and you may never get to 10. He said, 'Nicole, if you make it to a 4 one day, at least you know you made it to a 4. And then you know you can do it again.'

"I've adopted that approach into my life since Dylan died. I rate every day. So far I've had one day that was a 5. I got there, so I think I can do it again. It helps."

The Grandparents of Newtown (Dan Winters)

Dan Winters

The Lobises, displaying their grandson's art. "We never fail to say 'I love you,' " says Carmen. "You never know when you will have that chance again."

Annette & Carmen Lobis
West Chester, Pa.
Grandparents of Benjamin Wheeler, age 6

"We were always a close family, but this has drawn us even closer," says Carmen, 76. "It's made us more sensitive to one another's feelings. We can sense when one of us needs a hug or a hand to hold. Now when we are together, we never fail to say 'I love you.' You never know when you will have that chance again.

"My wife and I are still grieving for our grandson. And we are grieving for Francine and David, our daughter and our son-in-law, and for our older grandson, Nate, who've had to live through this horrendous experience. Their pain is much more severe and intense than even ours is. They're all in therapy to help them work through it, but it's very hard.

"Our lives aren't the same without Ben. He was truly an amazing little boy. He had a steel-trap mind, almost a photographic memory. I remember once driving somewhere with him and taking a new route because the normal one was backed up with traffic. Ben immediately noticed and told me I was missing a turn. 'You are supposed to take Route 252 to Route 3 to Malin Road,' he told me. This from a boy of 6.

"He liked to say he wanted to be an architect when he grew up. But sometimes he wanted to be a paleontologist, because that's what his brother, Nate, wants to be. I don't think I knew what a paleontologist was until I was in high school.

"Ben had boundless energy. He loved the local soccer program. He loved his swimming lessons. He was a Tiger Scout. You always knew when he was around. He didn't sit in the corner quietly. Nate is the opposite, quiet and reserved. When Ben would see Nate reading a book on the floor, he'd jump on top of him. They had a remarkable relationship, even though they were entirely different. After Ben died, Nate told his mom, 'You have to do something. I don't want to be an only child.' With Ben's passing, their house is a totally different place. It's so quiet."

"We dream about Ben," says Annette, 72. "I say 'Good morning' to him every day. It's as if he is still here. Sometimes it feels like he really is. Recently we were all at a beach condo in New Jersey. We walked into the place, and sitting on that table was a little truck that Ben had adored: the one from the movie Cars that looks human and has headlights that look like eyes. It wasn't Ben's; the last tenant must have left it behind. But it was as if Ben had put it there for us, to let us know he was with us."

The Grandparents of Newtown (Dan Winters)

Dan Winters

The Bacons' 6-year-old granddaughter, Charlotte, reveled in playing with their dog, Ollie. "She never met an animal she didn't love," says Dan.

Lindie & Dan Bacon
Newtown, Conn.
Grandparents of Charlotte Bacon, age 6

"Charlotte was a bright light in our lives, a pure joy," says Dan, 74. "She had a very independent streak: In life and in coloring, she just took the lines as suggestions, not rules. She had a vivid imagination; when she told you something, you didn't know what was fact and what was fiction. She adored pink and never met an animal she didn't love. She'd wanted to be a veterinarian since she was 2.

"Charlotte was also used to having things come easily to her, so she was surprised when she had to apply herself to learn to read. But her mom turned their yellow Lab, Lily, into a therapy dog. Charlotte would read aloud to Lily, and that didn't seem like a chore to her. There's no stigma in reading to a dog.

"Traumatized communities like ours can really benefit from therapy dogs. And this is something JoAnn, our daughter-in-law, wants to do in Charlotte's memory, so that something good comes out of something so tragic. Just like Newtown Kindness, which was started by Charlotte's best friend, Ava Carlson, and her father, Aaron. Ava, now 7, was devastated by Charlotte's death. She asked, 'What can we do to make things better?' We chose to focus on kindness: Kind kids grow up to be kind adults. It's a project where kids describe their acts of kindness, and we expected it to be a little local contest. But we've received thousands of entries from kids around the country, even abroad. The acts of kindness these kids are doing are amazing."

"Life has changed for our children, their children and us," says Lindie, 71. "Now we make sure we spend time with our kids. We often pick up Guy, Charlotte's brother, from the school bus, and he sleeps over. As the plaque in our kitchen reads, 'Faith, Family, Friends.' We thank God we have that. Our close-knit family is a big part of our healing.

"We also discovered there are a lot of well-intentioned people supporting us. Our family received some 4,000 cards and letters, and are trying to respond to all of them. Lots of people sent gifts: angel jewelry, photos of children, knitted and crocheted prayer shawls. This mountain of mail has been very meaningful.

"There are days when we'd like to be anywhere but Newtown," Lindie continues. "People don't want to be known as being from here now. Sandy Hook and Newtown are synonymous with tragedy. We no longer have to explain where we are from. The moment we say the name, everybody knows. But we haven't thought of moving away. Now we know why God wanted us to be here."

"My wife and I worked as missionaries in Asia for many years," says Dan. "And we have lots of friends all over the world. When Charlotte died, we had to stop them from jumping on a plane — though many of them did.

"As former missionaries, we're often asked, 'Why did a loving God let this happen?' Our response is always: 'God didn't orchestrate this. It breaks God's heart. This is not what he would choose.' "

Jan Goodwin is author of Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World (Plume Publishing, 2003).