Six Years After Sandy Hook, Dad Can't Stop Remembering His Last Moments with His Little Boy
Sandy Hook parents Mark Barden and Nicole Hockley look back at the mass shooting that stole the lives of their children and 23 others
Early on Dec. 14, 2012, Mark Barden spent a few minutes before school snuggled up on the couch with his 7-year-old son, Daniel, marveling at the reflection of the Christmas tree lights in the window as the sun rose in their sleepy town of Newtown, Connecticut.
As they made their way to the bus stop at the end of the driveway, Daniel asked if they could just hold hands.
Within hours Daniel, along with 19 other first-graders and six educators, would be dead.
Mark had no idea that morning was his last with his son, a compassionate boy who was known for sitting next to classmates who were alone and moving worms from the burning driveway to the cool grass. (The wriggly creatures had families they loved and they needed to be together, Daniel told Mark.)
Shortly after 9:30 a.m. that December day, a gunman stormed Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was the deadliest mass shooting of children in modern American history.
Even now, on the sixth anniversary of a massacre that plunged the country into collective mourning, the pain of the death of his son and the others still sears Mark Barden’s heart.
Much as he tries, he says he cannot help but retrace every moment he spent with his boy.
“I remember the things I was doing with Daniel like it was last week, not knowing they were his last final days,” he tells PEOPLE.
He describes the remembrances as almost violently inescapable.
“They are so vividly burned into my memory and my conscience that I find myself reliving these days,” Mark says. “I have very vivid memories that creep into my consciousness and can level me if I’m not aware. That’s one part of this journey that I have to reckon with.”
For Nicole Hockley, who lost her 6-year-old son, Dylan, in the shooting, the anniversary “is a day I just want to get past.”
On that day in 2012, she recalls, “We were supposed to be in our classrooms making gingerbread houses with the kids.”
As the anniversary approaches each year, she tells PEOPLE, her heart grows more volatile.
“It becomes less and less controllable as it gets closer to the actual day,” she says. “I distract myself by lunging headfirst into the work.”
The work she references: doing everything she can to prevent gun violence through Sandy Hook Promise, the national nonprofit that she and Mark helped found in 2013, weeks after the shooting.
Mark says that both the information in the PSA — one of several SHP has rolled out since the group’s first award-winning PSA, Evan, in 2016, which drew 155 million views on social media — and the framework SHP created to spot the warning signs are making a difference.
“It works,” he says.
SHP also highlights its Say Something Anonymous Reporting System, which allows students and adults to submit secure and anonymous safety concerns to help identify and intervene upon at-risk individuals before they hurt themselves or others via email, an app or by calling the 1-844-5-SAYNOW Hotline.
“Gun violence,” says Hockley, “is preventable. People can be part of the solution.”