Remembrance and mourning in Newtown

I imagine I’m not alone in still struggling with the Newtown massacre. Even after witnessing media deluge, the tangential political grandstanding, the unique evil of killing 1st graders is very difficult for me to think about.

How do reporters even begin to make sense out of the bloodbath? For many, they turn to politics, which provides comfort for many, including many journalists.

I’ve been intrigued by the relative downplaying of religion in coverage. But there was a really good piece on one of the victims and it’s worth a read.

It comes from The Jewish Daily Forward, a publication we don’t normally critique. But it’s written in a straight news fashion and does a great job of looking solely at how six-year-old Noah Pozner’s family is mourning. It begins with a mention of all of the gifts being sent to the family by strangers the world over.

Noah was the youngest child massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, when 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza first killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, and then shot his way into the school and slayed 20 first grade students and six staff members, including the principal. Noah was hit 11 times. He was the first child to be buried, on December 17 in a funeral overseen by Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel of Newtown.

For the following six nights, the family sat shiva at a friend’s house, which could better accommodate the dozens of visitors than their smaller home. Today, Sunday, with the official Jewish mourning period over, the Pozners have invited friends and family to a large white two-story home they have rented on the outskirts of Newtown. (Noah’s father Lenny is not present. Veronique says her husband “needed to get away” after sitting shiva with the family, and went to visit friends in Florida.) In preparation, the family clears the stuffed animals off the kitchen island and replaces them with bowls of dried fruit, chips, candied nuts, carrot sticks and a roast turkey.

This is how the nation’s most famous Jewish grieving family grieves.

The story is a couple thousand words long and includes tons of details, explaining that a torn black ribbon pinned to mother Veronique’s shirt is a Jewish mourning custom. Other things are not, such as a tattoo she got the day after his death of “a small pink rose flanked by two angel wings with Noah’s name spanning the space between them, and his birth and death dates beneath.”

For those curious about the day-to-day aftermath of losing your child, we learn a great deal about just that. And about how Veronique became Jewish:

Veronique was born in Switzerland to French parents who raised her in Scarsdale, N.Y. She converted to Judaism in 1992 when she married her first husband, Reuben Vabner. Her second husband, Lenny, is also Jewish; he is originally from Brooklyn and works in information technology. In 2005, Lenny and Veronique relocated to Newtown from nearby Bethel. (They had previously lived in Westchester.) They had three children in tow: Sophia, an infant, and Danielle and Michael, from Veronique’s first marriage. Sometime in 2013, Veronique says, she plans to move her family again, this time to the Seattle area where much of her extended family lives. They will be taking Noah’s body with them.

Noah and his twin Arielle, we learn, were inseparable. Their 22-months-older sister was also close to them. He was a smart kid who asked about how things worked:

Noah also wondered about God, asking his mother, “If God exists then who created God?” He wanted to know what happens after death. “I would always tell him, ‘You are not going to die until you are a very old man, Noah.’ He was afraid of death, I know he was. He feared the unknown,” Veronique says. “Sometimes I wonder whether he had some foretelling, some prescience about it. Of course I will never know for sure, maybe it was just the random fears of a child.”

The whole piece is good and worth a read. It’s full of interesting details about the religious practices of the Pozners. Would be nice to read more of this type of story.

Remembrance candle via Shutterstock.

So a rabbi and a priest and 20 parents walk into hell

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So, how many GetReligion readers will be able to forget watching the Robbie Parker press conference, accompanied by the image of his blue-eyed, angelic lost daughter Emilie?

Not me, that’s for sure.

I was struck by his early reference to the gifts given to her by “her Heavenly Father” and, while that is very standard Christian language, the minute the network aired a picture of the young family, with it’s three young daughters, I immediately wondered if they were Mormons. I, for one, have not seen a clear reference on that point, but the fund in memory of Emilie Parker is based in Ogden, Utah. Also, did anyone else note the poignant reference to his final chat with his daughter?

Here is The Washington Post on that subject:

One parent who lost a child, Robbie Parker, spoke to reporters Saturday evening. He expressed sympathy for Lanza’s family, saying, “I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you.”

