This article originally appeared in The New York Times on July 17, 2016.
Gina Paxton-Reznik huddled with eight others in a house in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2009, as she watched mourners haul open heart sealed coffins with the names of the victims of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Ms. Paxton-Reznik, who has never before seen loss, broke into tears. She collapsed on the floor. “It was like I was on a dark stage and I was faced with my own mortality,” she said.
As a home health-care worker and the widow of a medical director, Ms. Paxton-Reznik had rarely been close to anyone with the strength to grieve. With the name-bearing caskets ahead, she recalled, “I was completely alone.”
Children were younger than Mrs. Paxton-Reznik had ever seen, and their parent-friends were older. She stopped herself as she tried to choke out the names that crowded the obituaries: Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook, and Victoria Soto, who had run a game room for first-graders.
“What is it that keeps on happening?” she wondered at the time. “All of these people are gone. Why can’t we stop this? I’m scared.”
Today, at the end of a three-day book tour for a memoir, “Bodies Mean Nothing” (Flatiron Books), she is back on stage, back with the anxiety, still with the tears — and back in Newtown, two years later, in a different town, on a different holiday, at the same school for a memorial mass for 12 victims of the shooting.
In the story she set in early 2018, she also visits Parkland, Fla., on a mission to reunite parents with a small family of children they lost.
In Newtown, she stood, crying, beside the spot where the children’s bodies would lie — the spot at a staging area overlooking the high school as they were carried from the school down to the ambulance. She had been invited to speak there, but said she was not going.
“I just can’t face it,” she said.
“I felt so bad,” Rachel D’Avino, whose 6-year-old daughter, Grace, was among the students killed, said on the plane in a telephone interview. She had gone to the site first, at the direction of her husband, Nicholas, who was a Newtown selectman in 2007. “We did it together,” she said.
What they learned together was that people needed to come, to remember. “We said, ‘Grace’s name is on the field, on the stage, in front of the kids,’ ” Ms. D’Avino recalled. That could get it started.
This time, Ms. Paxton-Reznik and two others traveled with a New York Times photographer, Tijana Martin, to Washington for a memorial service for the shooting victims on the last day of their tour. On Capitol Hill, she spoke to teachers, friends, relatives and others at the memorial service, then stood next to those who were being buried, bawling and weeping.
Two years later, the grief is still strong. “I’m still walking the halls of Sandy Hook in these shoes, where I had been,” she said. “It’s what keeps me awake at night.”