Interview with Jack Tanner
A memorial to the children and staff killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14. (Photo by Janet Kuzma.)

By Paul Boatman

This interview took place on December 27, 13 days after a gunman in Newtown, Connecticut, killed 20 first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, before killing himself. Jack Tanner was part of the “first response” clergy team called upon to help the parents of the children. Jack serves as preaching minister with Newtown Christian Church.

Jack, our hearts go out to those of you in Newtown. Can you walk us through your experience with this tragedy?
I was busy with routine work in my office [that Friday] when I got a call from the secretary of another church asking me to join other clergy at a fire station where children were being brought to meet their parents. We had heard that only two children and an adult had been taken to the hospital after a shooting incident at Sandy Hook school. When I got to within a quarter-mile of the station, congestion was so bad I parked and walked toward the station. In that short distance, I had to go through five checkpoints where identification was demanded. I began to realize this was more serious than we had heard. By noon, when I arrived at the station, most of the children had been reunited with their parents, but there were more parents waiting for children who were not coming.

What was the atmosphere in the room?
You could feel the anxiety. Parents were clinging to hope, even when it was becoming apparent there was very little hope that their children would be coming. We tried to console. Most did not want to talk, but they were open to prayer and an arm on a shoulder. We just tried to “be there” for them as they sat silently.

Jack Tanner

Who was there to help?
About 10 or 12 pastors were there with the Connecticut State Police and Governor [Dan] Malloy. The governor addressed the group, saying they were trying to get information. A trooper was assigned to each set of parents to get information on the children who were “not yet accounted for.” The governor promised to give a progress report each hour. It seemed the parents did not sense what was developing.

 

It sounds like tension was escalating.

It certainly was. By 3 p.m., parents were feeling that information was being held back. They knew only that their children were not accounted for. They asked about the people [two children and an adult] reportedly taken to the hospital. The governor acknowledged that the two children were dead. Gasps sounded and tears flowed. Parents kept pleading for more information on the other children. The governor paused and carefully stated, “They are no longer alive.” The room filled with sobs and gut-wrenching shrieks. Some parents had hoped, “Maybe my child is OK.” At that moment it seemed every bit of hope was sucked out of the room. We pastors wished we had words to say. We looked at each other and turned to try to console the parents as best we could. As time passed, the parents asked, “Are we just being kept here to identify bodies?” Troopers began to take families home until they could be called in to identify their children. Clergy left as the families left. I understand it was about 3 a.m. before all [the victims] were identified.

What unfolded on Saturday?
Numbness set in. Another school building was used for counseling. I was there by 8 a.m., with some of my ministry colleagues. We were joined by volunteers from around the state. We waited until we were called with a request, such as, “We have a family with a child whose best friend was killed.” They just needed to talk. The people who came were mainly friends and neighbors, not the people with the immediate loss. That afternoon the clergy met to plan a community service for Sunday evening. This service was primarily for the community, so we agreed to have only prayers, silence, and Scripture. No talking, no sermons. After we had planned the service, we got the call from the White House, asking whether President Obama could come participate. It was our decision, but the request helped us [grasp] how the nation was reacting to this. If the president needed to speak to the nation, we decided that including him would be the right thing to do. So the president, governor, and first selectwoman [mayor] each took part.

We watched the service and wept from afar. How did you feel about it?
I feel that the service went positively. The most important thing for us was that we prayed for our community and came together in looking to our faith in God. All faith communities were together on this.

Where did ministry go after that?
On Monday, the ministry became more personal. Funerals and wakes began. On Tuesday, clergy got together and reflected on our own emotional states. We had different levels of closeness to families. No children from our church were killed, but I helped some of the other ministers—[we] helped each other with the urgent situations, people stopping by. All the churches were open for people to stop in. We assisted, connected, and supported one another where we could.

We scheduled another community service for 9:30 a.m. exactly two weeks after the attack to help the community grieve as a community. Everyone involved needs to see grief as a long process and realize the need to place hope in the ongoing work of God.

You are using the term community with great frequency.
The community has been amazing. We really have come together; 27,000 people are connected in loss and really joining in helping one another.

I don’t hear you talking about a sense of rage.
Community leaders at all levels have chosen to focus on the immediate concerns and not engage the political issues—gun control, mental illness issues, etc. We know there will be a time for expressing rage and dealing with political implications, but this is not the time. Angry outcries will come, but right now the hurt is where we are joined. Everybody in town felt the assault; everything we do is impacted by this. For example, my son just got married this past Sunday, just nine days after the murders. One of the groomsmen lost a niece. My son considered canceling the ceremony. They had the wedding, but the undertone of grief was present. We are emotionally tied to the persons in this story.

Can you say more about the role of faith in the process?
From my perspective, prayer is the main expression of faith shown. First, I have asked people to pray for the parents—not just simple “God bless everybody” prayers. I saw the power of despair in those parents. Second, I have asked for prayer for the people who are helping. In the midst of helping people, I have experienced an overwhelming feeling that “I just can’t go on,” [followed by] an inner peace and a surge of energy. I was sure someone was praying for me. My fellow ministers described the same thing. Personally, as pastors, we felt the power.

