Sandy Hook mom and dad speak out in rare interview: 'You don’t heal from grief'

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor
From left, Guy, JoAnn, Joel, and Charlotte Bacon. Charlotte was killed during the Sandy Hook school shooting on Dec. 14, 2012. (Photo: Courtesy of the Bacon family)

It was five years ago that a young man invaded Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and shot and killed 20 young children and six staff members, a tragedy that indelibly scarred that small city and lives on in the collective national memory. But school shootings didn’t begin, or end, with Sandy Hook. Yahoo News looks at the aftermath of four of these tragedies and the lives they changed. In this story, we look at how the parents of a girl killed in Newtown are coping with their loss. In other stories, we examine how 20 years on, Jonesboro, Ark., is still traumatized by an attack carried out by two middle-school boys — and how survivors deal with the knowledge that the killers are now grown men and free from prison; and at the lessons from Sandy Hook that may have helped save lives at a California school just last month. 

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Five years ago this week, the lives of JoAnn and Joel Bacon were forever altered with the death of their daughter, Charlotte — an intelligent, energetic 6-year-old who loved dogs and was “independent, bold, and adventurous,” says her mom. She was among the 20 children shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. And while life has gone on for the bereaved couple and their 15-year-old son, Guy — particularly through the energy they channel into their Charlotte Helen Bacon Foundation, which champions causes from comfort dogs to grief support — they’ve also spent these years struggling with the reality of their personal anguish and grief. And that’s something many people prefer not to acknowledge, says JoAnn.

“I dislike it when people bypass my pain only to point out all my accomplishments since Charlotte’s death,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It is the triumph-over-tragedy narrative that is appealing and most comfortable for others, but I have worked hard with my grief, and I have scars. I do not want them glossed over. I do not see it as my responsibility to soothe and comfort others by hiding the real.”

This week, as Yahoo marks the fifth anniversary of the Dec. 14 rampage in Newtown, JoAnn and Joel reveal “the real,” giving voice to what they feel have been some of the most unsung truths about the Sandy Hook tragedy and the fractured families in its wake.

It is a personal tragedy first and foremost, and a collective tragedy second.

“I think there’s a need for us to know that people remember our loved ones, and not just as a group, like, ‘Remember Newtown,’ or ‘Remember the 20 children,’ or ‘Remember the 6 educators,’ kind of all lumped together,” says JoAnn. “They were individuals, and they each had something special about them, and I feel that gets lost in these mass tragedies. And that makes me really sad.”

Often, she adds, “there’s more attention on the event, or the murderer, or on the investigation and what happened to the school. But no one really wants to focus on the individual. And as a parent, I want to know that people actively remember.” Further, she says, as various community recovery efforts, advocacy organizations, or memorial sites have sprung up in response to the shooting. “Many of these decisions have created considerable pain for my family, sometimes leaving us feeling like our loss is being exploited for a particular agenda,” she says. “It has required a lot of vigilance to have our voice heard.”

Charlotte Bacon (Photo: Courtesy of the Bacon family)

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Grief cannot be “fixed.”

“My grief represents my love for Charlotte, so I don’t want it to go away. Instead, I’ve learned to embrace my grief,” explains Joel, who says he learned to see this perspective with the help of Arizona-based psychologist and grief counselor Joanne Cacciatore, whose expertise is in parental bereavement. “What I’ve really appreciated about working with her is, right away, it became very clear that she wasn’t there to try to fix our grief, and her approach is really unique.”

So much advice from others, Joel adds, “really leads in different directions — that you’re supposed to be ‘distracting’ or ‘moving on,’ or ‘moving past.’ Healing is a common word used. But you don’t heal from grief. You learn to cope and live with grief, but it’s not something that’s fixable.”

Being called “strong” does not always feel supportive.

“There is a tendency for people to remark on our strength when they learn about the foundation we established in Charlotte’s name. We are often told we are strong and inspirational for staying so positive,” says JoAnn. “But what I want to tell them is that the real strength is having to fight for the dignity of your dead child. Fighting to protect the privacy of your surviving child. Fighting to raise a healthy child under insane circumstances. Fighting for normalcy when there is a circus tent outside your front door. Going into battle with your grief and pain and leaving in a truce. Advocacy and charitable work are beautiful gifts, but for me, it is the byproduct of doing the personal work first.”

 The loss of privacy has been intensely difficult.

“We went from a quiet life to having our most horrific day becoming one of the most reported events in recent history,” says JoAnn. “In the early days, there were a lot of people looking for a piece of our story, from reporters to acquaintances, who hoped to look like an insider because they ‘knew one of the families.’ It was so overwhelming that Joel and I discussed how we needed to be careful with everything we said.”

As a result, she says, she “isolated” a lot, avoiding most places in town and becoming anxious at the thought of leaving the house. “I could not bear the looks of pity from strangers who recognized me, the overt avoidance from those I did know but who could not face me, or the people who hadn’t any time for me before the shooting but now wanted to be friends. There were also individuals who looked to me for support, as if we had a shared experience, when I was the one with the dead child. I tried to draw boundaries, but they were often ignored. To this day I struggle with trust issues.”

It’s painful to have your trauma resurrected by the media each time a similar tragedy occurs.

“What’s always difficult for me, personally, is that when another tragedy happens, Sandy Hook always seems to be referenced. It always seems to be tied in,” Joel says. “It’s something that I can’t control, and it’s difficult to deal with.” Particularly tough to hear, he adds, is that “after one of these tragedies, the attention all too often goes straight toward politics or mental health or gun control, and ‘what is the nation going to do to prevent another tragedy,’ when there’s no discussion about what’s going to be done to help the victims’ families who are dealing with this. Talking about fixing something in the future doesn’t help the current situation.”

All of that talk, JoAnn adds, “can be very divisive, which has been very hurtful to our family. Before we even buried our daughter, we had to listen to that dialogue. So because of that, I really refrain from talking about other people’s losses. I know how hurtful it is, and I certainly don’t want to add to anyone else’s pain.”

 Many things are helpful.

“Friends and family that held us up in the beginning and now remain rooted right behind us ready to support in any way necessary” are at the top of the list, JoAnn says. “My support group is small but fierce. I have also found solace, support, and friendship with some of the parents whose children also died that day.”

Other sources of comfort: “Being with our animals, gardening, and creating. Writing has been instrumental in feeling that my voice is heard. It has allowed me to process my grief and emotions and at the same time create a historical record.” And finally, JoAnn says, “I truly have felt the support and compassion from so many strangers. And people who continue to find ways to reach out and remember Charlotte but always following our lead. It has been a tremendous gift.”

Related Slideshow: Images from Newtown >>>

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