Monday, December 14th, marks three years since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. For Nicole Hockley, it marks three years since she lost her youngest son, Dylan, a first grader she has described as "pure love," with captivating eyes and an infectious giggle who died instantly -- in the arms of a special education assistant who also lost her life trying to protect him.
Hockley is one of several parents whose children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary who have joined forces to establish Sandy Hook Promise, a combination of two non-profit corporations with one overarching goal: To mobilize parents, schools and communities to develop gun violence prevention and mental health programs, and to advocate for gun safety laws.
We spoke to Hockley on the eve of the third anniversary, while she and her family were spending time with the Barden family -- who lost their son, Daniel, in the shooting as well.
Are anniversaries especially difficult for you?
Every day is hard. But as you come up to remembrance marks, and certain holidays, birthdays, you almost feel like you're holding your breath -- and then you can breathe again when the day is over. At the three-year mark, I'm in that place. I'm holding my breath and staying very busy, thinking, I just need to get through one day again, and then I'll get back to work.
We, at Sandy Hook Promise, go very quiet around the remembrance marks. We do a lot of pre-recorded interviews, but then we start shutting down just before [the actual anniversary]. We want to just be with our families and friends.
There has been so much gun violence in the news recently -- and since Sandy Hook, an American child has died by gun violence every other day. Does all of that make this year feel more emotional for you?
Every single shooting takes me straight back to the day that I lost my son -- knowing how those communities are being affected, and how those families are being affected. And now that it's been three years, I also know that this journey doesn't get any easier. Time feels very fluid to me now, in a very strange way. It doesn't feel like it's been three years; yet at the same time, it feels like it's been a hundred years. I don't know how to articulate it. It saddens us that there are more and more shootings, more families having to deal with this trauma, and loss and heartbreak, and knowing that a lot of these are preventable -- as ours was.
We don't want other people to feel how we feel. It's too late for us, but we can help ensure that other families don't have to count the years.
Many Newtown parents have been vocal about the necessity of gun control -- testifying before Connecticut state leaders, for example. At the same time, we're hearing the news that many states have actually expanded gun rights. Are you frustrated by the lack of progress?
We feel the pressure of time. We absolutely believe that things will change, and we absolutely believe that more gun violence will be prevented. We know that the programs we're creating work. But it's a long process, and it's going to take a long time. It frustrates us and hurts that along the way there's still going to be so many people that die, because we can't move fast enough.
Do you feel like people at least feel like the need for change is more urgent now?
The outrage is definitely continuing, and it's growing. Again, time is tricky with me -- my memory is like Swiss cheese now -- but I'd say in the last year, I have seen an increase in people saying. "Oregon. That's it. I need to do something now." Or, San Bernadino. Charleston. After each time, there's this increased volume of people saying, "What can I do?"
But there's this feeling of helplessness and hopelessness that too many people still have. Sometimes when more shootings happen, it inspires people to action, but it can also be de-sensitizing, in terms of "Well, that's just the way it is in America. This is our new normal." For anyone to accept this as "normal" is just wrong, and for anyone to throw up their hands and say, "Well, what can be done?" -- that's not helping. Stop throwing your hands up in the air and saying, "It's the gun lobby" or "It's the politicians." No. Why don't you take personal responsibility? Find out what you can do, and make a difference.
Has your work with Sandy Hook Promise helped you personally heal at all?
Healing is a tricky word. But for me, I've been full-time with this organization for almost three years now, and without a doubt it has helped me answer a lot of questions I had in my mind as to how can this have happened, and it has taught me a lot about what could have been done to stop it. It's therapy for me. Now it's not just, "I lost Dylan and he's gone -- that's it." His spirit lives on through the work we're doing.
So many parents will be thinking of you, and Dylan, and all the families affected by the shooting today. How can they honor you?
Today, I would say, hug your kids. Spend time with your kids. Realize how precious they are to you and think about what you would do to protect them. The day after that, go to an organization that focuses on preventing violence. Take action in your community now.
I would turn back time in a moment to have my boy back in my arms, but I can't do that. So all I can do is try and make something positive come from his death.
This account has been edited and condensed. To read an essay by Hockley on parenting after the loss of her son, visit here.
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