I have not heard townspeople asking, “Where was God?” or “Why did he not stop this?” What I have heard is, “Church is where we need to be!”

What have you learned about yourself?
There is no way I could make it through this without the help of God. Also, one [only] thinks he is prepared for the worst. I have had some really difficult moments before, but nothing could get me ready for this. Also, I need to ask people to pray for me. I may have been too reliant on myself. I’m asking others to join me in asking for God’s help.

A memorial to the children and staff killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14. (Photo by Janet Kuzma.)

How has this community changed?
Well, it has not been torn apart. I believe we will be more sensitive to each other. Priorities are clarified in the face of this tragedy.

What is the role of forgiveness? Adam Lanza [the gunman] did a very evil thing.
In planning our Sunday night memorial, we talked about candles for each person killed. We discussed a candle for the killer. I suggested that this is not the time to expect everybody to accept that. Two days after ghastly murders is too early to hammer a grieving parent with the need to forgive. That’s a complicated issue to deal with later.

We wish we could help you more.
I have been overwhelmed at the efforts of many to help. I’ve had two or three people helping [just to keep up with] my own e-mails. Our town has received so many teddy bears we have no room for any more. People are sending them because of their desire to do something, anything, but we are overwhelmed by memorials and gifts from all over the country. I know people are meaning well, and we can indeed sense the sincerity of people’s hearts, but perhaps more thought can be given to how we could best help those close to the tragedy. There are memorial Christmas trees around town for the children, and people leave mementos to let people know they are praying for them. The trees are covered with gifts and remembrances.

Do you have a word from God for us?
My cousin Tom sent a message, “We mourn Newtown as Rachel weeps for her children” (Jeremiah 31:15 and Matthew 2:18). That speaks to me. People I know and love are suffering beyond imagination. I hurt for pains too deep for words

Paul Boatman serves as chaplain with Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.

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1 Comment

  1. Billy M. Taylor
    January 9, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    Another tragedy with the unexplained deaths of our beautiful children in Newtown. In 1980 our beautiful nine year old daugter was killed in a fiery automobile crash. She came home in a body bag. The death certificate read “third degree burns over 100% of the body.” We never saw her nor were we allowed to hold the bag. So my wife and I have first hand knowledge of what the Newtown parents and families are experiencing at this very movement, and will experience the rest of their lives. Several years ago, one of our recent high school graduates was killed in a motor cycle accident. I did not know the family. I attended the funeral and internment. When I walked by the open grave to shake hands with the parents I told them they did not know me, that I was a bereaved parent and we were walking the same road. I told them it was a hell walk. Those parents looked at me like I was crazy. Since that time, I have become close friends of these parents and they have told me over and over that I was absolutely correct in what I told them. Why am I telling others about this? Because most people have no understanding of what happens when your child dies.

    Initially everyone is in shock and deals with the tragedy in all kinds of different ways, praying for the family, attending the visitation and funeral, sending flowers, and writing sympathy notes. Some people attempt to console the parents, family and themselves by trying to explain and justify the death. Most families try to shield their own children from the realities of what has happened. After a few weeks, most people move on with their lives, and the death of that beautiful child begins to dim in their consciousness. I want to tell you, it is then that the so painful real grief for the parents and very close family sets in. This is the hell walk I told those newly bereaved parents about at the grave site of their son.

    So why am I telling you this? Right now you are asking yourselves, “This is so terrible, what can I do, how can I help?” Let me give you a few suggestions.

    1. Pray for yourself asking God in the name of Jesus Christ to give you wisdom in your prayers and actions for these parents and family.
    2. Pray for the family, especially the parents, to give them divine strength to live through this horrible happening.
    3. Show the parents that you are there to support them.
    4. Don’t tell the parents and family you know how they feel, because you don’t.
    5. Don’t try to explain the death.
    6. Don’t try to explain God. None of us knows the mind of God in this tragedy.
    7. Remember that long after you have moved one, the parents are still wading through living with the death of their child.
    8. Don’t judge them or their unexplained behavior weeks, months and years after the death. Just love them and understand that they are grieving.
    9. Understand that the grief of the parents and family is not for them but for the lost life experiences and opportunities taken away from their child.
    9. If you are fortunate enough to become a sole mate to the bereaved parent, let them tell their story over and over. Just be there for them and listen. It is not necessary to say anything.

    Often what happens with bereaved parents is that they turn inward with their grief, mainly because after a period of time, people, including family, don’t want to hear it anymore. Usually they will tell the parents that they need to get over it and move on. Well, it just does not work that way. It is impossible to control the natural psychological progression of the stages of grief that a person experiences and the wrestling match they have philosophically with their Christian beliefs.

    There is much more I can tell you, but I want to end by telling you that God is ultimately in control. He has a greater understanding of what grieving parents experience and feel. Why? Because he sent His son, Jesus, to this earth to suffer a premature death by crusifixion knowing that He would not stop the sacrifice.

    Be assured Heaven is a real place. We have no words in our vocabulary to describe it. When we get there by grace, we will know one another. We will communicate. It will be a marvelous and wonderful time for eternity. Oh what a day that will be!

    I must tell you, however, that the first question I will have is, I don’t understand this, why?

    A Christian bereaved parent,

    Billy M. Taylor

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