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Following Texas school shooting, Newtown reflects on a decade of hard lessons

People marched along a local street at the end of a vigil to stand in solidarity with the Uvalde, Texas, families and to demand an end to gun violence on Thursday in Newtown, Conn.Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Associated Press

NEWTOWN, Conn. — Nearly a decade has passed since this quiet town became known around the world for an act of unthinkable violence in an elementary school. But the years collapsed in an instant on Tuesday, as news filtered in about a school 2,000 miles away in Uvalde, Texas, another small, close-knit community thrust into trauma and horror without warning.

At once, the worst hours of their lives came flooding back to Newtown parents whose first-graders were among the 20 children killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As night fell Tuesday and dawn arrived on Wednesday, they thought of the parents in Texas and the gut-wrenching milestones they faced: Gathering their surviving children to explain why the youngest wasn’t coming home. Waking up certain it must have been a nightmare — only to realize it was real, and always will be.

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“All of these events are tragic, and bring up a lot of feelings, but this one is so similar,” said Stephanie Cinque, founder and director of the Resiliency Center of Newtown, a hub for counseling and community support established after the tragedy. “It reopens the wound a little deeper.”

Families here know what those in Uvalde will be forced to learn, about wounds and public trauma and the way time reshapes grief without easing its burdens. They know how long the pain can last, how easily it surges again to the surface — and how it can be compounded by every new mass shooting.

They have faced the complicated tensions that emerge, in time, between the need to never forget their loss and the desire to be defined by more than loss and grief. And they have seen firsthand the risk that comes with politicizing trauma, and linking recovery and hope to policy change.

“If hope and meaning are to be found in a particular law or policy, then anyone who favors a different approach or solution becomes your enemy,” said the Rev. Rob Morris, pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown, who reached out individually this week to church members he feared might be hurting. “Grief and trauma are isolating by their very nature. The politicizing of grief and trauma is even more so.”

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People took part in a vigil to stand in solidarity with the Uvalde, Texas, families and to demand an end to gun violence at Trinity Episcopal Church on Thursday in Newtown, Conn. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Associated Press

A candlelight vigil held in Newtown Thursday night to honor the victims in Uvalde ended with a shift to political action: a silent procession from a local church to the Newtown headquarters of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the firearms industry.

“We offer our compassion, our heartbreak, our support to our friends in Texas as you begin to walk a road folks in this town know so well,” the Rev. Andrea Castner Wyatt said at the vigil.

It was one of few outward signs of the tremors felt here in the wake of the Texas attack, which ended the lives of 19 children and two teachers. Under clear blue skies on Wednesday, Newtown parents pushed strollers and delivered children to soccer practice on fields bright with fresh green grass. Others helped their youngsters with their homework, huddled together at tables in the back of the public library.

Meanwhile, three miles away at the resiliency center — a cozy space that has long offered townspeople an informal gathering place as well as formal counseling — some residents came seeking solace, again.

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“One person told me, ‘I just need to be here’ — not for counseling, or because they were in crisis, but just to be in a space that’s safe,” said Cinque. “People are sad and angry. They’re asking, ‘How are we here, 10 years later?’”

Even before the Texas shooting, anxiety had begun to mount for some in Newtown, she said, with the approach of the 10-year anniversary of their own tragedy, and uncertainty about what that might bring. The town finally voted last year to move ahead with construction of a memorial, after years of tensions between project proponents and others who resisted a permanent reminder of the town’s worst day.

The families have also weathered years-long legal battles, against conspiracy theorists who assailed them with lies about faked deaths at Sandy Hook, and against the gun manufacturer Remington, which agreed earlier this year to a $73 million settlement.

Along the way, the paths of survivors and families have diverged, as each made their own way through trauma, and built a different kind of life. Some have never spoken publicly. Others became outspoken advocates and fighters, their tweets and posts this week in the wake of the Texas murders closely tracked by tens of thousands of followers.

“Agony. I feel agony. In every cell of my body,” Nelba Marquez-Greene wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “Knowing what those families are dealing with and knowing we have a [C]ongress who will fail.” Her daughter, Ana Marquez-Greene, 6, was among the children murdered in the Sandy Hook mass shooting.

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Mark Barden, whose young son Daniel was also among those killed, spoke at a news conference Thursday about his fight to prevent gun violence as cofounder of the Sandy Hook Promise Action Fund, which advocates for gun controls including safe storage and background checks. It has been in many ways a fight steeped in disappointment.

“There’s an inclination to just shut down and grieve,” he said, “but I can’t do that ... I feel I owe that to my Daniel. It’s what keeps me going.”

At Newtown High School, where students who survived the shooting as first-graders in 2012 are now finishing their sophomore year, a younger wave of survivor-activists have only recently stepped into public view.

One, 18-year-old Maggie LaBanca, spoke out on Thursday about the lingering effects of that day in December 2012 when, as a third-grader, she survived the school attack. In an interview with CNN, she said she has recently had to explain to prospective college roommates that she leaves a light on all night long, to help fend off her fears of shooters lurking in the shadows.

“It’s all very real to me, as it is to anyone who has gone through a shooting,” she said. “It doesn’t go away, and I don’t think that’s realized by a lot of people.”

As survivors of the Newtown shooting have grown older, so, too, have those who long offered them support. The town’s beloved comfort dog, Maggie, a golden retriever who arrived in Newtown days after the shooting and spent years visiting the young survivors at their schools, recently retired from service at age 11 and moved to Florida.

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Cinque, the resiliency center director, now spends more time advising peers around the country, in places more recently stricken by mass violence, as they build their own local centers to help families who are just beginning to grieve. She will do the same in Texas, and in Buffalo, N.Y., where a gunman killed 10 people in a grocery store two weeks ago, whenever leaders there are ready.

Barden feels the same pull toward those whose worlds have just been fractured, who now face their own agonizing journeys.

“I can’t stop thinking about those families,” he said. “If they ever felt any good could be gleaned from talking, about anything ... I’m there.”

A vigil in solidarity with the people of Uvalde, Texas, was held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown, Conn., on Thursday.Christopher Capozziello/NYT

Adria Watson of the Globe staff contributed to this report, which also used material from Connecticut Public Radio.


Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe. Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.