Wounded Newtown moves from shock to coping with the trauma

4:27 PM, Dec 22, 2012   |    comments
Alana Le, of North Dighton, Mass., leaves a stuffed animal at the memorial at Newtown High School Thursday, December 20, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut. (Brad Horrigan/Hartford Courant/MCT via Getty Images)
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Newtown, Conn. once stood in relative anonymity.

It doesn't have the tony, moneyed image of Greenwich, Conn. It doesn't have the tourist attractions of Mystic, Conn.

Newton's quaint shops and historic building were just a part of residents' everyday lives.

Now they're the backdrop for non-stop news reports of the horror that happened here on Friday, when this idyllic New England town experienced one of the country's worst mass shootings.

Residents are overwrought. They're wrangling with why a 20-year-old from their community would brutally shoot 20 school kids, six adults and his mother.

They hug each other in the streets. They cry during church services. They hold each other close as they attend funeral services.

They are reeling. But eight days after the shooting, the community is slowly moving from gut-wrenching shock to trying to cope with the trauma.

Townspeople are using Sandy Hook Elementary School's green and white colors to show solidarity and support for the families of victims shot there. They wear shirts, pants and fabric pins of those hues. They tie balloons of those colors to their mailboxes.

Small businesses, as well as high school students, are collecting donations to help families with funeral and burial costs. Residents attend vigils and support groups.

Such actions can be therapeutic for town that is "saturated in trauma," says Therese Rando, director of The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss, in Warwick, RI.

Coming together as a "collective" provides "a good outlet for emotions," especially at a time when so many people feel helpless, she says.

The families of the victims are the obviously at risk for mental health strain, as are Sandy Hook teachers, students and the scene's first responders.

Yet, Rando adds that everyone in this tight-knit community could be affected by post traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety or other mental health issues.

"You've got to worry about everyone across the board," she says.

Marred by tragedy

Daniel Daniel Olszewski, a Newtown High School senior, said his last year sociology class covered school shootings such as Columbine and Virginia Tech. The class consensus was that such a horrific event would never happen in Newtown, he says. The students didn't think there were people like that in this town.

"This is Newtown. Nothing could happen," says Daniel Olszewski, 17. "The biggest thing I hear about is someone getting pulled over."

He now fears that his town will lose its treasured anonymity.

"I always liked being in a town that no one knew about. That's nice and private," he says. "This is going to put Newtown on the map. We're going to be in textbooks. When people find out you're from Newtown, they're going to start asking you questions."

A group of residents from Newtown and surrounding areas are painfully aware that the area will be forever linked with this tragedy. Now they want to use the shooting as a springboard to enact positive change nationwide.

On Monday night, about 50 people gathered at the Newtown library to discuss how they could foster new community guidelines -- and even national laws -- to protect children, as well as to help them thrive.

"Newtown is not only the site of a tragic event," says Newtown resident James Belden, who helped to form Newtown United, a new community group that brought this meeting together. "We want it to be a catalyst for change."

The group, which included high school students, senior citizens and middle-aged parents, discussed mental health issues, school safety and gun control.

They threw out big-picture ideas such as a high tax on individual bullets, better control over who can buy bullets in bulk and a public registry that discloses the names and addresses of gun owners.

They also talked about what they could do within the community to help restidents cope with PTSD, as well as ideas about potential memorials to honor the slain.

"Maybe it's a pipe dream to want the country to learn something from this when they haven't learned from all the other (mass shootings)," says Newtown resident Lee Shull, who also one of Newtown United's organizers.

But he wanted to at least try to make a difference. "I just don't want this ever happen again," he says.

Starting to heal

The wounds are raw - and they may never completely mend.

"It's an extremely sad story is going to have tentacles that will stay in that community for many generations to come," says Forensic Psychiatrist Steven Pitt, who was an adviser to the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office regarding the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.

Residents "have to have a long-term perspective that says 'this will be a process and it will take time,'" adds Rando. "There will be scars forever. It's learning how to live with those scars."

Yet, there is some talk of healing.

Andrew Paley,president of Congregation Adath Israel in Newtown, says that his son Benjamin stood up to speak at Friday night service after the shooting.

Benjamin, a fourth grader at Sandy Hook, "said something along the lines of, 'I'm 9 years old and if I can get through this, I know all of you can.'" says Paley.

Newtown historian Daniel Cruson says the town has deep and "unutterable grief."

But Newtown's tight-knit sense of community, a civic ethos where families, friends and neighbors "all help each other out when something happens," will help the town recover, he says.

"I've lived here over 40 years," he says. "It's a strong community, in the best sense."

Resident Betsy Paynter, 46, says that emotional rebuilding for her personally, as well as for the town as a whole, will take continued gatherings at local football games, neighbors making meals for each other and town officials hosting meetings about the effects of the tragedy on everyday life."

"Our tag used to be 'it's nicer in Newtown,'" she said. "I'd add: 'and it always will be,'"

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