December 23, 2013 12:00 PM

Newtown: One Year Later

On a snowy evening last December, Mark Barden drove his daughter Natalie, 12, to her piano lesson. In the back seat of the minivan, her cheerful little brother Daniel sang Christmas carols all the way. When Barden parked the car, he says, “Daniel climbed in my lap and kissed me.” Three months later Barden found himself again driving Natalie to her lesson – but this time his sweet, gap-toothed 7-year-old boy was there only in spirit. Again it started to snow. “For a fleeting moment,” Barden says, “I was transported back to that magical night.”

In the year since the unthinkable happened on Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., when 6 adults and 20 children, Daniel among them, were slain by 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza, that is all the Bardens have: the moments, the intimate memories of their lost child. There’s Daniel, running to the bus stop, being cheered on at his swim meet or building sand castles on the beach. The Newtown families are fighting, Barden says, “the deepest, most profound grief. It’s as raw as it was last December. I still find myself in a position where I’m trying to comprehend it. We all are.”

Although there is “no way around the pain,” he says, Mark, 49, a musician-composer, and his wife, Jackie, 47, have spent the last year – like the other parents of Newtown – working through it. As their memories of Daniel help them to heal, so, too, does the kindness of friends, relatives, even strangers. The two state troopers, Dennis Keane and Tamia Tucker, assigned to them immediately after the shooting, have become close, “like family,” says Barden. “Little did I know when I met them that this would become a lifelong friendship.”

For the sake of Daniel’s surviving siblings Natalie and James, 13, Mark and Jackie have tried to stick to a routine. “We make a conscientious effort to make family life as normal as we can,” says Jackie. “We’re trying to stay strong, but the kids bring us joy, as well.” But the firsts without Daniel were hard. “On the first day of school, we put James and Natalie on the bus,” says Mark. “And then we came back to a quiet house. We weren’t prepared for that.”

Mark and Jackie have learned that even small changes in routine can fill that emptiness. Where he used to make breakfast together with his son every morning, now he takes a walk with Jackie. They’ll stop in the nearby Sandy Hook Diner or do “anything else but sit in that awesome quiet.”

So rather than celebrate Thanksgiving at their four-bedroom colonial with their large extended family, as they have in the past, playing board games and taking long walks, “we decided to do something different” this year, says Jackie. They ate and slept at her sister’s home in a nearby town, ditching the turkey for steaks on the grill. But Mark admits that when he saw Daniel’s cousins running around playing, “I had to go off into another room,” he says, “and cry.”

The whole family have seen therapists, and all four Bardens have found different ways to cope. Natalie writes “little stories” to Daniel in her journal. For James, who is quieter, there’s soccer and a vast circle of friends that has embraced him. “As close as they were to Daniel, they are functioning in a positive way,” Jackie says of her children. “They have great friends. They love school and are involved in a lot of activities.”

Jackie says she tries to “block out” the tragedy when she can: “You wonder if it’s healthy, but there’s no right way, I guess.” Mark has found his voice as a member of Sandy Hook Promise, the grass-roots organization of families and parents formed in the wake of the shooting that advocates gun safety and better mental health care. “When Mark talks about his son, you can feel the love and the loss of such a special child,” says Sue Hornik, executive director of States United to Prevent Gun Violence. “He has turned that pain into a daunting schedule, speaking to educators, legislators and community leaders to make sure there’s not another Newtown.”

As each day passes, new memories are made. The day after Thanksgiving, 25 loved ones, old friends and new, packed the Barden home. In the kitchen Jackie’s 91-year-old father plays poker, while in the family room the children snuggle on the couch watching The Polar Express. State trooper Dennis Keane, 53, who was with the Bardens when they learned of Daniel’s death, is at the dining table, sipping coffee with the adults. Trooper Tamia Tucker, 28, a former Marine, is down on the floor playing with Natalie and her American Girl dolls. Tucker recalls the Bardens giving her hugs on that horrible day they met. “I told them I would not leave unless they asked me,” she says.

As a sign that less painful days are to come, Jackie Barden looks around the bustling house at all the people who have been there for them. The pain of missing Daniel, her little boy whose personality “lit up a room,” she said, “is indescribable.” But looking at her husband with tears in her eyes, Jackie says simply, “We’re very, very lucky.” Says Mark: “We have so much love and support. If we didn’t have all of them, I don’t know what we’d do.”

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