Firsts are usually cause for celebration. First birthdays. First time driving. First graduation. First wedding anniversary. First grandchild.
But when your child has been murdered, firsts become terrifying. The first missed birthday. The first missed Christmas. The first-day-of-school photo that will never be taken. The first that marks one year since your child was killed.
Now the Parkland families — who have suffered a new “first” every day they have woken up since February 14, 2018, when their child went to school and never returned — will experience one of the most anxiety-inducing and emotional firsts yet.
I wish I could hold every single one of them tightly in my arms and heart, and absorb their pain to lessen it, just for one day. To save them from the overwhelming wave of emotion that remains unexpected, even though you know it is coming. To make sure that all they have to do is create space for themselves and breathe, until the next day begins and they have made it through. While this experience is unique to each person, I know that no matter what, you must live it — must survive it — so that you know that you can. It’s not about moving forward; it’s about moving through.
To mark the first year of my beautiful baby boy’s murder, I decided, on the spur of the moment, to jump from a plane. The first year without Dylan — my youngest son, who was killed in his first-grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School — was a nightmare I thought would be impossible to wake from. Though I was doing the best I could and had immersed myself in work, helping launch and lead an organization — Sandy Hook Promise — with the mission to prevent future school shootings, I still felt flat. I was living, but not alive. I was lost. Empty. I believed I would never experience real hope or joy again.
I worked hard trying to garner enough votes for the failed April 2013 Background Check vote in the Senate. (Six years later, because of Parkland families, survivors and activists, this bill has now been revived in the House of Representatives.) But even as I roamed the halls of Congress, I found myself reaching for the walls, trailing my fingers along them as I walked, feeling something, in an effort to comprehend that life after December 14, 2012, was real and not some waking nightmare. I carried my passport in my purse for that entire first year, thinking I could disappear and hide at a moment’s notice if the sadness and grief overwhelmed me, even though as a mother to both my deceased son and my surviving son, I knew I would never run away.
So as I saw on the horizon the one-year mark of the Sandy Hook massacre, of the murder of my son and 25 of his classmates and educators, I woke each morning with trepidation and building anxiety of how I would get through it. My family had already left Newtown to go to Florida for the week, hoping the sunshine would help. When I heard that where we were staying in Deland, Fla., had one of the country’s best skydiving centers, I knew how I would spend the day.
It was a first. I smiled throughout the entire experience, loving the peace, the view of the world below me and the feeling of flying, of — finally — being alive. It was, for me, the perfect way to get through this first. It somehow reminded me that I will always be a Mom to two boys. To remember and grieve my beautiful butterfly Dylan, to show my amazing surviving son that you can find joy even through grief. I also needed to show myself that I did not die that day — and that I have a job to do.
The jump helped renew my commitment to preventing school shootings and violence. I didn’t want any more parents and communities to experience these firsts. And while I know the work my team and I have done through Sandy Hook Promise has prevented school shootings and suicide threats, tragedies have continued in the last six years. Last year was the worst on record, with 97 school shootings.
I’ve watched the Parkland families over the past year as they’ve joined together to demand life-saving legislation and as they’ve stood individually honoring their lost loved one. I’ve had the sad honor of meeting with many of them, knowing that while my experience is as unique as each of theirs, there are enough similarities to provide insight into what may lie ahead, and to acknowledge that the rollercoaster of daily life and emotions they are experiencing are normal. I also know some of them are healing through the foundations they have created, as I am through mine.
The firsts never end. Each becomes a new way of life after death. But to the families of Parkland — and to all the families who lost a loved one to death by firearm in the past year — you are never alone. And let’s do what is needed to ensure that, soon, one of these tragedies will be the last.