Parker said that Emilie, the daughter he lost, was blond and blue-eyed and could light up a room. “All those who had the pleasure to meet her would agree that the world was better because she was in it,” Parker said. He recalled the last time he saw Emilie, on Friday morning as he headed to work. He had been teaching her Portuguese, and so their last conversation was in that language.

“She said that she loved me, and she gave me a kiss and I was out the door,” said Parker, whose family moved to Newtown eight months ago. “I’m so blessed to be her dad.”

One wonders why this young medical worker had learned Portuguese. There could be a missionary link in there, somewhere.

But never mind, as in many reports on his remarkably graceful press conference, the faith content and language vanished in the Post copy. One can only ask why.

The memorial rites and funerals will, of course, contain plenty of religious images and passages, with a heavy emphasis on issues of theodicy. This is well and good. I’m writing on an issue related to that myself, this week, for Scripps Howard.

While many have mentioned the close-knit clergy of this community, I keep waiting for evidence that this is more than a mainline Protestant, Jewish and Catholic town. Has anyone seen evidence of those serving evangelical, Mormon or Pentecostal believers?

The New York Times and Washington Post each offered clergy stories, which, together, gave readers a kind of “so a rabbi and a priest walk into hell” scenario. The top of the Times piece appears to be an eyewitness report from a reporter standing silently on the edge of a quiet room in the funeral home:

It was early Sunday, the first time that Veronique Pozner had seen the boy’s body since he was shot to death in his first-grade classroom two days before. A sheet covered his body up to his neck, and a social worker had urged Ms. Pozner not to remove it. She obliged, but began to wail, alternately telling her son to leave this “dark, horrible world,” and beseeching him to come back.

Rabbi Praver began to speak softly. He told her that though Noah had physically left this world, he was not lost to them because his soul lived on. He asked her if she remembered her 6-year-old self and when she said she did, he told her that “when we become adults, our 5- and 6-year-olds didn’t die with us; they’re contained within a larger vessel.”

He was offering, he said, a kind of “spiritual morphine.”

And then, in the Post, there is the spiritual minefield in which Msgr. Robert Weiss has living for several days now:

The 66-year-old priest is known as Father Bob to the 3,500 families who belong to St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church. On Sunday, what Father Bob craved — after long hours of counseling and grieving and not enough sleep — was a good Scotch and a place to let go. Half of the 20 children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary were members of Weiss’s congregation, and he had baptized many of them.

After the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday, in a rectory full of law enforcement officers and priests, Weiss wept.

Nothing at seminary had trained him for this week. Nothing about his 13 years at St. Rose. Nothing about his understanding of the world.

“I thought about Paul,” said Weiss, his black clergy shirt unbuttoned and his white collar in his shirt pocket like a pen. “Paul said, ‘In my weakness I find my greatest strength.’?”

Can we assume, in this day and age, that readers will know that “Paul” is actually St. Paul and that the priest is offering a broad paraphrase of the famous imagery in 2 Corinthians 12:9?

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

I would assume that many readers needed the missing details, but I could be wrong.

This story includes quite a few eyewitness details that I have not seen in print before, since the monsignor arrived on the scene at Sandy Hook Elementary School very, very quickly with two other priests. He was there as the reunions between parents and surviving children slowed and slowed and then stopped. Try to imagine watching this scene:

Reunion after reunion whittled the lines down, leaving only parents, empty-handed and desperate. They were taken to the nearby firehouse where the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company operated.

Weiss walked over, too. He knew half the parents from St. Rose. He had officiated at their weddings and the baptisms of their children, some of whom were now unaccounted for. Inside the firehouse, parents texted relatives, called babysitters to stay late and called around to likely places where their missing children might have gone.

That room, too, was whittled down.

Soon, the parents needed a priest, right then and there:

In the room of folding chairs, time passed. Weiss felt the tension rising in equal measure to the sense of dread. Parents started coming to him with regrets.

A mother said she shouldn’t have taken her daughter’s DVD player away. “She wasn’t a bad child,” the mother told Weiss. Another mother who came to Weiss said it was her fault she sent her daughter to school that morning. She blamed herself, telling the priest she wasn’t fit to raise her other children.

