A year after Daniel Barden was killed, his family is setting up a school-based initiative that will support acts-of-kindness programs

Credit: Mark Peterson; Inset Courtesy Barden Family

Mark Barden still cannot believe his son Daniel is no longer here to cuddle on snowy winter mornings or challenge him to foosball games before school.

“In those first few seconds when I’m awake, I still have to think, ‘Was this whole thing just a horrible dream?’ ” he says. “I still find myself trying to comprehend it, as we all are.”

Barden lost his 7-year-old son on Dec. 14, 2012, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 first graders, including Daniel, and six educators before turning the gun on himself.

In the year since the massacre, Mark, 49, Jackie, 47, and their children, James, 13, and Natalie, 11, have struggled without the little boy “who always worried about everyone else,” says Mark. “It’s been god-awful. And yet, we have had so much love and support from our family, neighbors and community.”

Indeed, the Bardens have relied on their close-knit family – 40 relatives who have been there for them nonstop since the shooting – as well as new friends to help them through their darkest days. Connecticut State Troopers Dennis Keane and Tamia Tucker, who were assigned to help the family after the tragedy, have become close friends.

Keane, who was there when the Bardens learned they had lost Daniel, says, “There’s not one day that I don’t think of them. I put Daniel’s mass card in my uniform pocket over my heart every single day.”

Tucker feels the same way: “They have become my family,” she says.

Help with Healing

Working to try to prevent another Newtown tragedy has also helped the Bardens in their “healing,” says Mark. As a member of Sandy Hook Promise, the grassroots organization that parents formed after the shooting, Mark has traveled around the country to talk about “lessening gun violence and improving mental health care,” he says. He is now promoting the group’s new campaign, Parent Together, “to find solutions together about gun safety.”

But it’s the moving Facebook page that the Bardens’ niece, Jackie Pickett, started after Daniel died – WWDD: What Would Daniel Do – and which promotes Daniel-like acts of kindness, that has given the Bardens the most hope.

“Just to read one comment from someone who says, ‘I’m a different person now,’ is amazing,” says Pickett. Based on its success, the Bardens are creating a WWDD-inspired foundation, which will offer acts-of-kindness programs in schools and communities. “I believe I am following my calling, especially in honoring Daniel and the way he was truly compassionate,” says Mark.

None of this makes their loss any easier. On the night before Daniel died, Jackie says, “I remember hugging him and thinking, ‘Gosh, he feels so good. He is so warm and cuddly.’ It’s still so hard.”

As more holidays without the boy they “still miss so much” approach, the Bardens will, once again, spend time with the people they love. “If we didn’t have all of that, I don’t know what we would do,” says Mark.