With time, signs of grief disappearing in Conn.

Some to be used in a more lasting memorial

A makeshift memorial for victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
A makeshift memorial for victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

NEWTOWN, Conn. — At least five of the children who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School played at a gymnastics center called the Tumble Jungle. So, soon after the shootings, a staff member brought a bedsheet from her house, painted the words ‘‘Our Angels, Never Forgotten’’ on it, and she and her co-workers draped it over the sign in the front window.

It was one of dozens of such heartfelt memorials that appeared here on roadsides, in yards, and on storefronts in the days after the shootings. Today, the bedsheet is still there, rippling in the wind like a flag of mourning, which in every sense it is.

‘‘We lost so many kids close to us,’’ said Brandy Nezvesky, 18, the manager of Tumble Jungle. ‘‘It’s going to be a big decision for all of us to take it down.’’


Newtown remains a town suffocating in grief after the school massacre on Dec. 14 that killed 20 first-graders and six adult staff members. Now, it is wrestling with what to do with all those well-meaning memorials.

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While the sheet in front of the Tumble Jungle remains, other memorials have disappeared, some picked up by the town in the middle of the night. It is a daunting question: When do public displays of sorrow and sympathy become barriers to moving on, especially for the victims’ families who drive past them?

The town has been so inundated with these and other acts of sympathy that at one point, officials implored other communities to stop sending gifts of toys and other goods and to give them to their own charities in the name of the Sandy Hook victims.

“That’s what happens in disasters like this, especially on a scale like this,’’ said John Eastwood, the pastor of Calvary Chapel in nearby Southbury, who was a chaplain with the Red Cross at the World Trade Center site after 9/11.

Church members have been operating a heated tent on a vacant lot down the road from the school where people can drop off tributes, talk to a chaplain, or simply wander among the mounds of teddy bears, flowers, prayer cards, and posters signed by schoolchildren and well-wishers from across the country and the world.


‘‘That’s one of the primary needs of these temporary memorials,’’ Eastwood said. ‘‘People need to release some of that grief, and it becomes a safe place instead of turning into a complicated grief.’’

The question of how long is too long to let these temporary memorials stand has become all too familiar in sites like Columbine, Virginia Tech, and, more recently, Aurora, Colo., where other gunmen have gone on deadly rampages.

Patricia Llodra, Newtown’s first selectwoman, made the decision herself when she ordered the Public Works Department two weeks after the shooting to remove many of the most elaborate memorials.

Removed were the vast gardens of grief — including rows of decorated Christmas trees topped with silken angels, green and white balloons (the school’s colors), sacrificial candles, and deeply personal items like old dolls and sports trophies — that had accumulated outside the firehouse near the school and in the center of Sandy Hook.

Before doing so, Llodra alerted members of the entire community by phone, telling them of the pending removal. Organic material like flowers and trees, she told them, would be processed into ‘‘sacred soil’’ to use in the foundation of a future memorial. The teddy bears and all the other nonorganic items would be turned into bricks and other building materials for the tribute.


Llodra also wrote a letter to the victims’ families inviting them to spend private time at the sites and to take any items they wished for keepsakes.

‘There’s no road map for this.’

On Dec. 28, police closed the roads around the memorials for two hours as about 50 people from 15 families took her up on the offer.

That night, after most of the town had gone to bed, employees from the Public Works Department collected all the material, placed it in containers, and took it to the department’s warehouse.

Llodra has also invited everyone to take their memorials to the department for inclusion in the permanent memorial.

‘‘There’s no road map for this,’’ Llodra said. ‘‘So I have to really make the decisions based on what my heart tells me is right and what my head says is possible.’’