Two years ago on December 14, the lives of 20 children and six adults were taken by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Erica Lafferty lost her mother, school principal Dawn Hochsprung. Gilles Rousseau lost his 30-year-old daughter, Lauren Rousseau, a first grade substitute teacher. And Nicole Hockley lost her 6-year-old son, Dylan.
The loved ones of these victims reflect on the past year in this piece for TODAY.com's "2014 Voices" series, as well as their hopes for the near future and how they plan to observe the two-year anniversary of the shooting.
Erica Lafferty: This year has been so much better than last for many, many reasons. One, I’m able to really take in and comprehend the full scope of what’s actually happening. 2013 was really a blur for me. It was only three short months after the shooting that I first got involved with what was then Mayors Against Illegal Guns (now Everytown for Gun Safety). It was this whirlwind of being in DC and doing all these press conferences and talking to all these legislators.
I didn’t have time to grieve the death of my mother and process what was really happening. It was like, "Okay, Erica, you have to do this because it’s the right thing to do." Now, we’re two years out and I can really see the drastic differences across the country. If this happened last year, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it and really understand it like I do today.
Gilles Rousseau: On a personal level, I’ve been feeling well emotionally, physically. And I have taken on so many different new hobbies this past year. From January, I started taking classes on how to raise bees, which was every week for an hour. I got my beehive in June and we’re all set — except I did not get any honey this year. Next, we built a greenhouse for growing vegetables. It was challenging and I’m still in the learning process of that part.
We traveled a bit this summer. We have a camper and we traveled in different parts of the East Coast this year. And September, I started fly fishing. I’ve been very busy for some reason or another. Sometimes, I blame Lauren for that! I’m doing the things two people should be doing, not one person, and I feel like she’s there beside me, encouraging me to do all this stuff. It feels good and whenever I think of her, I think she would probably love to help me if she were around, but she helps me in spirit, which is wonderful.
Nicole Hockley: On a personal level, year two is significantly harder than year one in terms of the emotion and trying to figure out what your new path in life is, what normal life is now, how it’s been redesigned. That has been incredibly hard. Certainly, you feel the loss that much more. Perhaps the shock and the grief has worn off but the denial is at a different level now.
There are definitely elements of routine now. I’m full time communications director at Sandy Hook Promise. My career and my goals around gun violence prevention is every part of my life. It’s absolutely 24-7. Before, I was a marketing professional, but it’s one thing to be marketing a product or a service when it’s for a corporation, it’s quite another thing to do communications work which actually involves the death of your own son, and wear your heart openly for the world to see every day.
Erica Lafferty: I’ve gotten a lot closer to a lot of the moms who work with Moms Demand Action (for Gun Sense in America). They’ve kind of been able to fill a void for me that has been monumental in my healing. I have somebody that I can talk to if, my lips are sunburned and I don’t know what to put on them to feel better, or I don’t know what dress to wear to a fancy dinner. I don’t have my own mom here for that, but now I have over 200,000 moms that are able to help me with those decisions and kind of guide me through life, which has been amazing. You gotta find the light in the darkness!
Nicole Hockley: Last year for Christmas we went away. This year, we’re still going away because I’m not prepared emotionally yet to have a full Christmas tree and decorations because all of our decorations were personal family decorations and Dylan is everywhere. When my eldest, my living son, Jake, who survived the shooting, asked, "Can we put up a Christmas tree this year?" I had to have a conversation with him that made me think: How do you take a step forward? We couldn’t do the full family Christmas tree, but I got a little 5-foot tree for Jake to have in his room. I went to the store with him and he could buy whatever decorations he wanted to put on it, so it was totally his tree. That’s moving forward.
Erica Lafferty: Probably my most standout moment was the NRA convention. I had the opportunity to speak in front of 250-300 moms. Just flashing back to the 2013 NRA convention, where there were 8 or 10 of us there, I was like, "Oh my god, this movement is growing!" That was absolutely phenomenal for me to be a part of.
