The day after the massacre in my hometown of Newtown, Connecticut, I tried to stay off Facebook.
That Saturday morning, I called my mom, a former special-education professional at Sandy Hook Elementary, and she told me that the names of some of those killed started to show up on her newsfeed. She said that she was pretty sure a teacher she knew had been killed. I decided I didn’t want to know anymore yet.
Later that day, on CNN, I found out the grim details of the 26 children and staff members killed. My mom’s old colleague and friend, a 52-year-old teacher named Anne Marie Murphy, was among the dead, as she suspected. After that, I promised my girlfriend I wouldn’t watch anymore news for the rest of the weekend. My only social media activity included a few tweets and sharing my BuzzFeed essay “I’m From Newtown” on Facebook.
I spent a lot of time thinking about my connection to Newtown the week after the tragedy. At this point, it’s loose at best: My parents don’t live there anymore, and I had to decline an opportunity to visit some friends there the weekend before Christmas. I don’t really know when exactly I’ll go back, and I’m sure by the time I visit, most of the memorials will be gone. Despite this distant connection to my hometown, I found myself overcome with grief not just for the victims, but for the town itself. It was a sinking feeling of desperation that I think only past and present Newtown residents can understand, a feeling that we desperately don’t want our home to be remembered like this — as shorthand or a cautionary phrase the way the names Columbine or Oklahoma City or Virginia Tech now signify something different than they used to.
I would have liked to avoid the news altogether for a solid week after the shooting, but that’s not really an option considering that a large part of my job is to follow the conversation happening on Twitter. One story that stood out to me personally revealed that Nancy Lanza was an avid and well-liked patron at the My Place Pizza & Restaurant bar, which is where I worked at for seven years. An interview with my old boss Louise also revealed that Ryan Lanza, brother of the shooter, Adam, used to work there as well. This weird juxtaposition of national tragedy and a place I used to work and a woman hanging out with a bar crowd that I vividly visualize still doesn’t feel real. It’s weird. It makes you numb. And it definitely makes you want to ignore the news — more so even than the stories about the funerals.
Surprisingly, the place online I initially tried to avoid the most became an unlikely refuge: Facebook. Media coverage got pushed off my feed by status updates from old high school classmates I’d forgotten, including alums who contacted Extreme Makeover to build a new Sandy Hook Elementary, so that the students there would never have to go into that building again. This all reminded me of the early days of Facebook, when updates from real people topped my feed ahead of brands and media companies. It was because I was connected to fellow Newtowners that I saw stuff that wasn’t reported in the news: The Newtown police department loved the Red Bull and Muscle Milk that was donated in mass, photos like the tent overflowing with stuffed animals, and snow on the ground Christmas morning. I actually felt connected in a way that most people seeking to connect with Newtown couldn’t. And it made me think about the importance of social media as a way to cope after a traumatic event.
Over the weekend, something different floated to the top of my Facebook feed: a blog post from my old college roommate from Memphis. He has struggled with Crohn’s disease since our sophomore year, and this week he was traveling to a special clinic in Cleveland for advanced treatment. He decided to outline in extensive fashion his day-to-day struggles with Crohn’s for friends and family. After reading his post, I sent a message wishing him luck in Cleveland and that I hoped he would continue to write about his treatment to keep everyone updated. He wrote back that it was the essay I shared about Newtown that inspired him to write about his illness in the first place. He found that essay on Facebook.