About 3 p.m., Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy came into the room. The gruesome announcement was his to make: 27 people inside the school had been killed, and 20 were children. All would be taken to the medical examiner’s office.

With the news came the most raw display of human grief that Weiss had ever seen or imagined — wailing, weeping, screaming, people sinking to
the floor. …

In all those hours of counseling and comforting, no one asked the priest, “Why?” The question came later, starting on Sunday, and Weiss did not have an answer.

And that’s the end of the story. I, for one, would like to know more about what the priest said at that point.

Perhaps he truly was silent or said that he had no answer, no answer at all. I have my doubts about that. Then again, I grew up in the home of a pastor who finished his career as the chaplain in the Texas Children’s Hospital, working with the parents of young cancer patients. I know that chaplains rarely offer simple answers. But I have heard few settle for silence.

Telling Newtown’s story sensitively

I hope you can see the picture here. If you can’t, please click here for a larger image. I saw it on Adam Gabbatt’s Twitter feed on Dec. 15. He’s a reporter for The Guardian. He added:

Now at special service at St John’s church in Sandy Hook. Bunch of over-zealous photographers were just asked to leave

You don’t say! I can not imagine what it would be like to be trying to worship in peace at a time of such horrific tragedy while a half dozen cameras were pointed straight at my face. I can’t imagine being a video or photo journalist and thinking such behavior is appropriate.

I have some questions on this, but first will mention I’ve had a great deal of difficulty writing about the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. I think it must be very difficult to be a reporter covering this story. I want to be humble about the challenges they face while having a discussion about how the media have performed on this story.

It’s also true that I can’t remember a story where almost every detail initially reported turned out to be wrong. Throughout Friday and Saturday, I was reading stories that directly contradicted each other. The mother of the shooter was a kindergarten teacher, then a 1st grade teacher, then, no, she was just a teacher’s aide. Someone was quoted saying she had never worked at the school. Someone else was quoted saying she was wonderful to work with there. I found the whole enterprise incredibly frustrating even in a world where we know early reports on tragedies are problematic.

To that end, I rather enjoyed this New York Times story about the town’s invasion by media figures. It mentioned the many problems with the early reports.

And then there were the reporters interviewing children. They were asking grieving parents “How do you feel?” The whole enterprise was unseemly. Of course, a few bad microphones can spoil the whole vocation.

The New York Times looked at this. From the beginning of the story:

NEWTOWN, Conn. — Wolf Blitzer understands that his presence here is not appreciated by some local people, who wish that the TV satellite trucks, and the reporters who have taken over the local Starbucks, would go away and leave them to ache, grieve and mourn in peace.

But he also knows that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School ranks with the national tragedies he has covered: Oklahoma City, Sept. 11, Virginia Tech. So for now the most intimate and heartbreaking of catastrophes and the insatiable, unwieldy beast of global news media are locked in an awkward union in a bucolic New England town that never expected to encounter either.

Mr. Blitzer, the longtime CNN anchor, said the few exhortations to go home he had heard while working here had been far outnumbered by comments from people who thank him for telling Newtown’s story sensitively and who want the world to know what happened here. Still, he said, Newtown is providing a particularly vivid laboratory of how the media report this kind of tragedy.

“If you have people bringing dolls or flowers to makeshift memorials and they’re crying, that’s a powerful image, it’s part of this story, it’s part of our history right now, and we have to deal with it,” he said on Sunday.

This town, of course, has been transformed by unimaginable tragedy. But in a more mundane and presumably transitory way, Newtown and particularly the small community of Sandy Hook have also been transformed by those coming to report on it, a news media presence that has clogged quiet roads, established glowing encampments of lights and cameras, and showed up in force at church services and public memorials.

I think the line above about “telling Newtown’s story sensitively” says it best. I don’t much like the descent upon this town or the general frenzied approach to most media coverage. The key, if you’re on this story, is to tell it sensitively, no?

It’s not specific to religion, but you may also be interested in this, where the BBC’s Charlie Booker examines the problems with the way the media hype tragedies. For a different take, the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple tries to defend the media.


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