“Did you hug him today?” the elderly gentleman asked me as we walked down the aisle to exit the church this morning.
“Of course,” I replied, knowingly. It’s been fifteen days since the shooting at Sandy Hook, and here in nearby Monroe, we all still feel it. The funeral wakes, several of them, were held in the funeral home here in our town. The families are our neighbors, our friends. If you didn’t know one of those families personally, you know someone who does. I volunteered before Christmas in the school where the Sandy Hook kids will come back to later this week. I helped set up the library. It was my job to remove all of the shelves and lower them down to elementary student height; the building had been a middle school in our town. Here the pain is still real and raw. The holiday we just celebrated bittersweet, the carols sung between tears. I knew what he meant.
“I lost one,” the man went on. “In Newtown. My family, we lost one. My grandson.”
I stood, stunned. This poor man had come out to church this morning, two weeks later, in the midst of his grief. He was alone as he addressed us; no wife, no daughter, or son. It came to me, as I searched for the words to console him, that my son must look like him. Like the one he lost.
“I am so, so, sorry,” I said in response. I had no idea what else to say.
When I was working at the school before Christmas, there were families that came in while I worked, feverishly at my task, trying not to think about what the people who worked alongside me had been through. Parents came in with the siblings that survived, hoping to ease their fears about going back to school. Thousands of brand new plush animals lined the too tall bookshelves; we offered one to each child who passed through. They weren’t crying. They weren’t grief stricken. They were trying to put one foot ahead of the other, for their other kids, for themselves. More than one of them thanked me for volunteering in the school that day. I could barely look at them.
How could they thank me? How could they think of anything but how terrible this tragedy was, the child whose photo had already been sent out in their Christmas newsletters and cards but wouldn’t be there to open their gifts? I cried through Mass at church on Christmas, thinking of those kids. I bawled looking at the Snowflakes for Sandy Hook flyer tacked carelessly on the wall of a restaurant we ate in, a thousand miles away. The pain I feel is insurmountable and terrifying. It is nothing compared to theirs.
“Thank you,” the man answered. “It’s just so terrible.”
He didn’t cry, this man who clearly needed to talk about the little boy who must have looked like my own. He didn’t even look sad. Just matter of fact, stating the obvious. The devastatingly obvious. I suppose fifteen days afterwards, after all of the news and the cameras and the shock and the everything, that would be all you could do. Reach out to others who were lucky enough to have what you lost. Remind them that every day is a gift, every moment with your child isn’t guaranteed.
We lost the man in the crowd as a few people came to give him a hug on his way out. But if you’re familiar with church, you know the long queue out to the open gathering space is crowded and takes a bit to navigate. We found ourselves standing at the door with the man again, and I paused, wondering what to do next. It wasn’t required, of course, but he’d shared his most personal loss with us. I couldn’t just silently walk away.
“I hope you have a good day today,” I mustered, kicking myself. I should have said that I would be praying for him, or his family. The mundaneness of my closure to our encounter frustrated me.
“Happy New Year,” he offered in response. “This year has to be better than last.”
And it occurred to me, as I stood there, how in awe I was of this stranger. He was still hoping for happiness even in the completeness of his grief. He’d come out to church, alone, on a snowy Sunday, looking to be part of the community. He had lost a grandchild in the most unspeakable way, but he was forcing himself to continue on. To look for hope despite it’s absolute absence fifteen days ago. To find, in my little boy, a glimmer of something that made him smile. To reach out to us and let us know that.
I still haven’t found my way through all of my many emotions about what happened in Newtown. But I know, after this morning, that the important thing is to keep on living. Despite tragedy, death, loss, suffering, pain. Because if this man can do it, then certainly I can.
Keep on living.