“I Walk Into a Room and I Make People Cry”: 10 Years After Sandy Hook

“I Walk Into a Room and I Make People Cry”: 10 Years After Sandy Hook

“I Walk Into a Room and I Make People Cry”: 10 Years After Sandy Hook

Joan Walsh spoke with Nelba Márquez-Greene, mother of slain student Ana, about the extraordinary depths of grief, love, and bravery Sandy Hook families have summoned in the decade since they lost their children.


Ana Grace Márquez-Greene, then 6, one of 20 adored and adorable first graders murdered in the Sandy Hook massacre almost 10 years ago, nonetheless lives on. Through her loving, activist parents Nelba Márquez-Greene and Jimmy Greene, her surviving and thriving brother, Isaiah, about to graduate from high school, the family’s work helping survivors of gun violence, and the Ana Grace Academy of the Arts, a kindergarten-through-eighth grade magnet school in Bloomfield, Conn., that just opened this year; Ana Grace lives on. “Love wins” has been the mantra of all her family’s efforts.

But in another way, Ana Grace was immediately erased by journalists and even well-meaning gun-control activists, who seized on the narrative of 20 “white suburban” first graders massacred as proof that America’s gun problem extended even to the murder of white, privileged children—even as they ignored the murder of a Black child at Sandy Hook. Activists did note the country’s inability to pass sensible gun laws that would keep weapons out of the hands of sick young white men like Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old Newtown isolate who resembles so many other young white male gun murderers. Lanza slaughtered his mother with a gun she gave him, and then murdered those 20 kids and six Sandy Hook educators.

And one of those 20 kids was Ana Grace Márquez-Greene, the daughter of a Puerto Rican family therapist and a Black educator and jazz musician. In the days after the massacre, I realized Ana was Black (though I didn’t yet know she was also Puerto Rican), because one of my best friends was a jazz maniac who loved Jimmy Greene, and he told me.

Ten years later, Ana’s mother, Nelba, champions Ana’s legacy, and the legacy of all those who died at Sandy Hook and the still-suffering survivors, with ferocity, grace and love. I got to visit Márquez-Greene about six weeks before the fraught 10th anniversary of the shooting. A licensed marriage and family therapist, Márquez-Greene was public about her grief and her work to honor Ana, and we’d become Twitter friends. As a survivor of many losses early in my life, although none as horrific as hers, I resonated with what she shared. She replied to my shy Twitter direct messages of gratitude with grace and affection. We amplified one another there. And when I screwed up the courage to ask if she’d do an interview with me, before the 10th anniversary, she said yes.

I had to keep screwing up my courage before I reached her warm Connecticut home. I’ve never been a crime reporter, never held a tape recorder and asked “How does [this nightmare] feel?” Why was I doing this?, I asked myself on the train from New York City. I needed to bear witness, was my answer. I needed to hear from her, as this anniversary neared. And so do you.

Nelba welcomed me into her home. There were images of Ana everywhere. But she noted: “Everything in this room reminds me of a person who is still here.” I will learn more later.

I write on the day that our country notched over 700 mass shootings 335 days into the year. What follows is a narrated Q&A, interspersed with my thoughts and reflections, as well as our various transitions from couches to kitchen table, to my ride home. Since she and her daughter are both “Márquez-Greene,” I call her Nelba and her daughter Ana.

To this day, I still occasionally see people saying that 20 white suburban kids were killed at Sandy Hook.

That narrative is incredibly hurtful for many reasons. It is really difficult because it’s not true. I want you to care no matter what race the children are. But when you say, “Even those white kids at Newtown,” you’re erasing us out of the picture. It persists to this day. Big blue-check accounts [on Twitter] who have the ability to educate people on how to talk about these things—they don’t. They go right to: “If the white kids from Newtown didn’t…spur change… And then we’re out of the picture again.

When did you notice that start to happen?

Maybe a day or two after the shooting. There was an article in The Grio that asked, “Why does the world only care when white children die?” I was reading that and I hadn’t even buried her. I had two distinct reactions as the mother of a Black daughter: Yes, they are right in many ways! But I also felt a significant and deep lament that they didn’t even see her. And it was really hard because I wasn’t gonna come out and say, “This is a bad thing you’re writing!” It was a righteous thing they were writing! They were speaking to America’s inability to care and uplift Black bodies and Black people. I’m on that train.

And also, Ana was sacrificed in the process.

You got “gifts” from strangers, of Ana as an angel with blonde hair.

That was really hard! Really hard, Joan. This is not talked about very much, but in situations where there are tragedies—we saw this in the massage parlor shootings in Atlanta—if we don’t know how to pronounce the names, if we don’t know how to spell the names, if there isn’t care and consideration given to the culture and identity of the victims, we are going to get it wrong. So Ana, because people aren’t familiar with Latino names, became “Anna” often. Or they named her Ana M, but her middle name was Grace. So half the things that came here, that people sent with very good intent, we didn’t keep.

