On December 14, 2012, a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and murdered twenty-six people. Twenty of them were first graders. I have a hard time remembering that number. I have to look it up every time I mention it. Sometimes I remember it as seventeen, sometimes as four hundred, sometimes as infinite. Infinite bodies, infinite death, infinite pain.
I remember everything else about that day, though: my twin daughters, one home sick from kindergarten and the other at school, well and unknowing. I remember President Obama, I remember weeping with him, I remember leaning against a door frame in my home and praying it would hold me. I remember the parents on TV, shattered. I remember picking my daughter up from school and being able to immediately recognize those parents still on the other side of the divide: the unknowing.
A dividing line. A chasm. That’s what Sandy Hook became for me and for so many others in this country. And once you crossed the line between before and after, once you knew, there was no turning back. The before became unreachable. I could never unknow what had happened. I could never feel quite normal again. I could never look at my girls and not see those children. I became lost. I spent six years feeling that way, until I returned to the act of writing.
In January 2018, five years after the shooting, I started an anthology project with a coeditor, Loren Kleinman. We are both memoirists and writing teachers, and we believe in the power of the personal story. If the world could hear these stories, we thought, everything would change. We collected firsthand accounts from Sandy Hook and twenty other communities directly affected by school shootings. We finished the book, If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings, in late 2018, and I spent 2019 traveling around the country and meeting with some of our contributors and many gun violence prevention groups.
I was confident that writing, as it had done so many times before, would forge a path through the pain. But I also suspected this book would hurt me, so I prepared for it in many ways. I took a reduced teaching schedule, sought out therapy, and made more time for my daughters. Still, I could not have prepared for the toll this project would take on my heart and my body.
On New Year’s Eve, 2019, I found myself lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. My eighty-pound dog pressed against my left side. There was an unusual warmth in my body. A pink flushing from my toes to my cheeks. My head throbbed. I could feel a thumping in my neck, thicker than a pulse.
“If I die,” I whispered to my husband, “please marry a good role model for the girls.”
“Yeah, okay,” he mumbled, half asleep.
I turned away from him and sobbed silently into my pillow. The thought of another woman raising my children cracked my heart in two.
Two days earlier, I had been in our local grocery store shopping for our traditional stromboli dinner when my mother suggested sticking my arm in a blood pressure cuff. I had been suffering from debilitating headaches for weeks, and had exhausted myself searching for the cause. Just to rule it out,she pleaded. I ended the call, parked my cart, stripped off my winter coat, and slid my arm into the automated sleeve. The machine hissed and whirred as it squeezed my thick bicep. Tighter and tighter it went. I tried to calm myself, to take some deep breaths, but inside I was panicking. Finally, the squeezing stopped and the cuff loosened, ever so slowly. I closed my eyes and waited. Then, there in red, digital numbers, was my result: 200/160. Three do-overs produced the same result: very high blood pressure. I finished my shopping and proceeded to the checkout, slightly trembling the entire way. Six different types of cheese and two hundred dollars later, I called my mother from the car. That’s really high, she confirmed. I’m not surprised. You’re way too stressed out. From the car, I called my doctor, who immediately prescribed medication.
The concern over my stress level became a theme that holiday season. My sister gifted me a bag of self-care products: bath bombs, lotions, relaxing face masks. My mother took vacation time from her job to help me with the cooking and baking. Everyone brought wine. This puzzled me, and I have to admit I resented it somehow. I didn’t feel particularly stressed. It was something I spoke with my therapist about in that week’s session.
“Everyone seems to think I’m stressed out,” I told her.
“Are you?” she asked.
“Not really. I mean, the girls are starting to get more independent, work has been good, my marriage is strong, we have enough money.” These were the benchmarks by which I had always measured my happiness: happy kids, a good marriage, enough money, and a job I didn’t hate.
“And the book?”
“The book is done.”
“But is it?”
In my mind, the book was done: the travel was over, the writing and editing was over, the promotion was over. Now, I should have been back to normal.
“Amye, you were holding a tremendous amount of pain while working on the book. Do you think maybe you are still holding it?”
