A Town of Broken Hearts: How Newtown Residents Cope with Grief

After one of the deadliest shootings in American history, Newtown, Conn., begins its days of grieving.

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Byron Smith / ZUMAPRESS

Mourners attend a vigil at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newton, Conn., Dec. 14, 2012.

At 6:45 p.m. on Friday evening, two hours after dusk in the storybook community of Newtown, Conn., a young boy in a red jacket grips his grandmother’s hand as they walk along the sidewalk down Church Hill Road, where a line of bumper-to-bumper cars are inching toward the same destination. “They’re going to have to tell some people to go home,” he says to her, looking ahead. “There’s no way all those people will fit in the church.”

Moments later, they arrive at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, where hundreds of townspeople, supporters and media are gathering for an informal vigil to mourn the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting earlier in the day. Twenty children, who couldn’t have been much older than this boy, were gunned down alongside six adults in one of the deadliest shootings in American history and this ceremony marks the beginning of Newtown’s days of grieving ahead.

(PHOTOS: Grief in Newtown: Photos from the Scene)

The front lawn is packed; a silence, punctured only by whispers, tears and camera shutters, hangs over the scene. On one side is a makeshift memorial that Michael Agius and his father threw together a few hours earlier from supplies around their home: a patio table stand they reshaped, a long slab of wood they laid on top of it with grooves for 26 simple glass vases and enough small candles to place and light for each life taken at the school. A modest wooden cross is affixed to the center.

A bartender at the local hang-out, My Place Tap Room, a half-mile up the road, Agius, 26, leans against a black parking pole and stares blankly at the flames as passersby stop, kneel and navigate the mob. He’s just as numb from the near-freezing temperature as he is from the day’s events. As news of the morning shooting broke, he was given the rest of Friday off from his day job in Bridgeport because he’s from Newtown. “It’s difficult to help people when you’re all choked up,” he says.

The half-hour that he and his father spent measuring, cutting and assembling the memorial gave them a brief moment to take their mind off what happened. “You can never relate to any of those people in those other towns until it happens to you,” he says, referencing other shootings in Aurora, Colo., last July and Oak Creek, Wisc., weeks later. “The shame is that now when anyone hears ‘Newtown,’ they’ll think of this.”

(MORE:Twenty Brighter Stars: Shocked Conn. Town Mourns Its Slain Children)

At 7:30 p.m., the crowd outside the church swelled. High school athletes sport their blue and gold letterman jackets and small groups of friends and family huddle around long candles wrapped in tin foil as they try to keep warm and trade information. In the back, a young boy in a Spiderman coat turns to his mother and says: “I can’t see. I can’t see.” A row of adults is towering in front of him. She turns to him and responds: “There’s nothing to see.” Then, she gently pulls him closer to her, nestling his head in her waist to shield him from the cold.

Ahead of them, the masses are filing into the church for a seat and a prayer. They pass through the four white columns and three sets of double-doors, decked out with holiday wreaths and red bows. The middle row walks under a sign asking churchgoers to “Love One Another” before entering the hall. Inside, they’re met with maroon carpet, pale yellow walls with white trim and a high ceiling framed by dark wooden beams. Ten chandeliers hang over dueling sets of long pews and, in front, is an unoccupied altar with enough candles for each victim.

Some people are by themselves while others are with spouses, children or friends. They’re looking around in shock and at each other in awe. The unthinkable happened in their town, to their neighbors, near their homes and this is how they’re barely struggling to cope. They kneel on the leather bench in front of them, rest their forearms on the rounded edge of the pew ahead, clasp their hands together and close their eyes—only opening them again when they’re more ready to face what’s next.

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However much time later, as each person leaves the pew, they kneel again to exit and walk to the back of the room and out the doors, where a young man in khakis and a red polo shirt greets them. “We have the body of Christ here if anybody would like to receive,” he says. The line forms immediately. One-by-one, people cup their hands and hold them out to accept a wafer. Most thank him and some are teary-eyed, going straight into the arms of a friend or loved one.

At around 9:30 p.m., most of the crowd has cleared and retreated to the warmth of their homes, sure to return on Sunday morning. Phil Carroll, a former school bus driver in Newtown, chats inside with a student who used to ride his bus and then wanders outside to talk two police officers. Carroll, 58, is an alum of Sandy Hook Elementary School and is still coming to grips with the massacre.

Carroll looks at the dozen and a half media satellite trucks parked in the nearby lot, and says there will be neither talk of healing, nor gun control—not yet. “This hurt our community so bad. It broke a lot of hearts,” he says, using the same phrase over and over again. “How else can you say something like this?”

MORE: Am I Safe? Talking to Your Kids About the Sandy Hook School Shooting