Angels and Automatics: Lessons from Newtown

I haven’t stopped thinking about Newtown and all that was lost thirty-two days ago.  For a moment, America was shocked.  We shed collective tears for all those young lives lost.  We felt our vulnerability and it hurt.  It hurt like hell.  But like most metaphorical wounds, it healed, or has at least scabbed over.  We’ve gotten back to routines.  We drop our kids off in the morning at school and maybe are not worrying so much about what awaits them.  The rhetoric has become political.  Is the problem mental health?  Is it school security?  Is it gun control?  Most of us are comfortable letting the politicians and Facebook zealots figure it out.

What hasn’t gone back to normal are the lives of those families who lost a child.  They are thirty-two days into the ‘grief process’ that will never end.  The whole idea of a grief process has always annoyed me, even when I worked as a hospice bereavement counselor.  By definition, a process is linear, predictable, methodical.  Grief is none of those things.  Grief is the bucking horse that will not be tamed.  Grief is a wild ride that is at times bearable and at other times terrifying.  Three years into the greatest grief of my life, I’ve grown accustomed to it’s nature, but it is still a powerful beast that at times throws me off completely.

Yesterday an article came across my Facebook feed and I was surprised to read its headline, “Noah Pozner’s Mom Describes Newtown Victim’s Body, And Why We Should All Listen.”  I had never seen a story about the Newtown tragedy such as this headline suggested.  There are some things that are just not discussed, right?  Those twenty children are precious, they are “angels,” and angels don’t have parents talking about their mortal wounds in media interviews.  Right?


Noah Pozner is no angel.  He is a boy who senselessly and tragically died because a rifle was aimed at his face and then ten other places on his little body.  Veronique Pozner, Noah’s mother, wanted the governor of Connecticut to see her boy, her beautiful boy, as he was after the shootings.  She invited Governor Dannel Malloy to view Noah’s open casket.  In her interview with Naomi Zeveloff of the Jewish Daily Forward, Veronique Pozner captures something in words that I have thought often myself, though never so eloquently, “I just want people to know the ugliness of it so we don’t talk about it abstractly, like these little angels just went to heaven. No. They were butchered. They were brutalized. And that is what haunts me at night.”

I so understand her need for others to bear witness to the brutality of her son’s death.

After Donna died, there was a period where it made me terribly angry to hear her referred to as an angel.  During her shiva, people would use the expression with me and I would bite my tongue, knowing full well that my friends and family meant no harm whatsoever.  But I drew the line with our chaplain.  This dear colleague who knew Donna personally and listened to me struggle with my fear during her years of treatment used the dreaded “angel” in her comments for the burial service that I got to hear ahead of time.  I asked her to remove the word.  She completely understood and did so easily.

I know that there are many, many other grieving parents who feel the exact opposite of me.  Thinking of their child as an angel above brings them comfort and solace.  I would never wish to jeopardize that for them.  But for me, and possibly for Veronique Pozner, the term angel brings us no comfort when applied to our children buried in the ground.  And in drawing this comparison I do not mean to draw comparisons to our losses.  Noah Pozner and Donna died for very, very different reasons.  I would say apple and oranges, but that is much too benign a comparison.

When people refer to the Newtown shooting victims as angels, I think that speaks more to their needs than the needs of the families that survive.  If God above needed angels, did he need to transport them in such a violent way?  Where is the logic in that?  It makes no sense to me.

My sense is that Veronique Pozner wants us to know and understand the brutality of that sunny day at Sandy Hook Elementary.  By sharing the details of her Noah’s death, graphic as they are, she is not exploiting her son.  She is opening our eyes.

Semi-automatic weapons are a serious business.  They are not clean shots.  They are meant and intended for destruction on a massive scale.  The body of a six year old, the bodies of twenty six and seven year olds, and the wounds they were left with being on the receiving end of a wall of bullets, tell the true story of semi-automatic weapons so widely available in America.  It is a bloody and graphic and uncomfortable story, but it is one that needs to be told.  And we need to listen.

I support Veronique Pozner and I bear witness to her loss.  May Noah rest in peace, along with Charlotte and Daniel and Olivia and Josephine and Ana and Dylan and Madeleine and Catherine and Chase and Jesse and James and Grace and Emilie and Jack and Caroline and Jessica and Avielle and Benjamin and Allison.

Kraft och omtanke to their families and the community of Newtown, Connecticut.

Correction:  A few readers have commented that my use of the term “automatic weapon” was incorrect, that the Newtown shooter, in fact, used a semi-automatic weapon.   The New York Times tells me that it was an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.   I have corrected three items in this post — changed “shotgun” to “rifle” in the fifth paragraph and added “semi” in front of “automatic” in two instances in the eleventh paragraph.  For the record, I do not believe the mistakes are reflective of anything other than my gun ignorance.  The intent of this post is about witnessing violence and the cost of weapons in our culture.  Whether that violence was the result of an automatic weapon or semi-automatic rifle seems to me semantics and nothing else.  MTM.

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