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After Surviving Sandy Hook, Newtown Has Advice for Anguished Orlando

Residents of Newtown, Connecticut, are being called on to share their hard-won lessons on the language and action of grief.
Image: Newtown after Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting
Anthony Bracey lights candles at the makeshift memorial in the center of Sandy Hook village on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. Bracey and his girlfriend Jamie Rodrigues have come from Danbury every day since the massacre, saying they "don't know how else to help or show that there are still good people out there." (David Friedman / NBC News)David Friedman / NBC News

The horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 14, 2012, thrust the small community of Newtown, Connecticut, into the national spotlight.

Since then, with each anniversary or fresh eruption of gun violence, residents have been called upon to share their expertise in the language and action of grief.

They have come to understand how years of grappling with the aftermath of tragedy can be draining, but also transformative.

In conversations this week, they offered these lessons to shocked residents of Orlando, especially for the days when America’s attention inevitably moves on from the scene of its latest ineffable sadness.

Healing will take time

Life in Newtown is much closer to normal now than it was in the days and weeks after the shooting. But little things can trigger anxieties — like when a tire blew recently on a truck outside the Newtown General Store, causing customers to jump, owner Peter Leone recalled.

Alan Chapin at the Newton General Store: “How many times do we have to read about this?”Jennifer / Weiss

And every time there’s a mass shooting somewhere in the country, it dredges up bad memories.

"I think everyone is just sort of in shock again," said Alan Chapin, 64, who was having lunch at the General Store. “How many times do we have to read about this? You feel helpless.”

News of other mass shootings “re-traumatizes,” said the Rev. Matt Crebbin, senior minister at the Newtown Congregational Church. “It’s bringing people back to our own experiences in a very palpable way.”

The church hosted an interfaith vigil for Orlando on Monday after the shooting. Crebbin said people there should not expect to be done dealing with their grief six months or even a year out.

“We’re still on this journey,” he said. “That’s not a process that just will happen easily. It’s probably a lifelong journey.”

He said support providers should also consider that the community and people directly impacted may need services long after media interest fades.

“You have to think not just immediacy, or how do we get through the next month of providing support, but how are we really going to help folks over the ... long haul and be effective in providing ongoing support to families,” he said.

There’s strength in numbers

After the Sandy Hook shooting, Orlando priests reached out to Monsignor Robert Weiss of Newtown’s St. Rose of Lima Church to offer condolences and support. Recently, he found himself writing to Orlando’s bishop with a similar message. Weiss, who is known as Father Bob, grew up in Orlando and still has family there.

He said the people of Orlando should take advantage of available resources.

“If you need help, get help,” he advised.

The church offers a support program for grandparents of Sandy Hook victims, and has worked to help residents through their grief over the tragedy, which left 20 children and six staff members dead.

Weiss said he was told the community would see increases in drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and marital breakups, and it has. As a result, “We’re trying to do something on a broader level,” he said.

A small memorial consisting of a single bell at the church and a statue outside St. Rose of Lima School, the Angel of Hope, offer places of reflection on what some refer to as "1214" -- the month and date of the massacre.

“Get yourself together and be a unified community and find strength in each other and the Lord,” he said. “There’s no other way to get through something like this.”

You can turn your emotion into action

Before the shooting, Po Murray didn’t think much about guns. When she heard about a mass shooting somewhere, she was like a lot of people, she said: she would pause to reflect on how horrific it was, and move on.

Murray settled in Sandy Hook with her husband when their oldest daughter was 5; their four children now range in age from 14 to 21, and all went through Sandy Hook Elementary.

After the shooting, Murray, 49, became an advocate for tougher gun laws, co-founding the Newtown Action Alliance. She now serves as chairman of the group, which has met with state and national legislators on gun issues, and each year organizes a national vigil for victims of gun violence around the anniversary of the shooting.

“I strongly feel that we should move forward but we shouldn’t move on,” Murray said. “Let it be a lesson to us and to America that something like this can happen anywhere, anytime. We should do more to advocate for change from a Ground Zero location of a horrific mass shooting.”

Sue Roman, an activist and filmmaker, at her home in Newtown, Connecticut, on June 15. "Be angry, and take that anger and turn it into action and persistence," she said.Jennifer Weiss / NBC News

Sue Roman, who lives in Newtown with her 18-year-old son, had switched gears toward activism before the shooting, inspired in part by the Occupy Wall Street movement. The shooting solidified her determination to get involved.

With her camera, she has documented anti-gun violence protests, “acts of kindness,” and rides by Team 26, the cycling group that makes an annual trek from Newtown to Washington, D.C. to honor victims and fight for gun safety laws.

Her younger son, Ben, was a student at Newtown Middle School at the time of the shooting. Months later, she said he killed himself, “for a number of reasons, but the shooting was definitely part of it.” He was 13 years old.

“It will take time to heal but what I say is, be angry, and take that anger and turn it into action and persistence,” she said. “The people of Orlando who are not directly related to those victims have a responsibility to them to do something, and to honor with action there too.”

Somehow, some way, focus on the good

Leone, who owns the Newtown General Store and Misty Vale Deli, has lived in Newtown 25 years and hosted a crush of news media and law enforcement in the general store in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.

He said it’s been hard to see the Norman Rockwell-type town he loves “used as a negative statistic.”

Two of his three children graduated from Sandy Hook Elementary. On the site of the school, which was torn down after the shooting, a new Sandy Hook School, with nature-inspired design elements and $50 million in pledged state funding, is scheduled to open this fall. The new school will bring back to the community students who have been learning in nearby Monroe.

Peter Leone who owns the Newtown General Store and Misty Vale Deli, has lived in Newtown 25 years.Jennifer Weiss / NBC News

Leone, 54, said he looked forward to the opening. “That will be the final piece that, yes, we’re back to normal,” he said.

He said he would advise the people of Orlando to remember all the good in the place where they live, even though it is now marked by tragedy.

“There’s a lot of great things with this town. There’s a lot of great things with Orlando, and I would focus on the positive,” he said.