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Sandy Hook parent explains what Uvalde families need from us right now


Yesterday at the Civic Center in Uvalde, Texas, parents of children who attended Robb Elementary School were being asked for DNA samples. The genetic test could potentially match with their children and identify victims of yesterday's school shooting that killed 19 children and two adults. Some parents who had not yet been united with their children waited throughout the night for DNA match results.

Our next guest lost his 6-year-old son, Ben, during the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School almost 10 years ago. David Wheeler joins us again. Thank you so much for making the time to speak with us again.

DAVID WHEELER: Of course, Ailsa. Thank you.

CHANG: So if I may ask, when you first heard this news yesterday, what were the first thoughts that ran through your mind?

WHEELER: It just took my legs out from underneath me, of course. There's been a lot of this kind of news in - lately. And this particular time, that it was an elementary school and that it was young kids, was a particularly hard hit. And my first thoughts, of course, went to what those families have ahead of them, where they might have been at that moment and where they are doubtless going to be in the hours and days ahead.

CHANG: Yeah. What words do you have for those parents in Uvalde who are just now confronting the awful truth that they have lost their children? What would you say to them? What did you need to hear 10 years ago?

WHEELER: Well, it's important to recognize that grief is different for every individual. You cannot apply a one-size-fits-all approach to a person who is mourning the loss of a child, especially in a violent and traumatic way such as this. But it's important for those parents to know that no matter how they feel right now, there is a way through and that there are people around them ready and willing and able to help them.

CHANG: Well, can you talk a little bit about how you and your family processed and worked through your own grief? Because, as you say, everyone responds to grief differently. What was that process like for you?

WHEELER: Well, it's an ongoing process, frankly. It still happens every day, and the events of yesterday are a part of our process now. And every time this news comes in, it's part of our process now, just as it will be for them. It never ends, and it never goes away. Because when you're trying to wrap your head around the loss of your child, when you're trying to get to the point where you can understand that you now live in a world without that person who brought so much joy and life and noise into your life, in your house, that's an ongoing process. It's not something that you can just accept and handle right away.

And that's not just a conscious thing. That happens on an - at a subconscious level all day, every day. And it's exhausting. This kind of grief is exhausting.

CHANG: I'm sure that many people out there who are listening are wondering how to help parents in Uvalde at this moment. What is the best way to do that in your experience? What do those parents likely need most now? And what will they need going forward?

WHEELER: Well if the people are nearby, if we're talking about people who are in the area and can help, even friends and family members, the first thing you can do is just show up; just be there. Don't make any demands. Don't even ask what you can do. Just be there and open your eyes and open your ears and pay attention to what people may clue you in to what they need and when they need it.

And if you're not nearby and you're moved to try to help with a donation of some kind, I think it's very important to think about this the way my friend and fellow Sandy Hook parent of loss Nelba Marquez-Greene puts it, and she puts it very well. She talks about the difference between reflexive giving and reflective giving. So if your desire is to help the families directly - and believe me, they are going to need help. They are going to need help with every practical aspect of their lives. And if you want to help in that way, pay attention and find organizations that are committed to helping the families directly.

It's also fine to contribute to support a cause if that's what you want to do. But you've got to understand the difference between the two, and that's the difference between reflexive and reflective giving. Think about what you're doing. Think about why you're doing it. And think about who is going to benefit from your actions.

CHANG: That is David Wheeler. He is the father to the late Ben Wheeler, who died 10 years ago in the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.


Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.