Nelba says she and her husband Jimmy are church-going Christians. Nevertheless…

Oh, and the angels and the crosses! But victims might not have Christianity as a thing they lean on, maybe they’re Jewish, maybe they’re Muslim, maybe they’re agnostic, but we’re sending crosses. It’s a bad thing. So I always try to teach helpers to get to know a victim. When you try to help someone who’s hurting in this way, you need to ask yourself why you’re sending something. To make yourself feel better? Or is it something that’s intended to make the receiver feel comfort? Then you have to know what gives them comfort.

So you would know, if you knew our family, that Ana was actually brown, that her hair was dark and curly and her eyes were brown, and her eyebrows were thick. I wouldn’t have gotten so many blonde, blue-eyed angels if that were the default.

Also it said a lot about what people think of heaven, and what people think of Jesus—that he’s white, that angels are white, that everything up there is white too. Nope: that’s just your neighborhood! Or that everyone holds that belief—that you die and you become an angel. That was pushed so early, Oh, your daughter is an angel. And actually, I am unclear. I don’t know that the Bible says that anywhere! It was like, Please hang on to this because that’s what I’m hanging on to…and I need you to hang on to it so I know you’re OK.

So much, even now 10 years later, still makes people uncomfortable. I mean, I walk into a room and I still make people cry. I’m surprised you’re holding it together! Good job!

So far, I tell her.

I take that as an invitation to talk about my own grief: My closest aunt was dying as we spoke, I told her—literally, it turned out. Many of my cousins are convinced that she’s going to go to heaven, and will see her late husband, and my parents, and her mother, and they’ll all have a party, and I really would like to believe that, but…

Everybody’s journey is different. You know, I want that for [your aunt] so badly, as you have described her. I’ve said often about Ana: People ask me, Are you angry with God? And I’ll say: Well, I have a lot of questions for him. But I’ll get to them after I say hello to Ana.

I got to “know” Márquez-Greene as a kind of grief activist. I asked her: When did your activism begin?

You know, that’s a difficult question. I consider activism just staying alive. Staying alive and staying whole is the ultimate activism. If you’re talking about gun violence, that [activism] was expected of us early, that was demanded of us early. And I’m not saying those efforts weren’t valuable. I also think it tells us a bit about who we are as a nation, that we demand a certain level of performance of the people least equipped to do so. To look at families who had this type of loss and say, “Yes, they better be out there, I want to see them!”

And then we celebrate that as proof of wellness, or progress. It’s not dissimilar to what we did to medical workers during Covid. Pots and pans and clapping, but where was the systemic change, where were the resources? So I am a great believer in: I want the resources to match. I am in a place 10 years later where I’m saying: Where are the parallel resources to the ask?

Nelba has spoken out not only on behalf of her daughter, but of other survivors of gun violence. I ask her, When did you specifically become an activist for other survivors?

For other grievers? It didn’t start the day Ana died…anybody who knows me before would say, “Nelba hasn’t really changed too much. She’s been through some things. She’s a Puerto Rican woman; she’s always been able to use pictures and storytelling to convey someone’s experience. I think I started talking about this because I felt unheard, I felt under-resourced, I saw a gap. A tragedy happens for 20 seconds, and if we’re lucky, we pay attention to the parents, the survivors, and then we move on to other things that look easier to fix.

[When activist groups reach out to me] I’ll say, thank you for inviting me, but what am I getting for it? A lot of activist groups depend on the free labor of victims. And if you are running a group that depends on free labor, that is exploitation. I feel like my labor has value, and if you need my story…

Right then her husband, Jimmy Greene, calls from the airport, and she immediately answers. “Hi babe, are you good?” I’m struck by her asking multiple times: “Are you OK? Are you OK?” My heart grabs itself. He was OK. They hang up, with love, and she goes on.

I hear it from survivors all the time. I need a job, how do I get paid for this? I bask in privilege; I had a degree in mental health counseling, before this. Many families aren’t being remunerated for their work. They’re used as bait—oh, come to this event. And then the politicians speak and when they get up to tell their story no one’s there! There’s no infrastructure of support for families. Not everybody’s gonna join lawsuits. Not everybody has a husband who teaches at a university. It’s just really hard.

Every gun violence tragedy brings survivors her way, Nelba admits. I ask her about how the more recent mass shootings: the white supremacist shooting in Buffalo and the massacre of children and teachers in Uvalde, Tex. She curls up on the couch across from me.

We should talk about how perfect a victim you have to be [to get support after a mass shooting].

