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Expressions of grief: After mass shootings, what to do with the outpouring of condolence items

Mark Mirko
Connecticut Public
The hands of archivist Kathy Craughwell-Varda rest on a ledger she created of a small portion of the gifts sent to Sandy Hook in the wake of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Thousands of teddy bears, toys, school supplies, cards and letters were sent to Newtown from all over the world.

Soon after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, Jenny Hubbard sat in her living room, surrounded by boxes stacked from floor to ceiling – boxes filled with condolence messages.

“There was a clear sense that people wanted me to know that they were grieving with me,” she said.

Hubbard’s daughter, Catherine Violet Hubbard, was among the 20 young children and six adults killed that day.

It’s a heartbreakingly familiar pattern across the U.S. Another mass shooting. Another shrine appears at the site of the tragedy – flowers, teddy bears, candles. After the Newtown shooting, temporary memorials lined the streets with votive candles, crosses and cardboard angels.

Kathy Craughwell-Varda’s daughter was in lockdown near Sandy Hook on the day of the shooting. Craughwell-Varda is a museum curatorial consultant.

“As a historian, as someone who tells history through objects, I wanted to make sure we would be able to have these items for the future,” she said. “How do people handle these moments of intense grief and cultural shock?”

Newtown, like most small communities, was unprepared to handle the staggering number of items that flooded the town after the Sandy Hook shooting. What should you do with truckloads of paper snowflakes, blankets and teddy bears?

Craughwell-Varda helped to connect town officials with the archives at the Connecticut State Library.

'My heart hurts for you all'

Inside their storage facility, Assistant State Archivist Allen Ramsey recently walked past shelves of manuscripts and historical records. He stopped in front of 64 boxes holding a curated sample of cards and letters sent to Newtown.

Newtown Condolence Archive
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
After the tragedy at Sandy Hook, countless letters and items of condolence flooded into Newtown from all over the country and the world. Sixty-four boxes of those messages are preserved in the Condolence Archive Project at the Connecticut State Library.

Ramsey opened one of the boxes.

“In Box 61, we have quite a number of countries,” Ramsey said. “From Austria, American Samoa to Kenya, Korea. These were letters that were received by the town of Newtown from all over the world after the massacre.”

One card reads: “I am currently deployed to Kuwait. My heart hurts for you all. Only advice I can give is to love one another and forgive each other. Pray and hold onto every moment you have. Take it one day at a time. My love to you all.”

In Newtown, people ran several independent projects to document and preserve the condolence materials. Some objects stayed in the town. Selected items were photographed, digitized and became the “Condolence Archive Project of the C.H. Booth Library, Newtown” on the Connecticut State Library’s website. Certain artifacts were sent to a private offsite storage facility. A photo gallery of curated materials was published on the "Embracing Newtown" website.

The remaining materials were incinerated, with some of the ash designated as “sacred soil." It became part of the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial that opened in November 2022.

After a tragedy, many feel an urgency to respond

Other communities faced with preserving and archiving condolence materials have turned to librarians and archivists for assistance.

Ten years ago, there were no best practice models to follow, said Ashley Maynor Alpin, director of the Library Lab at New York University Libraries. She has researched how communities manage expressions of grief and sympathy after mass shootings and public tragedies. In 2007, Alpin was teaching at Virginia Tech when a gunman came onto campus and killed 32 people.

“I got involved in this in part through my own grief of looking at what was happening around me,” she said.

Memorializing tragic death is not new, but the scale of public reaction has changed. In our connected information age, people quickly learn about mass shootings and many feel an urgency to respond, Alpin said. They may leave a memento at a shrine or send a gift or condolence message.

Among the many heartfelt expressions of grief are typically a small number of messages considered offensive.

“Materials that might be overtly antisemitic, racist, they may contain conspiracy theories,” Alpin said. “They might say terrible things about the victims or their families. And in the case of Sandy Hook, of course, there were also materials about the tragedy being a hoax.”

In Newtown, most distasteful material was discarded.

Mark Mirko
Connecticut Public
"Archiving grief helps communities heal," says Kathy Craughwell-Varda.

“From a historian or librarian or archivist standpoint, seeing the full range of reactions to a tragedy is historically significant and important,” Alpin said. “If we destroy or curate out these materials, they may not have that full historical portrait. That said, to a community, the fact that these materials exist is incredibly painful.”

A 'tragedy response kit' to help preserve grief

After mass shootings at Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and others, the Society of American Archivists saw a need to offer support to communities tasked with preserving collective grief. Ramsey, the assistant archivist with the Connecticut State Library, helped create the guidelines.

“We worked to come up with templates that people could easily download into what we call a ‘tragedy response kit,’” he said.

They also established a Crisis Collecting Assistance Team with archivists available remotely to help local communities.

But after a decade of research in the field, Alpin has begun to question whether archivists are focusing on the right thing.

“I thought these were anomalies,” she said. “I thought Virginia Tech was a once-in-a-lifetime event; Newtown was an unspeakable thing that would never happen again. But now 16 years out from the mass shooting that I experienced, this is not an anomaly.”

And that changes the picture, she said.

“What’s interesting for me as an archivist — someone who wants to save things — is I don’t want to save anything anymore,” she said. “I don’t want to put my energy into that. Because I think our energy is really needed in making sure this stops.”

At the same time, Craughwell-Varda, the curatorial consultant, said archiving the aftermath of the Newtown shooting was meaningful to those who’d lived through a tragedy that hit hard.

“I think that’s critical to know that as divisive as the world seems today, when something happens, people pull together,” she said.

Archiving grief, she said, helps communities heal.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.