Jennifer Hubbard’s life took a drastic turn the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. That Dec. 14, 2012, she and her husband, Matthew, had two children in the school — 6-year-old Catherine and 8-year-old Frederick. Catherine was one of 20 first-graders and six adults who lost their lives that tragic day.
Grief-stricken as she was, Jennifer did not see her faith crumble. Little by little, she not only faced the tragedy, but has become a public inspiration for others through her personal story and her writing in Magnificat. In light of the recent shootings at a high school in Parkland, Florida, Hubbard shared her story with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen in hopes of helping others survive the tragic loss of a child or loved one.
You said, “Before Catherine died, I thought I was a faithful person, but I wasn’t even scratching the surface.” How would you explain that?
At the time, when both Catherine and Freddy (now 13) were young, we went through the motions. We met our obligatory commitments — went to church on Sunday, prayed before we ate and said prayers before bedtime. We were a faithful family — not to say that doing those things to minimize the family that does that. At that time I thought that was probably as good as it got. I actually taught religious education.
In retrospect, faith is this transformative process where we grow closer to God. For me, that moment of truth was when we hit rock bottom as a family, as a mother, as people having lost a person that we loved so very, very dearly. In that rock-bottomness, that quiet reflective time is where your faith begins to grow — if you allow it.
Over the past five years, I found that transformation comes not at dark moments, but in that quiet and stillness.
Did you react in faith as a family?
One of the most poignant pieces of advice we received that speaks to this is that grace is as unique as an individual. Someone had shared with us in the very early days that the grace I was experiencing was unique to me, and the grace my husband and son were receiving were unique to them and them alone. I cringe when I hear people say, “I know what you’re going through.” No other mother will experience losing their baby the way I have. I never claim to know and understand what the families in Florida are going through right now.
I know the pain of what is on their horizon. Your heart cracks open for these families. I think there’s a common bond that we can cling to in situations like these. Right now, their world is turned completely upside down.
What were some of the first ways you dealt with what happened?
In the days after Catherine died, I went back to teaching Catherine’s religious-education class. I don’t know what stirred me in that moment to say to the director of religious education, “I’ll be back.” There are so many things that, when we get outside of ourselves, we’re nudged to do. That was a necessity.
When I started teaching religious education for my son when he was in kindergarten, I was really teaching myself about the beauty of God’s love: “Jesus loves you, this I know,” over and over again. Going back to the classroom once a week, I had to get dressed, leave the house and prepare for the class. I think I was reminding myself and reinforcing what I knew and might have been questioning — God loves me, and there’s more to it.
At that point, I started writing in Magnificat.
In the reflections and essays to follow was a real wrestling with God and my own healing. Despite how I might feel, could I find that place in time that God would shine through? In the last five years, I found it shines through if you allow it.
In the simplicity of things and beauty of our faith.
How did you react as a family?
What was crystal clear to both my husband and I after Catherine died was we had a responsibility to our son. On that morning, we had two kids in the school. One came home, and one went to the heavenly home. Did I want the encounter differently? Yes, the reality is, that’s not what happened. We know how the story ends. We can’t change that no matter how I react.
My husband and I made the commitment to see our son through, no matter what that meant. What is great for us is knowing we had a purpose in life … we can do the best we can do, but we can’t Bubble Wrap our kids to keep them safe and sound.
How did you respond to the feelings of anger that can often happen amid tragedy?
The healing we’ve gone through is not a romantic version of something seen on HBO. It’s real and raw and ugly at times. I remember sitting at a stoplight and specifically exhausted in keeping it all together. And I let out a scream that to this day I don’t recognize who or where it came from. As soon as I did it, I realized — probably for the first time in my life — I was real and authentic with God. At the end of my tirade and ranting and raving, I expected it to be over and that he would be done with me.
The opposite happened. There was a peace and stillness I will never be able to convey, but I realized I wanted more of that. And that would come through an authenticity with a God who loved me.
There are times still where I ask myself: What did I do to deserve this? Why is this the fabric of who I am? I think it’s okay as long as you don’t stay there. If you don’t acknowledge it, you don’t allow God that room to answer those questions. If you wallow in it, you’re setting yourself up to problems and disappointments. But in that space and quiet, you allow God to take that disappointment and anger and replace it.
