This post, written by Michele Gay and her family, originally appeared in The Newtown Bee on November 17, 2017.
December 14, 2017, will mark five years without loved ones for families of children and educators killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The Newtown Bee will share remembrances of victims of 12/14 throughout the fall, written by family members or with the assistance of staff at The Newtown Bee. Not all families care to participate, and we respect that. This week, the family of Josephine Gay shares these words.
December 2017 brings the fifth anniversary of losing our daughter and sister Josephine Grace at Sandy Hook School. The youngest of three daughters and the center of our family’s life, she was born on December 11, 2005, in Columbia, Md.
Just a few months after Josephine’s birth, our family would move from the bustling Baltimore-Washington suburbs to the small Northeastern town of Newtown. After months of house hunting, phone calls, and research, we settled on the quiet little village of Sandy Hook.
Josephine lived most of her life of 7 years and 3 days as a Newtown resident, among some of the finest friends, neighbors, and community members that we could have hoped for. Those closest to our family knew her best as “Joey.”
She was affectionate and friendly, determined and hardworking, mischievous and fun-loving. She was the “girly-est” of our girls. Joey adored her older sisters and worked hard to keep up with and direct them whenever and however possible.
As she grew, we watched her closely, noting great differences between her development and that of her older sisters. Close to her second birthday, she was diagnosed with autism, and later with global apraxia and apraxia of speech. She worked very hard to learn to move her body, communicate, and meet the milestones that had come so easily to her older sisters.
Her indomitable spirit, determination, and desire to connect with others would ensure that her family and friends understood her and looked out for her, going to great lengths to share in and celebrate her accomplishments. Her classmates eagerly learned sign language and encouraged and included her whenever they could. She was blessed with true friendships and loved by many of her peers, neighbors, and teachers.
Yet the gap between her growth and that of her peers would increase as they progressed through preschool and kindergarten. The resources of our small town school system could not fully support her learning and development, so she would spend hours after school and on weekends at occupational, physical, speech, and behavioral therapy, her sisters tagging along and participating wherever they could.
As she approached first grade, our family had to make a difficult decision: continue this challenging routine or search for a community with the resources to more fully support Josephine. We labored over the decision, knowing that life in Newtown had provided a safe, supportive, and compassionate community for Joey and our family. We wondered if we would find another place on earth like this.
We found our new home in nearby Sudbury, Mass., and we began to prepare for our move in January 2013. We looked forward to this new chapter and the new opportunities that awaited our family, and took comfort in the fact that we would never be far from our Newtown friends and neighbors.
Despite our hopes and dreams, plans and preparations, Josephine would never move with us. She was killed in her classroom along with many of her beloved friends and teachers at Sandy Hook School on the morning of December 14, 2012. The loss of Josephine is still unimaginable and as difficult to understand as it is to bear.
Yet our love for her never ends. Our faith that she lives in heaven sustains us. Our friends and family are ever mindful and prayerful for us. Somehow we are moving forward with her.
Carrying on with our move only one month after her death was an overwhelming undertaking. It was difficult to imagine how we would survive without the love and support we felt in our Newtown community. Nevertheless, we made the move with the support of many Newtown friends and neighbors and were received with open arms in Sudbury.
Only a few hours away from our Newtown friends and neighbors and the families of loss that we clung to, we made frequent trips “home” for support, meetings, and difficult decisions. We chose when to come and go and which events we had the energy to attend and support.
Living outside of Newtown, our family was free from many of the difficult pressures and challenges now facing the community. We resolved to build and protect our daughter’s legacy ourselves and in our own time.
We chose to create a legacy for Joey that focused on her extraordinary life, not her tragic death. As her family, we are honored to be the custodians of her voice and her legacy. Although it has been both eye-opening and heartbreaking to witness the efforts of others to use her memory and our tragic loss for their own politics, purposes, and pursuits; many friends, neighbors, and perfect strangers have rallied around and alongside us with unconditional and unwavering support, helping us build and protect a legacy fit for Josephine.
Joey loved school, her friends, and teachers. She lived a wonderful life both gifted and challenged by autism. She thrived in our family of faith. These are the pillars of her legacy, the legacy that we have built with the support of so many generous hearts and hands both in Newtown and nationwide.
We started building Joey’s legacy first with the Doug Flutie, Jr Foundation for Autism. As donations from friends, family, and strangers poured in following her death, we opened Joey’s Fund for families with autism. Joey’s Fund has granted more than $55,000 each year since the tragedy to provide direct support to families with autism. We see the generous spirit and smile of our daughter alive and well in the faces of these exceptional children.
In the spring of 2013, we founded Safe and Sound Schools with the Parker family [whose daughter, Emilie, also was killed during the tragedy] to help school communities build and ensure the safest possible learning environment for children and teachers. Traveling the country advocating, speaking, and teaching with the guidance of national school safety experts, we’ve watched this grassroots effort blossom and grow, helping thousands of school communities striving for safety.
December 14th is always a difficult day for us. This year, like every year since 2012, we will attend early Mass, spend the day together sharing memories, and thanking God for His steady presence in our lives.
We will celebrate Joey’s 12th birthday this year on December 11th, wearing purple in her honor, tying purple balloons on the mailbox (a tradition started by our Newtown friends and neighbors), and accepting donations in her memory for Joey’s Fund for families with autism. To learn more or support Joey’s Fund please visit: http://bit.ly/2AlbSUF.
We continue our work with Safe and Sound Schools, sharing our message of hope, education, and empowerment with school communities across the country. To learn more about Safe and Sound Schools or to support or join our national effort, please visit safeandsoundschools.org.
We are grateful for the many thoughts, prayers, and acts of humble service that have lifted us up and helped us carry on in memory of our precious daughter and sister, Joey. We eagerly wait for the day that we can see and hold her, not only in our hearts and minds, in our arms once again.
With love and gratitude,
Bob, Michele, Sophie and Marie Gay 💜