Nelba Márquez-Greene is a licensed marriage and family therapist who has spent her life helping others. In December 2012 she was the coordinator of a youth and adolescent outpatient psychiatric clinic and a university instructor supervising six clinical interns. But nothing in her professional training could have prepared her for what she, her family, and community would experience after her beautiful six-year-old daughter Ana Grace and twenty-five other children and teachers were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
“I imagine our home was not that much different than many others . . . I was married to my high school sweetheart and the mother of two beautiful children. My husband, Jimmy, was working fifteen minutes from our house as a professor at a local university. We were both happy to be back in Connecticut and so close to New York City. On December 13th we went out to dinner to the Cheesecake Factory, which we never, ever, ever did during the week. After dinner, Jimmy took the kids home and I stayed at the mall to buy their Christmas gifts.
“And then everything changed.
“The next morning, Ana, our daughter and Isaiah’s sister, was executed while hiding in the tiny bathroom of her first grade classroom. Her teachers along with four other educators and 19 of her schoolmates were also murdered. My son physically survived the massacre. But he was in the building at the time of the shooting. He heard the shots that took his sister’s life. He remembers the screaming, the crying. He remembers his teacher’s survival instructions: Please be quiet and please be still.
“A reverse 911 call that Friday morning led to the beginning of a never ending nightmare. We waited for hours in that firehouse. First believing she was missing. Then understanding that she was probably hurt. And then to accept the probability that she was dead . . . We’d both come from large families and dreamed of having one of our own someday. And on that 14th of December of 2012, after hours of waiting in a firehouse, those dreams were shattered in one sentence: The shooter killed twenty children.”
Nelba and her family are now the founders of the Ana Grace Project of Klingberg Family Centers, whose mission is to promote love, connection, and community for every child and family. They aim to use research, practical tools, professional development, and public policy to identify the best ways to build those connections and then use them to prevent violence and promote recovery. She and her husband Jimmy say they believe love and community are the antidotes for violence and are dedicated to creating real solutions to the kind of violence that took their daughter’s life—spurred on by their faith and belief that it is always best to ‘Overcome Evil with Good.’
As her family continues along their own “continuum from overwhelmed to overcoming,” Nelba has become even more determined to help other families, especially other children, facing trauma. As she told an audience at New York University in May: “Our son not only lost his sister but is a living witness of trauma. As devastating as this event is—we know he is not alone. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, nearly fifty percent of America's school aged children (approximately 35 million) have lived at least one adverse childhood experience. Trauma, like cancer, is an equal opportunity predator. Race, socio-economic status, and ethnic composition offer few buffers from its potentially devastating consequences . . . According to the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, ‘the future of any society depends on its ability to foster the healthy development of the next generation.’ We are a society in grave danger. Ignoring the impact of trauma and not taking the steps to educate our citizens about its potentially devastating consequences should be criminal. It is a public health crisis—costing millions of dollars in medical care, taxing our schools, hospitals, jails and mental health clinics.”
She pointed out that as common as traumatic experiences may be, there is far too little education right now on the best ways to help families work through them: “As a nation, we have an elementary perception of what ‘help’ is. Help wasn’t getting a thousand teddy bears. Help wasn’t being sent a million pink baby blankets. While both were sent in droves by people just wanting to help, the baby blankets were so triggering for me. Each blanket was another reminder of what I would never have again.” Instead, for her own family it was the regular, consistent, loving support from family, friends, neighbors, and community members that truly got them through and the thousands of messages from people committed to fighting for justice and peace. “In each instance, they delivered the same message: ‘We are here and we will not leave you.’ And they have kept their promise. Their efforts provided us a sense of safety and a sense of control. They provided a sense of community, connection, and love in the midst of chaos, fear, and loss.”
Yet she is acutely aware that not everyone who suffers trauma is blessed with the same support: “Any event that is perceived as a threat will evoke a fight, flight, or freeze response. This response is hard wired in our nervous systems and was designed to be a short term response to threats to our survival. The way it is supposed to work is after the threat is survived, the fight, flight, or freeze response ends. What I am seeing now, and I’m sure you’re seeing it too, is a generation of folks stuck in that loop of fight, flight, and freeze. People without the ability to regulate themselves, and without a network of regulating relationships.” And this is why Nelba Márquez-Greene is now so passionate about recreating that loving support for every child, both before and after they experience trauma. “It’s more than just a project, it’s where and how we see ourselves responding to this tragedy. For us, Isaiah is going to one day look back and say, this is what my parents did and how they responded when my sister was killed. The beauty of Ana’s life and spirit was stolen from us. And we want him to be able to say that we tried to put some beauty back in the world.”
I hope all of us will reach out to make our own communities safer for children. As neighbors, members of civic organizations, sororities and fraternities, and faith communities, create connections for children, youth, and families in your communities who may be suffering silently with no support from family or friends. Make them feel part of something bigger. Let them know you will be there for them. Remember words that have become the Márquez-Greene family’s motto: “Love Wins.” And work without ceasing for common sense gun safety measures to stop the scourge of violence in America.