Why do we deny ourselves that grace and pretend to be the person we think God wants us to be? How easily we forget and don’t want to realize we’re God’s children.
You’ve spoken about what prayer means at times such as this. What can you share about prayer, especially during tragic times like you experienced?
We need to pray for guidance for what we do with this and who we become because of this. I know the reason that we could get up and do what we did in the days, weeks and months after Catherine died is because we had prayer armies behind us.
People who didn’t know my husband or me or Catherine said, “We’re praying for peace and comfort and blessing in your mourning.” I know now prayer doesn’t have to be some predetermined words that have to be said in a certain way and manner. Prayer for me at that time was sitting down and bowing my head and knowing I didn’t have the words. People impacted by loss and grief and trauma to as high a magnitude as we experienced, [I want to remind them that] for prayer they don’t have to say a word.
Now, thankfully, I’m one of those people who can offer prayers on their behalf. My prayer is the same as prayers offered for me. There are so many times when I say to someone, “I’m praying for you.” As a Catholic community, that needs to be our response. There’s nothing that we can do or say to change how this story ends, but we can pray. And there’s power in that.
What might you say to community leaders at a time like this?
The other morning watching the news, an FBI director or former administrator said something I thought about for a very long time. He said we need to think about the family and moral values. It has to do with who we are as people, our character as a people who call themselves sons and daughters of God. We really need to do some soul searching and take a good, hard look at who we are and the moral compass of who we are becoming. We need to come to an understanding that we’ve gone wrong and we really need to consider where we are in our family and moral values. What do we put importance on in our lives?
Before Freddy was born, we had great careers. We traveled … the world our oyster. I made a decision at the time to stop working and be home with my son. At the time, we went without and we struggled. … At the heart of what’s happening is the lack of attention to our own moral fiber. If we’re going to claim the title of God’s children, then we need to start acting like we are. It takes the willingness to look in the mirror and want to change. What better time than Lent?
When violence causes a tragedy such as in Newtown and Parkland, it’s natural for parents, children and communities to live in fear. Can you offer guidance on how to overcome the fear?
One of the first choices we had to make was to decide whether to put our son on the bus and send him back to school, or keep him home. We chose to put him on the bus and send him back to school. The moment we live in fear is the moment that we lost. So we put him on the bus. We did not say, “You’re going to be fine. Have a great day in school.” That would have been a lie. It was awful to put him on the bus. I know I had a crummy day. But we had to do it. The alternative was even more horrific life changes.
From the time and place of Catherine’s death, I began to understand we were placed on earth for a purpose, a reason. By keeping my son in a cocoon and our family in a cocoon because I was afraid of what the world might deal us, we would be doing God’s job.
One of the things we’re trying to instill in Freddy is that everybody has bad experiences, has a loss or trauma in their life. It doesn’t entitle you to crawl into a hole. There’s the work to be done and a community to belong to.
The last thing I want is to stand before God and have him show me all the missed opportunities because I was too afraid and too scared how I was going to deal with something if it came my way.
I think it’s very natural and very common for parents to want to pull their kids in tighter and tighter. Parents need to realize that on some level their children’s future is not theirs. God’s got it mapped out. If we want to see their very best, then we have to entrust them to God. I can’t be with my son every day. I want him to rely on God, and the only way he’s going to know that is to see me live that.
People like community leaders usually respond by turning to policy issues. What did you do differently?
We decided our voice is best spent in being Catherine’s voice. Rather than jump on one of the “issues bandwagons,” we stayed focused on honoring Catherine’s memory. We established the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary (CVHFoundation.org) in Newtown, Connecticut. Truly, it’s a testament to God’s graciousness.
The state gave us the (34-acre) property in 2014. Through the grace of God and kind hearts and generous people, we have a place that is already a sanctuary.
The work we do is about honoring the bond that exists between animals and humans. Our mission is to enrich the lives of all people through compassion and acceptance. That’s what Catherine did. We offer programs on the care of animals … invite people to enjoy the sanctuary, pray, hike, love the outdoors the same way Catherine did. For me, the sanctuary is a little place where heaven and earth collide.
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.