NEWTOWN, CONN.: At least five of the children who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School played at a gymnastics center called the Tumble Jungle. So, soon after the shootings, a staff member brought a bedsheet from her house, painted the words “Our Angels, Never Forgotten” on it, and she and her co-workers draped it over the sign in the front window.
It was one of dozens of such heartfelt memorials that appeared on Newtown roadsides, in yards and on storefronts in the days after the shootings. Today, the bedsheet is still there, rippling in the wind like a flag of mourning, which in every sense it is.
“We lost so many kids close to us,” said Brandy Nezvesky, 18, the manager of Tumble Jungle. “It’s going to be a big decision for all of us to take it down.”
Newtown remains a town suffocating in grief after the school massacre on Dec. 14 that killed 20 first-graders and six adult staff members. Now, it is wrestling with what to do with all those well-meaning memorials. The sheet in front of the Tumble Jungle remains; others have disappeared, some swept up by the town in the middle of the night. It is a daunting question: When do public displays of sorrow and sympathy become barriers to moving on, especially for the victims’ families who drive past them?
The town has been so inundated with these and other acts of sympathy that at one point officials implored other communities to stop sending gifts of toys and other goods and to give them to their own charities in the name of the Sandy Hook victims.
“That’s what happens in disasters like this, especially on a scale like this,” said John Eastwood, the pastor of Calvary Chapel in nearby Southbury. Eastwood was a chaplain with the Red Cross at Ground Zero after 9/11.
Church members have been operating a heated tent on a vacant lot down the road from the school where people can drop off tributes, talk to a chaplain or simply wander among the mounds of teddy bears, flowers, prayer cards and posters signed by schoolchildren and well-wishers from across the country and the world.
“That’s one of the primary needs of these temporary memorials,” Eastwood said. “People need to release some of that grief, and it becomes a safe place instead of turning into a complicated grief.”
Painful decision made
The question of how long is too long to let these temporary memorials stand has become all too familiar in sites like Columbine, Virginia Tech and, more recently, Aurora, Colo., where gunmen have gone on deadly rampages.
Patricia Llodra, Newtown’s first selectwoman, made the painful decision for many herself when she ordered the Public Works Department two weeks after the shooting to remove many of the most elaborate memorials.
Before doing so, Llodra alerted members of the entire community by phone, warning them of the pending removal.
Llodra also wrote a letter to the victims’ families inviting them to spend private time at the sites and to take any items they wished for personal keepsakes. On Dec. 28, the police closed the roads around the memorials for two hours as about 50 people from 15 families took her up on the offer.
That night, after most of the town had gone to bed, employees from the Public Works Department collected all the material and took it to the department’s warehouse.
“There’s no road map for this,” Llodra said. “So I have to really make the decisions based on what my heart tells me is right and what my head says is possible.”
A pair of professionally printed green and white posters outside the Pizza Palace display the number 26 with a halo overhead and an angel’s wings, underlined by a row of angels holding hands. Dila Dushku Fonda, who owns the restaurant with her brothers and a cousin, had a friend print them. She welcomed Llodra’s decision to remove the public memorials. But asked when she might take down her own, she said it was still too soon, the anguish still “too raw.”
“Mourning is such a personal thing,” she said, as she started to cry. “You don’t even have to have children to understand the pain, all you have to have is a heart.”