Gilles Rousseau: I feel that it’s necessary for me to do something for the cause, especially to help (states) try to pass (legislation for) extended background check. I feel like I needed to do this. I feel like Lauren would have wanted me to carry the torch and if she had survived the tragedy, she would have been an advocator herself. But since she’s not here, I have to do the work for her.
Nicole Hockley: I’m almost ashamed of how little I knew before about the scale of gun violence in our country. And now there’s a total lifelong commitment I have to prevent other families from feeling like this with the two foundations we have through Dylan. Sandy Hook Promise is one, and Dylan’s Wings of Change being the other. Dylan’s Wings of Change honors the life that Dylan had and [helps] other children with autism, while Sandy Hook Promise, for me, honors his death and the tragic circumstances of it and teaches how to prevent other children from suffering that same fate.
People will say, "This will never happen to me." Well, I’m sorry, I’m your worst nightmare come to life because it did happen and you can never say it won’t happen. But there are actions you can take to prevent it from happening. We’re trying to spread that mission and message.
How Dec. 14 will be spent
Erica Lafferty: [Last year, she and her sister headed to Louisiana for several days.] We’re doing the same thing this year, but we’re bringing my cousin, who my mom practically raised with us. We’re going to do things that my mom would love to do, and do our random acts of kindness and just kind of be in a place where we can really reflect on the person she was, and the people she shaped the three of us to be. That’s our plan. We’re going to avoid Connecticut because we don’t want it to be a sad day for us. We’re going to try to make it a celebration of my mom’s life and what she would want life for us to be in the aftermath of a horrible, horrible thing that happened.
Gilles Rousseau: I’ll be at home with my wife and my two sons, and we’re not going to do anything special. We’ll just remember Lauren. Actually, this Saturday, we’re doing a family portrait. Every year for Christmas the last 18 years, my wife and I have been doing a portrait for the Christmas card. The two of us and the three kids. Last year, we just put Lauren’s photograph in the picture with us. Now, it’s just going to be the four of us. We’re not going to have the photograph in the portrait this year. We just have to go on. Everybody knows, our friends will know what happened, and we’ll carry on without her. She’ll be in our minds and our hearts.
Nicole Hockley: Last year we were away for 12/14, just the three of us, including my husband, Ian, and we had a small private ceremony that we did symbolically honoring Dylan and the others that died. This year we’re actually staying in town for 12/14, and we’re going to again have a private ceremony but this time we’re including some rather close friends who have become very special to us over the last two years. Some who knew Dylan before he was killed and some who have become incredibly close since 12/14. Again, that’s a step forward.
Next year's hopes
Erica Lafferty: My husband’s brother and sister both had babies within the past month. One of them lives in Australia, and I can’t meet that little princess until May, and I’m absolutely looking forward to that. I’m excited to meet the girls.
I'm 29, so that's another big one. I’m going to be 30 next year! Also, I'm super, super excited to spend time in Nevada (to campaign for an initiative on universal background checks). The NRA convention this coming year is in Nashville, which is one of my favorite places ever. I’m anticipating going to the NRA convention and I’m hoping it will be even bigger and better than last year’s in Indianapolis.
Gilles Rousseau: I feel very strongly about prevention about gun violence. I will work on it as much as I can without dedicating my life to it. I do want to have my personal life to be filled with joyful things, like bees and the greenhouse and other stuff. Also, I have two sons, 25 and 29, that I have to help and be there for. For the next few years, I think it’s necessary. We were thinking about moving out of state and going someplace else, but after second thought, I think my sons need me and we’ll go to another state at another time in the future.
Nicole Hockley: It's going to be about continuing the work I started with Dylan’s Wings of Change, and the pilot programs we have there. For Sandy Hook Promise, it’s really spreading our messaging in a way to engage more people. It’s all about mental awareness and social development and gun safety. We’re not about just policy or just about the guns.
We’re about empowering people to make a difference for themselves and helping them to make a difference for their own lives and for the lives of their kids. We just want to protect the kids.