NEWTOWN, Conn. — The survivors who were able to walk out of Sandy Hook Elementary School nearly a decade ago want to share a message of hope with the children of Uvalde, Texas: You will learn how to live with your trauma, pain and grief. And it will get better.
They know what’s ahead. There’s shock, followed by numbness. There are struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety. Survivor’s guilt. Anger that these shootings continue to happen in America. Reliving their trauma every time there’s another mass shooting.
They know it will be hard to say they are from Uvalde. That well-meaning adults will sometimes make the wrong decisions to protect you. That grief can be unpredictable, and different for everyone.
“It’s been nine years since Sandy Hook,” said Ashley Hubner, 17, who was a second grader at the Newtown school when 20 children and six educators were killed on Dec. 14, 2012. “We had nine years for this to not happen again. And yet it did. And now these kids are going to have to go through the same exact thing. That’s just, like, heartbreaking.”
On May 24, a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. It was so striking to the Sandy Hook survivors because of how similar it was to their tragedy. Now on the cusp of adulthood, the survivors of Sandy Hook are telling their stories, some for the first time, about growing up as a mass shooting survivor to help the children in Texas, who return to school this week.
‘I feel like I’ve grown alongside of it’
Marie Gay was a 9-year-old third grader at the Sandy Hook school when the gunman shot his way into the building and killed the 26 victims, including her little sister, Josephine. All the children who died were first graders.
“Initially I thought it was a bear, the gunshots,” said Gay, now an 18-year-old college student. “I don’t know. We lived in rural Connecticut. I heard them and my first thought was, ‘Oh, there’s totally a bear just banging on the walls of the school.’”
Marie said adults around her were all well intentioned, but some of what they did after the tragedy bothered her.
Her teachers would take her out of the classroom before conducting any emergency drills. They were also careful not to use phrases like “bullet points” around her, which she found silly.
She also felt “icky” about the thousands of gifts that poured into Newtown for all the children of Sandy Hook. She got upset the day hundreds of those presents were passed out to children who lined up outside the local intermediate school to get a doll or a game, she said.
“All that I could think about at the time was the one child in my sister’s class who survived,” she said. “I know I went through a lot too, but in my brain, I was like, I’m not understanding how all these people are like clamoring for gifts.”
Marie said the shooting in Uvalde brought so many feelings. It was disheartening, she said, but also made her want to get out there and fight for things like mental health reform and gun control.
She said she would tell the children of Uvalde that grief is individual and that their path forward will be their own — and to be gentle with themselves and kind to others. Their pain and grief will remain a part of them, but they will learn to live with it. She still gets anxiety in lecture halls and looks for exits when she’s in a classroom.
“There’s reminders of it daily here at random times,” she said. “But I feel like I’ve grown alongside of it and it’s made me a better person.”
‘I think what happened changed my entire life’
For Ashley Hubner, the trauma became part of her life as she grew up. Sometimes she became sad and cried. But it wasn’t until middle school that her symptoms, including PTSD and depression, started to overwhelm her.
They would hit her harder around the anniversary of the shooting.
Ashley, now a senior at Newtown High School, was sitting in a circle with her second grade class for its usual morning meeting when the shooting started. Her sister, a kindergartner who also survived, was in another classroom.
Ashley and her classmates ran to the cubby area to hide. They heard their teacher call police to report an active shooter. The school intercom system clicked on, and everyone could hear gunshots, screaming and crying.
They were also frightened by footsteps they heard on the roof, which they didn’t know at the time were those of first responders. When police finally came to lead them out, she and her classmates didn’t want to open the door because they thought bad guys could be impersonating officers.
“We didn’t want to let them in,” she said. “And so like every single kid in my class screamed, ‘No!’ And it was so heartbreaking to hear a bunch of little kids screaming ‘No.’ But thank God we opened the door and it was actually the police.”
The children formed a line. They were told to put their hands on the shoulders of their classmates and to close their eyes — to avoid seeing any of the carnage — as they were led out of the building. They were brought to a nearby firehouse, where she was reunited with her sister.
