LET HER DEATH NOT BE IN VAIN
‘Hope,’ the Word That Sandy Hook Dad Jeremy Richman Lost at the End
When 6-year-old Avielle Richman was killed in Sandy Hook, her parents started a foundation and tried to find hope in their unending grief. Then her dad lost it in a fatal moment.
With granite, as with grief, six years and nine months is no time at all.
The letters on Avielle Richman’s tombstone looked as freshly inscribed on Tuesday as when it was first installed to mark her grave in Newtown Community Cemetery. She had been among the 20 first-graders murdered along with six adult educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
Avielle Rose Richman
Oct. 17, 2006 - Dec. 14, 2012
You stand at the grave of a child. Let her death not be in vain. May her small shadow compel you to change. Strive to see the world through her eyes, through the eyes of all children, their imaginations are our future. Whether these visions bring you happiness and laughter or sadness and a heavy heart, they are gifts. Where you discover these gifts, you will find hope.
Her father’s grief was just as fresh in a haiku he posted along with the photo of himself and Avielle’s mother, Jennifer Hensel, standing at the grave on the third anniversary of the carnage that claimed the sparkly little girl who had been their only child.
What is your number
When will your heart be broken?
Mine is 12/14
His heart must have remained broken and his grief must have remained unbearably fresh even as he and his wife continued a tireless effort to keep their daughter and her murdered classmates from having died in vain on 12/14.
Jeremy Richman was a neuropharmacologist. Hensel is a scientist in clinical microbiology as well as molecular and cellular immunology and oncology. They founded what they called The Avielle Foundation (TAF).
“We miss Avielle more each and every day, and like so many of you, we want to bring about changes to stop this epidemic of violence,” read the mission statement on the foundation’s website. “We want to prevent tragedies like these from happening to any community—ever again.”
The statement continued, “The Avielle Foundation has been created in honor of our loving daughter—along with all the others who fall victim to violence—to foster an understanding of what leads someone to engage in harmful behavior, the risk factors, and conversely to identify and engender protective factors that lead away from violence and toward compassion, kindness, connection, community, and resilience. We are working with world leaders in four broad areas: brain health research, public health, community engagement, and education.”
In 2016, Richman and Hensel received the Yale University Department of Psychiatry’s Research Advocacy Award. TAF opened an office at Edmond Town Hall, which serves as a community center in Newtown, Connecticut. The building has a theater that had long offered $2 movies as well as staged events, and TAF began using it to offer a series of monthly talks it called “the Brainstorm Experience.”
“The Brainstorm Experience seeks to bring our community together in a stimulating and engaging environment in which learning, connection, and inspiration provoke imagination,” TAF said. “These experiences will enhance understanding of the strengths and vulnerabilities of the brain.”
On Feb. 27 of last year, the theater filled to near-capacity for a talk by Kevin Hines, who leapt off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco in 2000. He was one of only 36 of more than 2,000 people who made that jump and survived. He had since become an inspirational speaker, seeking to help others struggling with despair and mental illness.
Richman afterward told a local newspaper, “[Hines] navigated the audience through his journey, and everyone left changed for the better.”
Richman seemed to be staying a step ahead of crushing grief by giving meaning to loss. He and Hensel had two more children, Imogen in 2014 and Owen in 2016.
“Dr. Richman chose to live his life forward in a positive direction,” Lt. Aaron Bahamonde of the Newtown Police told The Daily Beast.
On March 19, Richman’s forward momentum took him to Florida Atlantic University, where he delivered a keynote lecture at a symposium about the brain. He was interviewed on Facebook just beforehand and was asked about Avielle. He said she liked being outside and going barefoot. She had an infectious laugh and “a deep sense of justice.” And she loved stories.
“She realized that things she did in life were all part of a story,” he said. “Brushing her teeth, getting dressed. She would kind of sing and narrate her day with a song as she was coming down the stairs.”
He was asked about her last morning, and he said the family had planned for her to take the day off from school so they could go to the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan.
“But, she said, ‘No, I got to go to school today. You’re going to come in and help me make a gingerbread house,’” he recalled.
