A Sandy Hook Mom on Newtown 2 Years Later: 'We Don't Say It's an Anniversary'

It's hard to conceive that two years have passed since a mentally ill gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and took the lives of 26 people -- 6 educators and 20 children. One of those children was Dylan Hockley, a 6-year-old who adored chocolate and movies and bouncing on trampolines. He died in the arms of his teacher, who was also killed.

Over the past two years, Dylan's mother, Nicole, has become involved with Sandy Hook Promise (SHP), a nonprofit committed to protecting children from gun violence. Still living in Newtown, Nicole Hockley spoke with The Stir about how she, her husband, Ian, and son, Jake -- who was also at Sandy Hook that morning -- are still coping with Dylan's death, and what steps she's taking to ensure another school shooting will never happen again.

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How are you coping, with December 14 right around the corner?
We don't say it's an anniversary. It's a two-year mark. A lot of me is trying very hard not to think about it. The passage of time is hard to understand. Dylan's frozen forever in time. There are no new pictures of him, no new school photos. To think it's been two years since I last hugged him ... It's hard to fathom.

How is Jake doing?
We're all still finding our way forward. The second year was much harder than the first, when shock carried us through. Jake is 10 now. He's still in therapy, working through the events of the day like so many kids. But he's doing great and working through his fears ... He went through a time when he wanted all of Dylan's pictures down in the house and didn't want us to talk about Dylan in front of him. Now, Jake has pictures of his brother in his room. If we're out and about somewhere, we'll talk about him, too. "Oh, Dylan would have loved that slide!" We're more open now.

Have you moved out of Newtown?
No, we still live in the neighborhood. At the time, we had been renting a house opposite the shooter's house. We'd only moved from England two years before. After [the shooting], we broke our lease and moved into another house. We've definitely talked about moving away and on more than one occasion. It's hard being here, with the constant reminders. But we can't escape what happened. There's no such thing as a fresh start when your son is gone. And we love this community. There are warm and wonderful people here, and a lot of compassion and comfort.

How do you feel you've changed in the past two years?
I'm definitely not the person I was before. I used to be one of those ridiculously optimistic people. Now I'm more realistic. I've become a lot harder, I have to say. But protecting other kids and teaching them about gun safety drives me ... I want to make a difference. I want to protect Jake. And I want to make a difference in Dylan's name.

Sandy Hook Promise recently released a short video, Monsters Under the Bed, that shows parents stymied when they try to talk to their kids about gun safety. What was the motivation?
In the past year and a half, I've been learning a lot about why more people aren't engaged in conversations about gun safety. It makes them feel hopeless and helpless. It's a conversation we don't know how to have because each time we do, it devolves into gun control vs. gun freedom. That's not what parents are interested in. We love our children. We want to keep them healthy and happy and safe ... So how can we get parents to talk [about gun safety] in a new way? Monsters Under the Bed was developed to show that parents instinctively know how to protect their kids against imaginary monsters, but the real threat is gun violence -- and we don't know what to say.

After watching the video, what actions do you hope parents take?
[SHP] has a whole range of options, depending on the time someone has. Parents are busy people. We have formal training programs, but if all you have time for is a conversation around the kitchen table, that's okay. Recognize the signs of someone in crisis. Read the signs on social media -- is it everyday despair and anger or a real threat? Tell a trusted adult and make an intervention. These are not difficult things, but meaningful actions.

More From The Stir: One Year After Sandy Hook: A Mom Reflects On Life Without Her Little Girl

You also have a foundation, Dylan's Wings of Change, that offers support to children with autism.
Yes, my husband, Ian, and I set it up to honor the kid Dylan was. It supports kids with autism through two different programs. We're working with a university to try to determine what apps are best for autism. And through a program called "Wingman," we teach kids about inclusion in sports. Technology and sports, those were two things Dylan benefited from.

Have you talked to Jake about Monsters Under the Bed?
Jake's no longer afraid of monsters under the bed because he knows the real one. But I can talk to him about other things -- like social inclusion. SHP has a program called "No One Eats Alone." It's not just about noticing the kid in the cafeteria who's eating alone, but drawing them in. That's an easy one to talk to Jake about. I admit I have not talked to Jake directly about gun safety. It's something we both have to build up to. He's still skittish.

When will you feel SHP is making a difference? What's your measure of success?
When people start acting differently. Too many people think this will never happen to them. We should realize we don't have the answers instead of staying silent. We should all work harder to not become a mother [who has lost a child] like I have.

What does Jake think about your commitment to raise awareness?
He knows what I'm doing is important. He made me laugh a few months ago when we went to a movie. There was a sign on the door that showed a firearm with a red line through it. Jake pointed at it and said, "Mommy! They're listening to you!"

Can you share one of your favorite memories of Dylan?
I just loved his laugh. I'm so upset with myself that I don't have a video of the way he used to laugh. Dylan loved being tickled and cuddled. Shortly before he died, I remember picking him up. He curled his legs around me and I bent him backwards over our couch so my hair tickled his face. The light was coming into the room in such a way that Dylan's face was aglow with sunshine. He was laughing hysterically. That moment is frozen in my mind.

Watch Sandy Hook Promise's Monster Under the Bed video below.

How do you talk to your kids about school safety?


For more information about the Hockley family's causes, visit Sandy Hook Promise and Dylan's Wings of Change.


Image via Nicole Hockley

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