Grieving Sandy Hook Mother Finds Peace

‘On a purely human level, it is impossible to imagine being able to heal from the devastation of kneeling on the frozen earth beside your baby’s grave.’

Residents gather outside St. Rose of Lima Church as bells are rung 26 times and the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting victims are called over a loudspeaker, in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2013.
Residents gather outside St. Rose of Lima Church as bells are rung 26 times and the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting victims are called over a loudspeaker, in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2013. (photo: EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP via Getty Images)

“Oh, she’s going there,” I thought, toward the end of Jennifer Hubbard’s book, Finding Sanctuary: How the Wild Work of Peace Restored the Heart of a Sandy Hook Mother. She was moving into forgiveness. I don’t know why it took me by surprise. I have known many others whose painful journeys had ignited parts of their souls they had not known even existed, which eventually led to the unthinkable — forgiveness of the ones who had taken so much. 

The raw emotion and honesty that Hubbard so eloquently chronicled had captured my own heart in the first few pages. I became immersed in how Jennifer was processing losing her precious 6-year-old, Catherine. The red-headed kindergartener left home for Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut on Dec. 14, 2012. She and 25 others never returned, victims of a school shooting. Her loving parents and second-grade brother, Freddy, would never see their precious girl again in this world. 

“On a purely human level, it is impossible to imagine being able to heal from the devastation of kneeling on the frozen earth beside your baby’s grave,” Hubbard wrote. “However, recovery and healing are not only possible but also promised for those who offer their sufferings back to the One who suffered for us.” It is a promise we witness through the unfolding of Hubbard’s own pain and healing. 

“Not everyone takes the path of healing, it is true,” she acknowledged. “For some, the pain and hurt run so deep, they cannot bear to find a way out.”  However, Hubbard begged readers with that mindset to sit with her “in the unexpected places where graces are afforded, peace is found, and hearts are transformed” to restore their footing in “ways and places we never could have imagined.”

 

Getting to Know God

First came unimaginable tragedy. Despite practicing her Catholic faith, everything crumbled as Hubbard tried to make sense of it. She began writing a journal to the God she thought she knew, seeking who he really is and who she is to him. Hubbard questioned many things, but she turned to God rather than away from him. In the end, she came to know a very different God to whom she now reveals her innermost being, not because he is different, but because she is different. 

Hubbard faced multiple challenges: comforting and parenting her also-grieving son, dealing with a struggling marriage, responding to curious looks and comments, enduring church homilies stalled on Sandy Hook-related messages, and experiencing loneliness. 

She acknowledged that the pain may make no sense, but there will be a path forward in the gentle rhythm of life despite some of it being forever altered. Hubbard relates an early victory, standing alone in the kitchen the first morning back to school. She felt Jesus understood her pain of packing only one school lunch. Suddenly inspired, the grieving mother wrote a note and slipped it into her son’s lunch box: “You are brave and you are loved, and I will see you soon. XOXO, Mama.” 

 

Forgiving, Not Forgetting

From the start, Hubbard leaned into her faith and Scripture, wanting to get as close as possible to Jesus. In time, it led her to gaze into his eyes as he hung on the cross. She could not ignore his groans, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Before Catherine died, Hubbard could not understand people forgiving those who had inflicted unthinkable pain upon them. “They had walked this journey before me, and the awe I held for them made me think their way was the right way for me,” she explained. “Maybe they saw what I saw: Jesus does not shift his gaze; despite the egregious injustice he endured, he does not hide his eyes. Maybe they did as Jesus did for them, for me — for you. Maybe they forgave.” 

It’s hard to forgive when your heart is broken, Hubbard admitted, noting that even Jesus was in agony. “I warn you, though, when you choose to fixate on the hurt, it’s hard not to feed it.”

“Surrendering debts takes time and does not mean forgetting,” she explained. “Forgetting would return us to where we started. … Forgiveness releases another from the debt you feel owed and gives your heart permission to heal rather than keep score and has more to do with us than them.”

By surrendering her emotions to God and not trying to do everything on her own, eventually Hubbard experienced peace and was able to freely rejoice in the Lord. “Forgiveness is where we are changed, both in forgiving those who have launched assaults and in forgiving ourselves,” she wrote. 


Reaching Out to Others

After Catherine’s death, the outpouring of kindness, in cards, meals, and gifts from near and far, touched Hubbard deeply. She now understands that a heart stirred by the pain of others is a summons from our Father calling us to action. “For what we do in love for others will be what restores hope and faith in humanity for them during those dark days,” she wrote. “With my heart now stirred after losing Catherine, I act quickly, and I hope the same is true for you.” 

From that outpouring came donations from across that country that led to the creation of the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary, which provides learning opportunities related to all things bugs, birds, pets, farm animals and nature. Catherine loved animals, so the prodding to begin this effort seemed divinely inspired, according Hubbard, and it has brought peace to Hubbard and others, while keeping Catherine’s memory alive. Hubbard also does that through speaking, including radio interviews and appearances on national television news shows. Hubbard’s story, though, is not about the tragedy that broke the heart of a nation, but about a healing that we can all be a part of. 

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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