It was only last year that she was diagnosed with PTSD, depression, anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Many students have said they weren’t diagnosed with mental health and other disorders until years later, likely because they were so young at the time of the shooting and their symptoms didn’t fully develop for a while.
“I think what happened changed my entire life,” she said. “Maybe when you’re an adult like you have trauma and then you’re able to kind of like overcome it because you had this person who you were before.
“But when you’re so young,” she said, “you don’t really have the person that you were before. You just take your surroundings and you take what you’re taught and you take that trauma and you make it a part of your life and you grow up with that and you have to like process that in the years forward.”
Ashley said she gets angry sometimes at her parents and adults and kids in school for not recognizing her problems earlier or not believing her when she told them what she was going through. She began therapy only recently.
“Take what you are feeling and, like, do that research and like get that help,” she said, offering advice to Uvalde survivors. “It’s so important to like know who you are and know what you have and like what you’re dealing with so that you can go through life a lot easier and like make your quality of life better.”
‘Focus on healing yourself’
In her college application essay, Liv Doscher wrote about how she and her classmates were forced into a more mature mindset because of what happened in their school.
“I don’t think anyone no matter your age should have to go through something like that,” she said. “But kids are not equipped to deal with stuff like that. No one is, but especially kids.”
Liv and her third-grade classmates ran to a carpet in their room when they first heard what turned out to be gunshots. Some thought it was a joke at first and laughed, she said. Others, like her best friend, started crying immediately. Liv was confused.
Her teacher put some paper over the window in the door to the hallway, but it fell down. Liv was nervous to look at the door in fear of what she might see. Plus the shades on the windows to the outside were up. Liv felt exposed and vulnerable.
Then police officers ran by the windows to the outside, saw the children and yelled at them to go into an adjoining classroom that shared a door with theirs. With the blinds down, the other classroom was very dark, and she couldn’t recognize people to find comfort.
“I remember just kind of trying to see in the dark, trying to recognize people,” she said.
Police led the students and teachers out an exit on the opposite side of the school from the shooting. Liv remembers seeing an officer with “a huge gun.” She didn’t even know then what a gun was.
Like Ashley, she suffered for years with anxiety, especially at school, before being diagnosed and treated. She learned last year that she has ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety.
She said it took so long because she kept what she was feeling inside, didn’t understand her emotions and didn’t reach out for help. She often felt numb. In December 2020, around the eighth anniversary of the shooting, she became extremely depressed and missed two weeks of school.
“I couldn’t get through days without crying,” she said. “And you don’t really realize it’s so debilitating sometimes.”
Her parents got her into therapy, which she credits for helping her cope. At school, there were frustrations in the years after the shooting, said Liv, now 18. One of the problems was not enough communication between school staff and students about what help and services were available to address mental health and other issues. Many school staff avoided talking about the shooting, she said, apparently to avoid retraumatizing students.
“I understand wanting to protect us, but we’ve seen the worst of it. We were there that day,” she said.
Students were only recently given two mental health days that do not count as absences. When the anniversary fell on a school day, she said, kids would be crying in the hallways trying to get to class. She was critical of school officials for not offering accommodations such as increased passing time between classes.
To the Uvalde children, Liv said not to be afraid, or ashamed, to communicate what you are feeling.
“Focus on healing yourself and focus on working through the trauma, what happened,” she said. “But also, you know, focus on holding onto life before and searching for positive things because there’s so many positive things. Finding pictures. Finding people that mean a lot to you. Just take that and just appreciate that.
“A huge part of that is like to not feel shame about where you are in your healing process,” she said. “Don’t compare yourself to others. Don’t feel invalid because someone may have it worse.”
‘I shouldn’t have to be still struggling with this today’
There have been several different kinds of therapies since the shooting to help Jackie Hegarty cope with PTSD. New mass shootings are a trigger, bringing her back to the day of the Sandy Hook shooting. Loud noises still startle her.