We’re supposed to be a culture that values elders? We don’t value elders. Look at what we did to those families in Buffalo. We said, “They must have lived, long full lives.” Never mind the fact that they were also Black—I’m sure that played a role in it. But I do think that age was a huge thing there.

You have to be a perfect victim in this country to get any kind of empathy, which is why Newtown resonated. It was young children; it was in a suburb where we don’t believe “evil” lives. Many articles started, “Evil visited Newtown!”

But evil in fact did live there.

People don’t like when I say this, but we’re going to have to shoot a schoolful of children. It’s going to happen. At some point, somebody, the gun is not going to jam [as Adam Lanza’s did] and then we’re gonna say, Maybe we’ll move. It shouldn’t be like that at all.

It can’t be concertgoers because you shouldn’t have been at a concert. It can’t be churchgoers…

In Charleston…the families forgave the killer.

I want you to understand: There is no win.

If you forgive, you’re screwed.

If you do not forgive, you’re screwed.

If you’re an activist, you’re screwed.

If you’re not an activist, if you decide to go home and raise your surviving children, you are also screwed.

There is no win here.

So I decided early since there was no win, I would win for my life. Stay true to my values, who we are as a family. It’s lonely, but it’s also freeing, I don’t have to compromise. I hope we have provided good witness to our son. I’m proud we have stayed married—even though those odds are really really low.

Nelba and her family didn’t join the lawsuits against gun manufacturers or the evil Alex Jones, who called them and their children “crisis actors.” Carefully, I ask her why.

I am so grateful for those families that found the energy and wherewithal to do that work. For us, it was a matter of bandwidth. We should not ask people in early grief to make major decisions. The statute of limitations [on joining the lawsuits] was 12 to 24 months. I mean, I feel bad. If we’d [joined the lawsuits] we would not have to be [seeking financial aid for her son’s college tuition]. We asked Isaiah to come talk to us…we called him down and told him: You might not get to pick the school you want. You’ll have to get money. He was like, I already know that! Still, I felt guilty [that we didn’t join].

I told her that some people said she and her husband didn’t join the lawsuits in order to protect Isaiah.

From the beginning, we made choices to protect Isaiah. We gave him the choice of attending Ana’s funeral or not. We had hundreds of people coming through our house, and we said, “You do not go into Isaiah’s room; leave him alone.” We asked him, and the only thing he wanted was play. So the only thing we had was people coming over with their children—maybe adults sobbed in the living room, but my son was in the basement playing knee hockey with their kids. Isaiah just wanted to see his friends.

I was on the phone with my friend from Canada [where the family had lived before moving to Newtown] and I was sobbing and she asked, “What can I do for you?” I told her: Isaiah asked for his friends in Canada…and how the hell was I supposed to get them here? And who would ask a family to send their child into this mess that was Newtown? I gave her the names of the boys—and those boys were here. When we buried Ana, Isaiah was playing in a swimming pool with those boys.

Very early on, we shifted from the “have tos” that come with grief, funerals, how you’re “supposed to” be. We allowed his needs to dictate our actions. And we did other things like, three weeks later, “You’ve got to make your bed. You’ve got to eat a vegetable. Like… we know there’s a lot of pasta here, but we have boundaries. I get it: Your sister is not here, and you are grieving, but we are still a family and here are the rules we have.”

He enjoyed meeting President Obama because I told Isaiah that the first time we met Obama that he looked at Isaiah’s picture and says, “He looks like me.” [He does.] So Isaiah wanted to see the president that “looks like me.”

I asked Nelba to talk a little bit, if she was OK with it, about the Lanza family. It is well documented that Nancy Lanza knew her son had serious mental health issues, but repeatedly turned down help.

Nancy Lanza gave Adam Lanza a gun for Christmas. She was abused by him, we know that. We know that he had a room where the windows were taped up with garbage bags, every signal that there was a problem…

She turned down help for him and for herself. So I have a lot of questions. What kind of help is there for parents? What do we do when the neighbor we know has issues that we’re afraid to address…

Was it about their being white and wealthy?

If Adam Lanza’s name was Tyrone Jenkins, do you honestly think he would have made it to as old as he was without being identified as a problem? Or referred to DCF [the Department of Children and Families]?

I’m not saying this is true in every case. I’m saying there are many cases for which your race and your social class insulates you from consequences. And that is what killed my daughter. That was Newtown.

Nelba became a more public activist in the last year on the question of whether the parents of school shootings should share photos of their children, so we can see what these weapons of mass destruction actually do. The idea seems to be that having seen these images, pro-NRA legislators will have a change of heart.

She is a hard “no.” And she’s especially frustrated by those who cite the decision of Emmitt Till’s mother, Mamie, to show the mutilated body of her son, to reveal what murderous racism really looked like.