He put her on the school bus.
“And said goodbye expecting just to go back into the school a couple hours from then,’” he recounted.
The plan suddenly changed when he and his wife got several phone calls about the school being on lockdown. They headed there and were directed to a nearby firehouse, where they waited until they received the worst possible news.
“That changed everything you know,” he now said. “It’s such a shock to the system. You feel suddenly displaced. The world is spinning and you’re not, and you’re going to get thrown off it and you have to find something to grip onto.”
After what he described as “a few really dark days,” he and Hensel resolved to create a foundation dedicated to researching the genetic, environmental, and biochemical factors that lead to violence.
“Playing to our strengths as scientists,” he said
They were also set on determining what leads away from violence.
“Toward compassion and kindness,” he said.
He added, “To be human really requires us to master being humane.”
He quoted Nietzsche, saying, “Those who have the why can endure any how.” He had a clear sense of his foundation’s why.
“We wanted to prevent others from suffering the way we were suffering and continue to suffer to this day,” he said.
He added that beyond scientific understanding, they hope to provide everyday citizens better means of coping.
“In a time of crisis, reach in a toolbox for something of value and meaning that you can apply,” he said.
As it happened, a survivor of the Parkland school shooting named Sydney Aiello had gone on to Florida Atlantic University and died by suicide on March 17, just two days before his lecture there. Richman did not say anything about it during the interview. He may not yet have been aware of it, though he almost certainly found out later. He also almost certainly learned that a second Parkland survivor, Calvin Desir, who was still at the high school, died by suicide on Saturday.
But there is no telling if the two Parkland suicides had anything to do with why Richman struck an acquaintance as being a little off when he was in the Bagel Delight store back in Newtown over the weekend. He was often in there with Imogen, now 4, and little Owen, now 2. The immediate future saw them at Sandy Hook Elementary, which has been replaced by a new complex, but is still by that firehouse. They would then go to Newtown Middle School, where Avielle would now be had she survived.
On 8 a.m. Monday, Bahamonde arrived at police headquarters to learn that some electrical contractors working on the Edmond Town Hall theater had reported making a terrible discovery.
Bahamonde joined other cops who were already at the scene just up Main Street from headquarters. A little over a year after Richman had stood with suicide survivor Kevin Hines, the still-suffering father had taken his life on that same stage.
“It just took one bad night,” Bahamonde later told The Daily Beast.
The police had to notify the next of kin.
“Obviously, we knew who the wife was,” Bahamonde noted.
Bahamonde understood the irony of Richman having been a scientist of the brain.
“His mind was hurt,” Bahamonde said.
The foundation issued a statement.
“Our hearts are shattered, and our heads are struggling to comprehend,” TAF said. “Tragically, his death speaks to how insidious and formidable a challenge brain health can be and how critical it is for all of us to seek help for ourselves, our loved ones and anyone who we suspect may be in need,”
On an improbably bright and cloudless Tuesday morning, somebody had left roses on the front steps of Edmond Town Hall with a white envelope addressed to Jeremy Richman. The police had gone, but the hall remained closed for the day. The flag out front had been lowered to half staff. It rippled under a perfect blue sky in a brisk wind that carried the slight chill of early spring.
Bahamonde was down at headquarters, and he talked about the effect on officers who had responded to the Sandy Hook shooting as well as a bomb scare there in 2015, and now Richman’s suicide at Edmond Hall.
“It’s a punch in the stomach,” Bahamonde said. “It hurts.”
Up atop a hill in section 561 at Newtown Community Cemetery, the tombstone where Avielle Richman’s parents had stood in perpetually fresh grief was surrounded by tombstones for four other youngsters who were murdered on that number for heartbreak, 12/14. The trees were still bare from the seventh winter since the shooting, but blades of bright green in the browned grass carried the promise of a seventh spring.
And with talk of spring Bahamonde uttered the same word that is at the end of the inscription that looks so freshly inscribed in granite as resistant as grief to time. The word is something that Jeremy Richman leaves for us even after he lost it for himself in a fatal moment.
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741