She was doing yoga with her second-grade class when the shooter opened fire right across the hall. She didn’t know what the gunshot sounds were. Kids in her class thought maybe a janitor dropped a trash can or somebody dropped a chair or a desk.
But no one could drop a trash can that many times.
“I remember running to my cubby and sitting on my backpack,” said Jackie, 17, who is a senior at Newtown High School. “And I remember being grateful that I was farther away from the door because I thought that the kid that was closest to the wall was going to get shot first.”
That Friday, like others, the children in her class got to bring in their favorite stuffed animals to watch movies with them. On that day, however, Jackie forgot hers — it wasn’t in her backpack when she went to reach for comfort.
Her class and teacher sat anxiously in the dark classroom. After the shooting ended and the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, had killed himself, police got to Jackie’s classroom and told them to cover their eyes as they were led out of the building. Along the way, Jackie opened her eyes. She doesn’t like to talk about what she saw.
“Once we were leaving, I was wondering how that could have happened so closely to me and that that could have been me and how come I’m walking out of the school right now and they aren’t,” she said. She is a triplet, and her two siblings survived.
When she and Liv went to the March For Our Lives anti-gun violence event in the nation’s capital this summer, there were a few moments of panic after someone yelled something during a moment of silence. People in the crowd started running away. She couldn’t breathe, and kept running. Her chest tightened. She felt like she was going to throw up. She felt guilty for not being able to stay with her friends.
“But I shouldn’t have to be still struggling with this today and still having to search for treatment methods to improve my quality of life and to make me feel better because of how I react to things or, you know, the triggers and the stimuli I have. I’ll flinch with a loud noise.”
Jackie said she would tell the Uvalde children to not bottle up their feelings and to talk to family and friends.
“Because it’s so important to talk this stuff through and know that their feelings are validated and that we’re going to do everything that we can to make sure that things like this don’t have to happen,” she said.
“We’ve been through a similar thing and we want them to know that we care about them and they’re loved,” Jackie said.
‘I have just now gotten the ability to say I am from Sandy Hook’
The days that followed her brother Chase’s death at Sandy Hook Elementary are hard for Brittany Kowalski to remember. She does remember how trauma was inflicted on her family by others.
People spreading misinformation that the shooting was staged by actors emerged, the town was filled with media and a police officer guarded the family’s driveway.
“Between harassing phone calls from Sandy Hook “truthers,” international news people trying to come into the house while we mourned the loss of my brother, having to keep the blinds down for weeks, maybe even months, because photographers were walking through the woods to get around the police vehicle in our driveway … It felt like an alternate universe,” she said.
She was a freshman in a math class at Newtown High School when the shooting started, and the school went into lockdown. She and other students with siblings at Sandy Hook were called into an auditorium. She called her parents, but there was no answer.
“I couldn’t tell you how many people were in the room, but it felt like the sea of people was thinning out in both the slowest yet fastest time frame,” she said. “All of the people dissipated until I was the last person who hadn’t heard back.”
Over the next several years, she said, she would lie and tell people she was from other nearby towns. She calls it avoiding the “Oh, you’re from Sandy Hook” conversation. She didn’t want to console people for how they felt about what she had lived through.
“The feeling of empathy and pity are too similar when you are known due to a traumatic event that had global coverage. It’s been almost 10 years and I have just now gotten the ability to say ‘I am from Sandy Hook’ without the full amount of anxiety tangled into it.”
She would tell the children of Uvalde that you don’t have to grieve the same way the person next to you is grieving. She has Chase’s ashes tattooed on her chest.
“I still go to therapy, I still have days that feel like I have a rain cloud over my head but I have always been able to pull myself out of it or have someone in my support system give me a little extra help when needed. Texas brought up a lot of old emotions that I thought I had fully worked through. The disappointment, the anxiety and the hole in my heart seemed to rip back open.”
Eaton-Robb reported from Hartford, Connecticut.