On Dec 14th 2012 Scarlett Lewis’s 6-year-old son, Jesse, was killed when gunman Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and shot dead 20 children and six staff before turning the gun on himself. It was the deadliest mass shooting at a school in U.S. history. Since then, with the encouragement of her older son JT, Scarlett has founded the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation to develop programs to help children choose a life without fear and hate. In 2013 she published Nurturing Healing Love.
That morning when Jesse’s father came to pick him up for school, I turned to give Jesse a hug and saw he’d written ‘I LOVE YOU’ in the frost on the car door. I ran inside to get my phone and took a picture of him in front of it, before kissing him good-bye. This picture has become such a precious memory.
You never expect anything to happen to first graders, so later that morning when I heard there’d been a shooting in Sandy Hook I didn’t feel a sense of urgency. Even when I arrived at the school and saw the emergency services and helicopters it didn’t sink in. Parents were being reunited with their kids and the crowd started thinning. Around this time my mum and step-dad appeared, and so did JT, my elder son, who had texted me to ask if he could come and wait. I’d told him to come on down, not realizing that I was bringing him into a scene of such trauma.
It was only when the police asked if Jesse had any identifying marks on his body that I started to fear something terrible had happened. By now other parents were learning of their children’s fate – there was screaming and crying, many collapsed. When JT started to cry I found myself drawing on my faith for strength. I looked him straight in the eyes and said: “It’s going to be OK. If Jesse is not coming back somehow we’ll survive.”
I went back to my mother’s house that night knowing Jesse was dead. Friends came and we cried together. I took a big sleeping pill and my mum looked after JT. The following morning I learned officially of Jesse’s death, but it wasn’t until reading a text from his dad saying that Jesse had been eulogized on the front page of the New York Post, that I realised 26 people had lost their lives. At this point I just dropped my phone and started howling. I couldn’t believe the magnitude of the tragedy.
I thought I’d never be able to come home to the farmhouse where I’d raised both my boys alone. Jesse’s personality was so exuberating, there were memories everywhere. But eventually we came home and a few days later I found something that has nourished me ever since. Scribbled on a chalk board by Jesse a few days before he died were the words ‘nurturing healing love’, spelt phonetically. These are not the words of a 6-year-old and goodness knows where he heard them, but it was Jesse’s writing and for me it was a prophetic message that I will hold onto and spread for the rest of my life.
Reaching out to others has saved me. People tell me that Jesse’s message of love and compassion has helped them to change some pain in their life; to be able to pass on Jesse’s legacy is very healing.
Forgiveness is central to my resilience. A social worker came to my house shortly after the incident. Kneeling down, with her hand on my knee, she said, “I know how it feels; I’ve also lost my son and I’m here to tell you the pain will never get better.” At that moment I thought, “That is absolutely not going to be my journey.”
And so I chose the path of forgiveness. Initially it felt as if the shooter was attached to me by some umbilical cord and all my energy was being sapped. Forgiveness felt like I was given a big pair of scissors to cut the tie and regain my personal power. It started with a choice and then became a process with no neat ending. One day I can forgive and the next I may hear a detail of what happened in the classroom and feel anger all over again.
I also have had to forgive Adam Lanza’s mother who unwittingly armed him and defied medical advice that he should not be isolated. There’s a lot of anger for her in the community but I can identify with her because we were both single mums. She paid for her mistakes. He shot her dead before heading for the school.
At Jesse’s funeral I urged everyone to choose love rather than hate. I said, “This tragedy started with an angry thought in the shooter’s head which grew to rage and escalated to violence. So please honour Jesse’s memory by consciously changing an angry thought into a loving one, to make this a better world.” I have come to realise that if Adam Lanza had understood he was more than his thoughts, and if he had received the social and emotional learning support he needed, none of this might have happened. He wasn’t born a mass murderer. He had issues at school but instead of helping him, Sandy Hook Elementary passed the problem on to someone else. In this respect Adam Lanza is all our responsibility. Certainly I feel anger at the shooter when I think of the children’s fear and what he did to their little bodies, but when I think of the pain that he was in I am able to find compassion too.