"Sandy Hook changed everything, and none of us has ever been the same. How could we be?"
Credit: George Danby / BDN

 

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Sarah Walker Caron is a food writer, an author of eight books and an editor at the Bangor Daily News.

 Ten years ago, on a cold December morning, I sent my 7-year-old son off to school on the bus with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his lunchbox and a wish for a good day. We were running late, but that was part of what made the morning so normal.

That was the last time we had a normal like that.

 On Dec. 14, 2012, my son survived the Sandy Hook School shooting, the worst elementary school shooting in U.S. history. In a span of less than 15 minutes, a gunman shot his way into the school, killed six educators, wounded two others and murdered 20 innocent children.

It changed everything, and none of us has ever been the same. How could we be?

That morning a cavernous rift in our life broke open. It split the time before from the time after. Even my career as a writer seemed to splinter. I thought, at first, we just needed to get back to normal. It was weeks before I realized that there really wasn’t a normal to go back to. 

And yet, my son, Will, has grown into a smart, curious, kind, happy young man. He’s 17 now, and while he accepts his past, he hasn’t let surviving a school shooting define him. My daughter, who was a kindergartener at the time and wasn’t in the school that morning, is now a creative, thoughtful, intelligent 15-year-old.

But for me, that morning 10 years ago is still so fresh. The confusion, fear, uncertainty and devastation continues to reverberate to my core. And even as I write this, I find it hard to talk about the way it deeply affected me.

This past November I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Simmering for a decade, PTSD has secretly changed how I think and behave. Most recently, during the pandemic, situations that emotionally mirrored that dark time wreaked havoc on my day-to-day life. I reacted to dangers that weren’t there and fought instincts to fight, flight or freeze. I’m still battling it.

Writing about the time after that horrible day has been a cathartic exercise that helped me process complex things. But, in the past, I’ve centered my writing on my children and healing from trauma as a parent.

But I didn’t just experience Sandy Hook as a parent. I experienced it as a full human being. Although it was my son who was there, experiencing the horrific sounds and sights first-hand, I endured it through him. Then I buried my own thoughts, feelings, worries and fears beyond those related to my kids.

In some ways, I still am.

The trauma, pain, challenge, healing and recovery begins on day zero for survivors and their families.

For the survivors, the act of going on was a heroic endeavor that took courage and conviction. They experienced the worst in humanity and still went back to school.

And those children — hundreds of them — didn’t do it alone. They were guided by the helping hands of teachers who were still healing as well and parents who had to find their bravest self to lead the way. To ignore the wider scope of trauma is to erase the burden of recovery that falls on caretakers.

Ten years later, I am still focused on making sure my kids are OK. But now I am also dealing with my own fears and anxiety too — the ones that transcend my role as a mother and infiltrated other parts of my life.

When we talk about victims of school shootings, we rightly think of those who died. At Sandy Hook School, we lost 20 first-grade students and six educators. We remember their names and share their faces so they aren’t lost.

But we don’t talk enough about those who survived. They too are victims.

 

My son is applying to colleges now with an incredible network of teachers, coaches, family and friends cheering him on and lending support. My daughter is excelling as a student and a dancer. That’s the story lots of people want to hear — the one about resilience and overcoming. We need to talk about the rest of the story too though. We need to talk about the night terrors and nightmares, the shifts in behavior and the way we deal with that.

As a writer, I’ve been derelict to not acknowledge the full scope of the trauma on myself. I wasn’t OK. I am still not, though I am working on getting there.

And now, part of healing means it’s time for me to stop writing about this. I need to give myself room to heal.

With that in mind, this is my last essay about Sandy Hook for a while. I hope someone dealing with trauma reads it and realizes they, too, need to care for themself.

Only then can we become stories of resilience.

Sarah Walker Caron

Sarah Walker Caron is the senior editor, features, for the Bangor Daily News and the editor of Bangor Metro magazine. She’s the author of “Classic Diners of Maine,” and five cookbooks including “Easy...