A Newtown Mother And Surviving Son Find Forgiveness After Tragedy

Since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December, the mother of one young victim says she's managed to achieve something that many would find impossible: forgiveness. Scarlet Lewis describes how she and her older son JT have learned to live with the loss of 7-year-old Jesse in a new book, which is named after a message Jesse scrawled on a family chalkboard before he died: Nurturing Healing Love. The importance of forgiveness was reinforced for the Lewis family by a connection with an unlikely source: orphans of the Rwandan genocide.

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In the meantime, Newtown, Connecticut, is still grieving nearly a year since a mass shooting there took place. Scarlet Lewis feels the loss every day. Her son Jesse was killed in the Sandy Hook School shooting. Lewis and her other son have struggled to deal with their grief. Craig Lemoult of member station WSHU reports that they found solace by reaching out to others, some who are halfway around the world.

CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: On every wall and in every corner of Scarlet Lewis' living room are gifts from around the world.

SCARLET LEWIS: Handmade shawls, prayer blankets, toys, ornaments.

LEMOULT: And paintings of Jesse are everywhere.

S. LEWIS: We're looking at the generosity of spirit of an entire world towards somebody that is grieving. And it's really incredible.

LEMOULT: Lewis is separated from Jesse's father.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOICEMAIL MESSAGE)

JESSE LEWIS: Hi.

LEMOULT: On her cell phone she keeps a voicemail message Jesse left for her from his dad's place.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOICEMAIL MESSAGE)

J. LEWIS: Uh, what you doing? Yeah, ready to rock 'n' roll. Bye.

S. LEWIS: It's the dichotomy of my life, right? It's so beautiful and wonderful to hear his voice, and yet it's so terribly agonizingly sad.

LEMOULT: Lewis walks into the kitchen and points to a chalkboard.

S. LEWIS: And we really didn't use it.

LEMOULT: But on it in a child's handwriting and spelling are three words. It says nurturing healing love. These are words your average six-year-old doesn't usually use. Lewis says it didn't come from her.

S. LEWIS: No. I mean, I don't remember ever saying anything like that. That's what makes it even more special.

LEMOULT: She says she took it as a message of personal comfort from Jesse. She sees a lot of these messages in her life today. In everything from the discovery of a toy soldier in her shoe to the flickering of a light bulb, she believes Jesse is still communicating with her.

S. LEWIS: My favorite quote is one from Albert Einstein where he says, paraphrased, you can live life as if everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle. And I choose to believe that everything is a miracle.

LEMOULT: The words on the chalkboard, nurturing healing love became the name of the book Lewis wrote about her journey over the last year. And it became the spirit of a foundation she started which is developing school curriculums about compassion, gratitude and forgiveness. Lewis says the foundation and various kinds of therapy helped her deal with her loss, but Jesse's 13-year-old brother JT was still struggling. Lewis says he didn't want to go to school.

S. LEWIS: I wouldn't be up to the resistance and so I would just let him stay home.

LEMOULT: Things got better after an unusual encounter. Lewis was working with a therapist who had done work with orphans of the Rwandan genocide. And the therapist suggested they connect with the Rwandans by Skype. They gathered in front of a laptop in JT's room one day. And JT was struck by the stories the Rwandans shared.

JT LEWIS: Matthew who I got close with, his mother was killed in the genocide. And he and his siblings ran into the hillsides and had to eat grass for the whole war - civil war.

LEMOULT: JT decided to sell bracelets to raise funds for one of the Rwandan girls he'd spoken with.

JT LEWIS: What I did is I raised enough money to - for the first year to pay for her family to live and her to go to college.

LEMOULT: Lewis says the change in JT was immediate.

S. LEWIS: He got himself up for the first time and got to school and came back happy and invigorated.

LEMOULT: For JT, hearing how the Rwandans were doing now was reassuring.

JT LEWIS: I mean, it's already happened to them and they got over it and were able to forgive. So to hear it from them - and they've gone through something much worse than what we've gone through, it was comforting.

LEMOULT: He says, like the Rwandans, he's managed to forgive the person who did this to his family.

JT LEWIS: It wasn't hard to forgive when I was never really mad. I was just sad.

LEMOULT: Lewis says she too has forgiven the shooter. And she says that is crucial to her healing process.

S. LEWIS: It's taking back your own power and it's saying, I forgive you. I don't condone what you did but I'm taking my own power back. And I refuse to let you make me be in pain or anger, or have any control over my emotions.

LEMOULT: Learning to forgive, she says, has freed her and JT. So even though they'll always grieve for the loss of Jesse, they can move forward with their lives. For NPR News, I'm Craig Lemoult in Connecticut.

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