How I Moved Beyond My Anger and Grief at My Son’s Death

Updated: Mar. 16, 2022

After she lost her 6-year-old son Jesse in the Sandy Hook shooting, Scarlett Lewis created a foundation in his name.

Scarlett And Jesse LewisCourtesy Scarlett Lewis/Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement

Losing a child is one of the most painful experiences any parent can imagine. For mother-of-two Scarlett Lewis, life would never be the same after her 6-year-old son Jesse died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history. Young Jesse used his final moments to help save nine of his friends.

Inspired by Jesse’s courage that day as well as the message of love he left, Scarlett began a foundation in his name: the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement. She also is the author of the book Nurturing Healing Love: A Mother’s Journey of Hope and Forgiveness.

Here, in her own words, is the story of how she learned to move through pain and anger and find love, compassion, and forgiveness to honor Jesse’s legacy.

When tragedy strikes

When I woke up on Dec. 14, 2012, I was a woman who loved being a single mom to my two boys. We had a wonderful life on our small farm in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

I worked full time and struggled with finances and scheduling, but loved my life and wouldn’t have changed much if I could. On that day I woke up like any other, my boys went to school, and I commuted to work.

Hours later I was given the unimaginable news that my 6-year-old son had been shot dead in his first-grade classroom by a former student, alongside 19 of his classmates and six educators in one of the worst mass murders in U.S. history.

I was the head of my household. I had my 12-year-old son by my side, hearing the news with me. I knew I had to model for him how to move through the tragedy with courage and strength. (Learn what makes someone brave.)

Courage in the face of danger

Speaking of courage, my 6-year-old son stood up to the shooter who came into his classroom and helped save nine of his classmate’s lives before losing his own. I was still numb when I heard that news but I made a decision, then and there, to live up to his example. I decided I would not be another victim of the tragedy but would learn and grow from it, for myself as well as for my surviving son.

I had anger, I had been robbed, but mostly it came in waves of sadness. I watched the world focus blame and anger on the shooter and his mother, yet for me, that didn’t make sense. If it was all their fault, then it would never have happened before—but it had, many times, and now on a regular basis since.

In addition, we found in the subsequent police investigation that the perpetrator may have been abused. I felt compassion for him and even understoodreading how he had been treatedhis rage.

Nurturing healing love

I saw others trapped in anger that manifested as anxiety, depression, and even paranoia. I didn’t want to go down that path. My son wrote a message on our kitchen chalkboard, “Norturing Helinn Love” (Nurturing Healing Love) shortly before he died.

I did some research and found those three words in the definition of compassion across all cultures. Breaking down the meaning of each of the words, I found they represented a powerful formula that I’ve used to move through my pain and anger. This has enabled me to take my personal power back and even learn and grow through my experience. (Here are some mourning quotes that may help you heal after a loss.)

The formula starts with courage. Most people think of extraordinary acts of courage, like Jesse’s, however, we practice courage every day. For example, when we’re kind to someone who isn’t kind to us, when we do the right thing, and face our fear and discomfort rather than resist and avoid it.

Finding gratitude despite tragedy

Nurturing means loving kindness and gratitude. I found things to be grateful for even in those first few days. I was grateful for my family, for my surviving son, and for those who came from all over to help us navigate the tragedy.

Healing means forgiveness and this has been a huge part of my ability to overcome anger and resentment. I learned that forgiveness isn’t a gift you give to someone else who is undeserving, it is a gift that you give yourself—of freedom from the person who hurt you. Love is compassion in action and having the courage to step outside your pain and suffering to help others.

I chose to focus on the cause of the tragedy: the same pain and suffering that leads to so much of the despair we see in today’s world, including substance abuse, suicide, and loneliness.

Taking back personal power through love

This powerful formula—Courage + Gratitude + Forgiveness + Compassion in Action = Choosing Love—is now being taught through the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement. This is in over 10,000 schools, homes, and communities, in every state and over 110 countries. It has spread by word of mouth because it works, in every situation, even the hardest. I have spoken to kindergartners, CEOs, and prisons in the past eight years.

All audiences say they feel anxious, even angry when they don’t have control over a situation or circumstance. We don’t always have control over what happens to us in life, but we can always choose how we thoughtfully respond. When we choose love, we take our personal power back.

This resonates with those around us and, through the ripple effect, helps to create a safer, more peaceful, and loving world.

—As told to Nadine Jolie Courtney