Commentary: Memorial is reminder of ‘suffering, struggle, loss’ of community’s children

“Tender Shepherd of the flock, your beloved child has entered your kingdom and now lies cradled in your love. Sooth the hearts of his parents and bring peace to their lives. Enlighten their faith and give hope to their hearts. Loving God, grant mercy to your entire family in this time of suffering. Comfort us in the knowledge that this child lives with you and your Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.”

As I sat in Newtown, Connecticut, words like those came to mind. I was there to remember, there to pray, and as I looked out upon the memorial and its 26 names, I was reminded of the suffering, struggle and loss of a community’s beloved children.

I found myself seated on one of the benches at the newly opened Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial, the memorial in Newtown that was quietly opened to the public this past November to honor the six educators and 20 students who tragically lost their lives in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that took place Dec. 14, 2012, 10 years ago today.

With gently flowing water and meandering paths, the memorial provides a refuge meant to accommodate what I can only imagine are a wide range of needs: a space to ponder, pray, sit, wander, grieve, heal, simply remember.

With woodland walks and natural ponds embracing a circular granite basin carefully etched with the names of those who perished that day in 2012, the memorial offers a simple beauty.

It’s a beauty portraying a love and a care for those being remembered without dismissing the enormity of loss endured by the parents, family, friends, and Newtown community.

I can’t imagine the weight that the tragedy of 10 years ago has forced them to carry each and every day. I can’t imagine the void that perseveres in the minds and hearts of loved ones, educators, classmates, law enforcement, first responders and so many.

I can’t imagine the grief felt by this community. And that is why, in my own deficit, I was drawn toward words of our faith, words like those printed above, which are a prayer taken from the rite of committal of the “Funeral Rites for Children” in our Order of Christian Funerals. It’s a prayer that admits loss and suffering while also reminding what we as Christians can and do seek: love, comfort and hope.

In our faith, that hope is what helps us to endure, especially in moments of tragedy when nothing else seems to offer comfort. It is what can offer strength to a family or a community with nowhere else to turn. It is what so many, like the people of Newtown, have leaned on in their moments of need.

This is a hope of finding some sense of light even when everything seems so dark. It is a hope that a child who has been pulled from this world can enter the kingdom of our tender God and lie cradled in his love. It is a hope that even though the pain of loss is raw and real, those who remain might have their hearts soothed.

As Christians, it’s that hope that we turn to God and seek in our moments of need, and against all odds, it’s that hope that in many ways is truly visible today in Newtown.

It can be noticed in the work and presence of the memorial itself. It can be found in the dozens of foundations and organizations formed over the last decade by fearless family and friends who, instead of allowing themselves to be overtaken by grief, have decided to respond by making the world a better place. It can be seen in the outlook of a community striving to not be defined by one dark day but, instead, working to thrive once again.

When we pray that God might “enlighten their faith,” “give hope to their hearts,” and “grant mercy” to an entire family in its time of need, it is this kind of grace that we are seeking, a grace to move forward and build something new.

Of course they and we will never forget who and what has been lost, but through the grace of hope, we ask God to embrace and care for those who have died while we do our best to push on.

I have to admit, on my visit to the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial, as I experienced that space for the first time, it was certainly poignant and presented a simple beauty, but also, on that day, my initial reaction was that it looked a bit bare.

As you might expect in December, there were drooping plants and barren trees, and for a quick moment, part of me felt it was a shame that the bleak look might be how people are introduced to a spot that one might hope will be a place of beauty, color, and life. The more I sat on that bench, however, the more it all felt right. Was it bare?

Yes, for now. But I have no doubt that the color will come and no doubt that spring will bring the life and beauty of the many wonderful things set to grow, blossom and adorn that space. It will just take a bit of time. Time to endure the darkness of winter. Time to let those plants find the strength to grow once again.

The inspiring community of Newtown has shown the life and goodness that can grow when given time, and I have no doubt that their touching memorial will do the same.

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Father Gworek is director of communications for the Archdiocese of Hartford.

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