Holding the pain is a term my therapist had used early on, when I would spend our sessions simply sobbing. Working with parents and families who have suffered the unthinkable tragedy of losing a child can feel voyeuristic at times. I struggled to understand the boundaries of grief. Who has ownership over such grief? Was I allowed to feel it too? Then there was this: “My kids are alive,” I remember saying more than once. Giving myself permission to share in that grief took almost a year.
I didn’t know it that holiday season, as I was sticking my arm in that blood pressure cuff, being showered with stress-relieving gifts, and lying in bed silently hoping I’d live to see the New Year, but my body was in trauma from what I had experienced.
The term vicarious trauma is used by the American Counseling Association to describe “the emotional residue of exposure that counselors have from working with people as they are hearing their trauma stories and become witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.” I realize now that my therapist’s concept of holding the pain was her way of describing this phenomenon in layman’s terms.
I was holding the pain. And it was heavy. It still is. I imagine my body a hanging scale like those in the grocery store, a shiny steel basket hung with a thin, metal chain, near the produce. Each detail, each little trauma, is another small weight tossed into the bin. It’s not the big items that will hurt the most; the devastation is in the details:
Susie’s daughter, whose beloved teacher and friends were murdered around her in her first-grade classroom at Sandy Hook, cannot sleep in her own bed. For weeks after the shooting, the entire family slept in the same room.
The letter Daniel’s kindergarten teacher wrote to his parents only weeks after his death at Sandy Hook. She remembers him as a sweet boy. There is heartbreak in her words.
The sound of Nick’s empty, echoing bedroom as his father, Mitch, walks through while on the phone with me only months after Nick’s death at Parkland. There is an open book on the bed that will never be finished.
One of the Sandy Hook survivors describes emerging from the school, running past armed police, and, once outside, noticing two full classrooms of students missing. That phrase alone weighs a million pounds and sinks to the bottom of me.
The desperate texts from parents to children. All unread, unreturned.
The father tracking his daughter’s phone and realizing it was leading him to the morgue.
The parking lots where parents waited desperately for news.
The chained doors at Virginia Tech.
The stage at Cole Hall.
The library at Columbine.
The cafeteria at Thurston.
The one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines.
Any scale would break under the weight of these details. But they are part of me now. I carry them. I imagine them fused with my bones. When I walk, I press on against an invisible current, and always uphill. I guess I had always thought the pressure would dissipate once the book was “done.”
But the body remembers.
I survived New Year’s Eve and lived to see 2020. I visited Parkland, Florida, speaking with survivors at a book event in February. Then, off to Texas, where I sat next to John, a survivor of the UT Austin Tower shooting in 1966. Fifty-three years since that awful day, and this man still breaks down in tears, remembering. I flew home on March 6, 2020, with only four other people on my plane. Within weeks, the world shut down and with it, our schools. I remember breathing a sigh of relief during this time as I tucked my twin daughters in at night. No school, no school shootings.
It’s been three years since the book was finished, but the idea that my body was somehow failing stays with me. It’s a wake-up call. Today, I am better. Every morning I check my blood pressure and am pleasantly surprised when it’s consistently at 120/80. A healthier diet, daily medication, and a longing to see my daughters grow into women fuels my resolve. There is still work to be done, stories to be told.
As a memoirist, I understand how important firsthand accounts are, not only for readers, but for writers as well. After all, I had worked out much of my young adulthood and divorce in my memoir. Every day while working on this book, I was aware of the enormous task I was asking of survivors: to relive their trauma, to work it out on the page. Many welcomed the chance, many wanted to be heard, but some still couldn’t speak. Not yet. Maybe not even decades later. Some let others tell their stories, some stories will never be heard.
I’ve also come to accept that I’m different somehow. Just as Columbine changed me as a young adult and Sandy Hook changed me as a parent, getting to know the survivors has changed me in an irreversible way. I am fiercely protective of them and their stories, which I have been trusted to hold. The work isn’t always easy. What I have come to know through these stories and through this process will always be heavy. But, I also know that with each day I am becoming stronger and more able to hold the heft. Helping these families to hold their pain is a weight I welcome. I like to think it is the solemn duty of a writer to record stories that need to be heard, but it has occurred to me over the course of this work that listening and bearing witness to trauma is the duty of all citizens in a community. It’s what connects us.