Lenten Reflection: Sandy Hook Survivor Explores “Why Does God Allow This to Happen?”


Jacob Anthony Amaro

Mrs. Ford (Left) and her husband (Right) were brought together by a single question: “why?”

The Day of Reflection at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School is a tradition spanning several years. On Days of Reflection, which occur three to four times a year, students and teachers meet at school, taking a break from class work, to reflect on important events in our country and on celebrations or seasons of the Church. To facilitate reflection, each group takes part in a reflection activity, which typically involves certain scenarios related to a theme. Days of Reflection might also involve Mass, the attendance of a guest speaker, or a penitential service.

The Hive engaged in its third Day of Reflection for the 2018-2019 academic year two weeks ago on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Built around Lenten themes, with a focus on that of finding hope in our suffering, the day began with a presentation by Mrs. Dawn Ford on her experiences as a survivor of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and 6 adults dead. After Mrs. Ford’s presentation, the school moved to the HAB Dalton Gym to celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass.

Standing at the podium, with a typed document of her experiences in her hands, Mrs. Ford took a breath and shared her story:

“On the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, I had a meeting, which was to begin at 9:30 a.m., in our school’s conference room,” said Ford, a second-grade teacher.

Eight others — including a parent and staff members — had assembled to discuss a student’s behavior. The meeting had just begun when “we heard three loud, abrupt popping sounds coming from out in the hallway,” she said.

Mrs. Ford believed the ruckus to have been caused by the collapse of a stack of chairs. To see what had occurred, three staff members walked into the hallway. Their exit was succeeded by a burst of rapid succession gunfire, momentary silence, and then another burst of gunfire.

One of them, the lead teacher at the school, walked back in, but not in the same way she had left: Her lower left leg and her hand had been shot. Resting herself in the conference room, with her uninjured hand holding the door shut, she broke the news to Mrs. Ford — the two staff members that left the conference room with her had been gunned down.

Six people remained in the room comforting each other and thinking of ways to get help. They considered using a cell phone, but the only one in the room was in direct line of vision to the window of the room; they could not, and would not, take such a risk.

Eventually, Mrs. Ford was able to reach the conference room’s wall phone. But as soon as she began to dial the code to make an outside call, the gunfire resumed, and she retreated into the corner. The phone was left hanging from the receiver. They recited the Lord’s Prayer while taking care of the injured teacher.

Another silence ensued. This one was longer, seemingly endless. And it wasn’t broken until “a police officer gingerly opened our door,” said Mrs. Ford.

While an emergency responder transported the injured teacher to an ambulance, Mrs. Ford and the others were instructed to stay put. The authorities were not sure if a perpetrator still lurked in the building.

Mrs. Ford, in the protection of the authorities, retrieved the cell phone. Everyone in the room took turns calling their loved ones. Mrs. Ford phoned her husband, who worked down the street from the school.

He arrived at the scene quickly. At that point, Mrs. Ford was in the parking lot, walking back-and-forth, wondering what had happened to her second-grade students and to her son Ben, who also worked at the school.

She found her students a while later with the substitute teacher who had been covering for her, but not her son. Mrs. Ford was worried about him because he is autistic, and she wasn’t sure that he had been safe under such dire conditions.

It wouldn’t be until hours later that her son emerged from the building. He was, in fact, one of the last people to leave the building. He had survived by hiding in the closet of the library, where he worked, for shelter.

By the time Mrs. Ford, her husband, and son left, it was about 2 p.m. — four hours and thirty minutes after the initial shots were fired.

And as they left in the direction of their cars, Mrs. Ford and her husband — though they differed in their recollections of what had just occurred — were brought together in their common yearning for an answer to the question: “Why does God allow this to happen?”

Mrs. Ford did not immediately find an answer to that question. However, she was able to find hope in the aftermath of the shooting through kindness, community, and stories of miracles — what she calls “holy moments.”

In the days and weeks that followed, investigators concluded that many had been saved by the broadcasting of the gunfire over the school’s P.A. system. Had the gunfire not been broadcast, they said, many more (those in other buildings) could have been killed.

The P.A. system had been activated by the phone in the conference room. But investigators also discovered that that phone was not wired to the P.A. system. The investigators couldn’t offer a concrete explanation of how the P.A. system was activated.

