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What we can all learn about grief from the survivors of Sandy Hook
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Three years after losing his 7-year-old son Daniel in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Mark Barden kept a single memento: An old bicycle helmet that still has a few strands of Daniels blonde hair clinging to it.

Ill keep that (helmet) forever, Barden says in director Kim Snyders new Sundance Film Festival documentary, Newtown. I still dread that every day I live Im one day farther away from life with Daniel.

Details like that make Snyders tender documentary riveting for anyone who watched the news in shock on Dec. 14, 2012, when 20 kids (kindergarteners and first-graders) and six educators were killed in a mass shooting at the Newtown, Connecticut, school. The film, which premiers at Sundance this month, opens with 911 tapes, recounts frantic texts between parents and speaks to peripheral witnesses to the incident, like Gene Rosen, a nearby resident who found a handful of children on his lawn that morning whod fled the violence.

They just kept exclaiming, We cant go back, Rosen says in the film, eyes welling with tears. We dont have a teacher.

Snyders inclusion of people like Rosen in addition to victims and their families outlines the films overall theme in the first few minutes: How a community rebuilds itself out of crippling grief. Her decision not to delve into the details of the shooting itself or shooter Adam Lanzas background were deliberate, she said (in the entirety of the film, Lanzas name is not uttered).

I wanted to render a mirror to the grace and dignity in a community struggling so terribly, Snyder said. I was drawn toward the part of it that showed what we are capable of, whether you be the priest faced with this and its beyond you or if youre the ER doctor whos changed forever. How do you go on when youre broken?

While the Sandy Hook shootings may be an extreme example of families trying to heal after a huge loss, Snyders Newtown has a lot to teach its audience about grief, trauma and healing emotional topics experts say Americans arent good at dealing with.

We dont teach people how to cope and were just programmed to keep moving forward rather than stop and really think about whats happening, Washington-based thanatologist (a person who studies death) and grief counselor Kriss Kevorkian said. We want to stay neutral, we don't want to deal with it and if we do that, we're accepting it. And if things like (Newtown) became the new normal? What a horrible life.

Feeling safe

Michelle Palmer, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Wendt Center for Loss and Healing, says that like trauma, grief comes from fear, a feeling that results in a persons life changing in a dramatic way through loss be it the death of a loved one, a natural disaster or violence. What it comes down to for anyone whos grieving or recovering from trauma is feeling safe when the world seems out of control.

What I always tell people is, you cant outrun grief. Eventually it will catch up to you, Palmer said. Its definitely the case for children, but its also true for adults that, really, (grief) is all about safety.

In children especially, grief can manifest itself in what some scholars call betrayal trauma, or the violation of a belief a child has that a person or a place is safe and stable. When something or someone that has a profound presence in a childs life is suddenly taken away like losing a parent in a car accident, witnessing a shooting or being abused the childs sense of trust is eroded because life isnt going the way theyve been taught it should.

In Newtown, parents who lost children at Sandy Hook struggle with their surviving childrens newfound mistrust in the world and feelings of betrayal that school should be a safe place.

Ian and Nicole Hockley, who lost their son Dylan in the shooting, describe how their surviving third-grade son, Jake, suddenly didnt feel safe anywhere after the shooting, even in the family home.

Jake says it was the day hell came to his school, Nicole Hockley says in the film. The lights always have to be on all the time now.

Jakes drawings shown in the film depict dark, mutated figures of bulge-eyed monsters with blood leaking out of their fanged mouths, one eliciting a word bubble that reads, in black crayon, Youll never escape.

David Wheeler, whose 6-year-old son Ben died at Sandy Hook, struggles with his older son Nates suspicion of his parents reassurance that hes safe to return to class.

What do you say to that? Dont worry, youre safe, Wheeler says in the film. Almost immediately, as youd expect, the response was, Thats what you said to Ben.

If grief is handled correctly, its less likely children or adults will experience lasting effects of betrayal trauma or unaddressed grief. But for kids who dont have a consistent source of reassurance from an adult, Palmer and Kevorkian say the impact of childhood grief and trauma can reverberate dangerously throughout a childs development and adulthood.

We like to compartmentalize our feelings, and if you overdo that and dont deal with your emotions, it will manifest physically in your body, Kevorkian said. Stress, grief and loss are common denominators of most every health issue.

Palmer cites the landmark Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study first published in 1998.

Examining the correlation between traumatic or stressful events in a childs life and health conditions in adulthood, the ACE study found that people who experienced four or more traumatic events were 4-12 times more likely to have experienced substance abuse, depression or suicide. The same group was more than twice as likely to smoke, have 50 or more sexual partners and have an STD.

For physical illnesses, the group also showed a higher prevalence of sedentary lifestyle, obesity, heart disease, cancer, lung disease, bone fracture and liver disease.

All this evidence of how grief can change people is great, says Washington-based family grief therapist David Simonsen, but it doesnt mean anything if neither adults nor children have the support they need to, as therapists put it, mourn successfully.

As we grow, we start to mask our grief. We tell boys to man up and things, or I hear parents say all the time that theyre being strong for the kids, Simonsen said. But to be strong would be to show emotion over this kind of thing, if not for ourselves than to teach our kids how.

Creating community

Some experts say Americans still have a flawed approach to loss and trauma, partially because of national identity. To get past this perception problem of grief as weak and improve emotional and physical health, Americans need to rethink their attitudes about grieving.

We know its tied to American individualism, said Dr. Steven Schlozman, Harvard University professor and Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatrist. We dont think its safe to express emotion. What weve come to believe is that our individualism isnt compatible with letting the community know were hurting and ask for help.

As Americans, were taught that up-by-your-bootstraps outlook, Kevorkian said. But in reality, that doesnt help anyone.

Because people dont like to ask for help and grief is very personal, many people miss out on a crucial piece of recovery: community.

Having a community helps tremendously because people who are grieving need reassurance, they need offerings of support and love, Kevorkian said. The problem is, were very isolated and we dont consider our actions as having an impact on others.

Schlozman said the support of a community can help people heal, partially because they feel theyre being given permission to be emotional.

The more community comes around someone whos grieving, the less likely the individual feels alone in their grief, Schlozman said. Theres a very real, beneficial effect of universality, where others feel what you feel and empathize, even if its just for a little while.

In Newtown, community togetherness is a key component of both grieving and recovery for the entire town rocked by Sandy Hook. Parents band together to fight for gun control, host marathons in the names of their fallen children, or commemorate the anniversary of the shooting with community-wide vigils.

Theres no making up for this. The foundation got cracked and nobody knows how wide that crack is going to get, Catholic priest Bob Weiss, who conducted all 20 of the childrens funeral services after Sandy Hook, says in the film. But were not going to let the darkness overwhelm us.

The school staff that survived that terrible day in 2012 still meets regularly at each others homes for defacto support groups, knowing that every person was affected, from the teachers to custodians like Rick Thorne.

The teachers and the staff, we understand each other, Thorne says in the film. We dont even have to speak. We just know."

Its the community of survivors, the connection to people who understand his pain that sustains Thorne. Off-camera, Snyder asks Thorne the universal question for everyone navigating loss: How do you get through it?

The kids. The laughing. The smiling, he says.