How does anyone come to grips with a senseless tragedy? We try to understand the incomprehensible, particularly when a member of our own family, or that of a relative or close friend is involved. It’s particularly difficult when there may never be any explanation, or any one that might give us some small measure of comfort. Usually there is no comfort, just questions which may never be answered. Why did it happen? Could anyone or anything have prevented it? These are the questions which will haunt the victims, because those who survive the decedents are victims, as sure as their loved ones whose lives were cut short are.
These are some of the thoughts and feelings of the families and friends of those who were tragically murdered by a madman’s bullets in Newtown, Connecticut during the Christmas season of 2012. Christmas, a time usually reserved for joyous celebration in the Christian faith, to remember the birth of Christ, the son of God. Instead, there are 27 grieving families who lost treasured family members and the chance to see those, most of whom being young children, grow up and hopefully lead happy, successful lives. Those lives which ended in violence on that terrible day in Newtown held much promise.
One of the lives lost was that of Rachel Marie D’Avino, age 29, a behavioral therapist at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Rachel was attempting to save the lives of her students in one of the classrooms where events took a sudden and irreversible turn toward darkness, the worst side of human experience being exposed for all the world to see and regard with horror. The real terror comes from knowing that it could have happened anywhere, but on that fateful day, it happened in an unimaginable way to 27 students, teachers, and the mother of the gunman himself.
Rachel was one of the Sandy Hook teachers about whom President Obama said, “We know that there were other teachers who barricaded themselves inside classrooms, and kept steady through it all, and reassured their students by saying, ‘wait for the good guys, they’re coming…show me your smile[s]‘.”Why did it happen? There are many reasons for the confluence of events which took place that day. The gunman was 20 years old, an obviously troubled youth with a history of anti-social tendencies. Perhaps there were steps that could have been taken to prevent such a tragedy, but none among us have the presence of mind to always know how and when these things can and will happen.
Rachel was a loving, caring teacher who had much to give to her students. She was born on July 17, 1983 in Waterbury, Connecticut. Her mother was Mary Carmody D’Avino and her father was Ralph D’Avino. She graduated from Nonnewaug High School in 2001, and later received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Hartford, a master’s degree from Post University, and when she was killed she was studying to receive her Ph.D from St. Joseph’s College in West Hartford. Just the week before her death, she had completed her course work to become a board certified behavioral analyst. Rachel had a real way about her. She possessed a smile that could light up a room the moment she entered. She had many interests beyond work. She loved animals, cooking, photography and karate. She was the oldest of three children, and she cherished her younger sisters, treating them as if they were her own children. When it came to work, she was passionate about her role as a behavioral therapist working primarily with autistic children. How ironic it is that the person who ended her life was possibly suffering from the same affliction that Rachel understood. Her own professional life was devoted to helping those with autism lead happy, healthy lives. Rachel’s chosen profession gave her an acute awareness of the problems anyone with this disorder faces in their daily lives, and a unique perspective regarding the patience and forgiveness it takes to help those suffering from autism. She likely would have forgiven the perpetrator for his actions had she lived to discover that he may have been suffering from autism. That’s who Rachel was, and her memory serves as a reminder that there are people in this world who may look past the failures of others into a deeper sense of who and what they really are.
Rachel was always willing to go the extra mile for her students. She included these children in her daily life as if they were all members of her own family. She hosted holiday events and crafting parties for them, in some cases in her own home. In every imaginable way, she tried to do whatever she could to help them find their own way in a challenging world.
In addition to her parents, Rachel is survived by her stepfather Peter F. Paradis of Bethlehem, her sisters, Sarah and Hannah of Bethlehem, Connecticut, her maternal grandparents Helen and Brendan Carmody of Waterbury, her paternal grandmother Nicoletta D’Avino of Waterbury, Connecticut, several aunts, uncles and many cousins, all of whom adored her. She was predeceased by her paternal grandfather, Tomasso D’Avino.
This past Friday on December 21, 2012 in Connecticut dawned cold, gray and dreary, a typical late December day. Rachel D’Avino’s funeral was attended by well over 1,000 mourners at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. As her sister Sarah began to deliver the eulogy, the sun emerged from behind the clouds, and Sarah spoke the following words from the depths of her own heart:
“That was Rachel… a hard worker, a risk taker, a winner. She excelled at everything she did, such as her incredible patience and ability to work with those with special needs, adults and children alike.”
Perhaps some questions have already been answered. It seems that the lives of 27 people who died needlessly that day might serve as an inspiration to those of us who have survived them. The time has come for us to find ways to resolve some of the problems of a society that seems to treasure owning the types of weapons and ammunition used in this attack. A society that does not do enough to resolve the problems of the mentally ill, either through neglect, lack of understanding or an inability to devote enough resources to find solutions to these kinds of problems among our youth.
A society that would rather arm teachers and put bars on the windows of school doors than find solutions to the issues of security which remain a challenge to insuring that our children never have to face this kind of horrific tragedy again. Maybe enough is finally enough?
In the meantime, let us celebrate all the lives of the truly remarkable people such as Rachel Marie D’Avino, who tried to shield their students from the worst horror they will probably ever face in their lives. She gave her life freely and selflessly so that other lives were saved. Let’s hope that her death and those of the other 27 victims can serve to help our society put an end to these grotesque and incomprehensible tragedies.
May the sun break out again from behind the clouds and give comfort to the families and friends of the 27 souls that now live on eternally in the hearts and minds of those who knew and loved them, and also to all others in our world who value peace, happiness and living a meaningful life.
Rachel’s work and memory shall live on. The Rachel Marie Memorial Fund is currently accepting donations on her behalf. How the contributions will be used to benefit worthy charitable causes will be announced in the immediate future.
To view photos from the various Sandy Hook Elementary School Shrines click here.