Many, including Mrs. Ford, called this a miracle.

“I believe He (God) was there to lift all those souls straight to heaven,” she said. “I believe He was there for those of us who survived.”

Mrs. Ford also found consolation in the huge outpouring of support that followed the shootings.

The neighboring town of Monroe donated an empty middle school for Sandy Hook staff and students to use as temporary classroom space — a timely gift that not only prevented Sandy Hook from having to use offices and retail stores as classrooms, but also brought the entire community into a single space, where it could embark on a healing process together. And Monroe did much more than donate a space. In fact, when Mrs. Ford first walked into the building (during Christmas break to begin decorating) she saw people — from her district, Monroe’s, and beyond— “cheerily and joyfully” decorating the space with scenes of Christmas.

“These people were giving up their holiday break time, their winter rest time, and their family time to make a school for us and for our kids,” said Mrs. Ford, who was overwhelmed by the generosity of spirit.

Other communities gave gifts and services to Sandy Hook, including meals, prayer shawls, school supplies, toys, and therapy dogs.

But for Mrs. Ford, the most therapeutic elements were people’s prayers and her family and friend’s direct support.

“There were notes and cards and prayers — from educators and students, as well as the general population,” she said. Those notes, she added, were short, heartfelt notes that expressed care and concern and wishes for healing. “These thoughts and prayers, whether spoken or written or even just prayed in the silence of people’s hearts, along with the direct support of my family and friends, filled me with a sense of calm and peace, even though my heart was broken.” She didn’t feel alone, she concluded.

Mrs. Ford also noted that in the wake of the aftermath, many focused on political action, school safety and gun control, and that many foundations were created in honor and memory of the victims — such as Dylan’s Wings of Change, which develops social and emotional skills through team-bonding and trust-filling activities, and the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary, a place of peace and inspiration.

Others organizations already in existence came into the Newtown area — such as the Life is Good Kids Foundation, which teaches the power of optimism, and Ben’s Bells, which teaches the power of spreading kindness.

Mrs. Ford is not yet a member of these organizations, but she “gravitate(s) toward those that promote the ideas of optimism, kindness, and a sense of community belonging.”

Those ideas have helped her son Ben thrive.

Ben has flourished because “he has a community of people who care about him and care enough to involve him,” including a group of friends he’s been with since elementary school.

“Without his community involvement, it would be very easy for him to spend hours disconnected from people,” said Mrs. Ford.

In a separate interview at the Steven M. Grossman Counseling Center, Mrs. Ford and her husband Steve Ford touched upon the recovery process for students. She noted that every student’s situation and their place on the road to recovery is different.

Mr. Ford emphasized talking to others when traumatic events occur.

“When we’re sitting here in the midst of each other — with pain and suffering — it will always stay there if we keep it to ourselves,” he said. “But if you talk with each other, to someone, maybe they don’t have the answer but in time they will.”

He also emphasized the importance of asking God for help. “If we try on our own, we’re helpless, but if we ask God for help He’ll give us help,” he said.

Today, Mr. and Mrs. Ford recognize that asking “why” has brought them closer to God. But they warn against staying stuck on the “why.” According to Mrs. Ford, accepting that some answers won’t be answered in our lifetime, and focusing instead on the good that we can do while we’re here, is important.

“It really is a gift to be here,” she said. “We don’t know if we’re only going to be here until this afternoon, or for another 50 years.”

Her husband added to her statement.

“To look for the answers to the ‘why’ of something so horrific is like looking at a droplet of rain,” he said. “Where should my eyes be — on the little droplet of rain or on the sea of boundless waters of the love of our Lord?”

Mr. Ford believes that we have a choice everyday to either focus on the past, or on the love of God that transcends time. It is in that choice, he said, that we should depend on others.

Although Mrs. Ford still hasn’t found an answer to the question she asked with Mr. Ford leaving Sandy Hook, she believes that being there for each other and being kind to each other — creating more “holy moments” — will lead to a better world, where such events as the tragedy of Sandy Hook are less frequent.

This season of Lent, Mrs. Ford invites us to think about the good choices we can make at every moment of every day.