I didn’t appreciate the weaponizing of one tragedy against another. They weaponized the sacred story of Emmitt Till and his mom against me, and that was a shitty thing to do. And I offer all the respect to that family. But she had a choice. It was not forced, she was not pushed.

Nobody who has not heard me cry, who has not visited my daughter’s grave, who has not walked with us one iota gets to have a say in the sacred choices I make about my daughter’s life, or our family’s. Nobody. You don’t get to debate it.

I also didn’t appreciate the casual nature of the ask [by pundits and journalists]—casual, without thinking of what it would be like for us. It was an invitation to the general public to have an opinion about us. That makes my identity as a Sandy Hook mom—which I don’t lead with anyway, but people know—it outs me, it makes me unsafe. [It was such a] casual debate about such a personal and holy thing. I’d guess those people wouldn’t let a stranger pick the wall color of their home. But you will opine about whether I should give a fucking picture? You have got to be kidding me!

I note: We can still look at Emmitt Till’s pictures online. It hasn’t stopped the persecution of Black boys and men.

I’m sure it did change some hearts. But trust me, if we had the leadership?

Somehow somebody is trying to convince me if I show Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio an image, it will change things? I have to assume those people have not sat down in a room with Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. Or Greg Abbott. Because I want you to sit with them. And realize the images of my daughter’s dead body will not have as much power as the millions of dollars from the NRA. It’s easier to come after me and blame me for not doing enough than it is to say we have to fight the gun lobby. Because blaming me, as a mom of Newtown, who did not show the pictures and maybe if I had just showed the pictures…then I have to own that and you get to absolve yourself. But the gun lobby is everybody’s fucking job, right?

So I resent that. I resent the amount of people making money on the debate. Because it was just “Click here for my stupid opinion.” Not one of those people called me ever, to say, Let me ask you what I’m missing. I was so sick of feeling like I was challenged.

And now Texas is sending DNA kits to parents to identify their kids in case of a mass shooting.

Because they know what these bullets do! Our government officials have access to everything. They have testimony from emergency room physicians, police officers, victims—and many victims have shared images! You want to sensationalize the dead body of a 6-year-old. And for that I have two words. Two words I won’t repeat today.

I asked Nelba to talk about the notions of bravery and courage, among survivors, that she is trying to popularize.

Surviving is courage. Bravery is taking the next step. We lift up certain families because they’re doing what resonates with us. But I hear from people who say: I fought for my marriage, I raised my kids, I didn’t start a foundation, I didn’t join a lawsuit. We’re leaving out families like that.

Everybody’s fucking brave. I’ve made the mistake of saying “As long as we’re breathing.” And we have to acknowledge that some of our families haven’t made it.

In 2019, Jeremy Richman, the father of Sandy Hook victim Avielle Richman, took his own life—in the office of the foundation he had begun, in his daughter’s name, to study brain abnormalities that could spur violent behavior.

I miss Jeremy a lot. I miss knowing that his kids would get to see him. He believed so much in brain health. He believed so much in the goodness of people. And I believe he tried until the day he died to make this right and make this world a better place.

I wish there was more support for all of us, because we want to see less of that, less of people being hopeless. It doesn’t matter if I write for The New York Times. The work I do for families continues.

On the other hand, Nelba says, she doesn’t like being used to diminish other grievers as the model of what a strong survivor should be.

I get these calls: “Can you talk to my sister? Her child died three years ago; I’ve sent her to your website.” I’m like, That’s really mean. Don’t do that to your sister. The way to support your sister is not to point her in my direction and say, “Be more like Nelba.” For the love of God, please don’t point her to my website that way…

We break for lunch. She’s brought us scrumptious chicken salads and brownies. I ask her then: Who’s here for you when it’s hard?

Who’s here? My neighbor came today and brought those brownies. I’m not good at asking for help. Survivorship is hard for so many reasons. But I have a number of people looking for ways to help me.

On 9/11, the towers didn’t necessarily come down because of the planes; it was the heat that melted the beams holding it up. This type of intense grief is the heat that melts beams. It’s 10 years and it’s still just as hard. I worry about the heat of grief…

Did I share too much? Is she gonna melt? I can’t take any more people leaving.

As I was leaving, I gave Nelba my pocket altar, a tiny packet filled with pictures of Jesus and his mother, Mary, gifted to me by my amazing friend Anne Lamott during a tough time in my life. Nelba put it next to mementos friends had sent her of Ana.

I told you: everything in this room reminds me of a person who is still here. Thank you.

I was honored. On the train home I get the expected news that my aunt died that afternoon. I texted that to Nelba. She answers:

I hold a place for you and our loved ones on my altar. So deeply sorry for this loss, my friend.

I think about her nightly Twitter benediction: “Good night everyone and grievers especially.” I feel blessed to have spent the day in a world where grief is accepted as a given, and as always, love wins.

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