Installation honoring gun violence victims at March For Our lives D.C. action, designed by Chicago artist Jacqueline von Edelberg. Twitter photo. Front photo of Richman by Jessica Hill/AP
The toll rises: Dr. Jeremy Richman, neuro-pharmacologist, activist and still-grieving father of Avielle Richman, one of 20 first-grade children murdered at Sandy Hook along with six teachers, evidently killed himself Monday. His body was found at Newton's Town Hall, home of the Avielle Foundation he and his wife Jennifer Hensel started just months after the death of their only child. Richman was CEO of the foundation, which seeks to "prevent violence through brain health research and fostering community"; he also lectured at Yale's School of Medicine. Richman and Hensel were among the Sandy Hook families who filed a lawsuit against Infowars thug Alex Jones, who claimed the massacre of their six-year-old daughter and so many other innocents was "a hoax." Friends were stunned by his death, which Sen. Richard Blumenthal called "a gut punch," and a painful sign of the "cascading" trauma of gun violence. “Our hearts are shattered, and our heads are struggling to comprehend," said a Foundation statement. "We are crushed to pieces, but this important work will continue because, as Jeremy would say, we have to."
That hard truth was made achingly clear in recent days, which saw two more apparent suicides related to mass shootings in not much over a week. On March 17, Sydney Aiello, 19, a former Parkland student and best friend of one of the 17 victims there, took her own life; her mother said her daughter was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, struggled with survivor's guilt, and had trouble attending college classes because she was afraid of being in a classroom. Days after her death, another Marjory Stoneman Douglas student, a sophomore who has not been named, also reportedly killed himself. The deaths have reverberated in still-reeling communities, with school and city officials striving to offer more mental health resources and other support, and experts stressing the devastating long-term effects of America's gun carnage. Since Sandy Hook, an estimated 7,000 children have been killed by guns, many not in schools but at home; in the 20 years since Columbine, they say, at least 223,000 American students have been exposed to gun violence, with even more survivors and relatives traumatized.
The kids are among those who express that pain most powerfully. Richman's death coincided with the first anniversary of March For Our Lives, which had organized a D.C. action that included a Write For Your Lives campaign to support background checks, meetings with 30 lawmakers, and a Schools Say Enough protest. It featured a student-made art installation of 7,000 orange strips of fabric - more now in blue for Tree of Life victims - symbolizing those killed since Sandy Hook; the display, often with a Sidewalk Challenge, has traveled to schools, rallies, protests, faith events. At such actions and on social media, kids steadfastly remind us recovery isn't something to "get over" but a grievous lifelong journey they shouldn't have to be on. "Trauma and loss don’t just go away," says Parkland's uncommonly wise David Hogg. "You have to learn to live with it." Things that don't help: Teachers urging kids to "put your grief in a box" and finish their damn papers, kids swiftly going back to schools where friends were gunned down, community members slapping an MSD Strong sticker on cars "and acting like everything is fine while everyone is in pain." "You don't get over something that never should have happened, because those that die from gun violence are stolen from us, not naturally lost," he says. "How many more kids have to be taken from us as a result of suicide for the government/ school district to do anything? Rip 17+2."
And now, three. Jeremy Richman spoke openly about his grief, which his wife once noted, "You have to pay attention to, or it'll sneak up on you." Richman described the excruciating emptiness as "like a ghost limb," with pain that made him feel like he'd "get spun right off the planet." He and Hensel ultimately had two more children, but the pain never lifted, and was exacerbated with each new shooting - Boston, Charleston, Orlando, over a hundred more school shootings that might or might not make the news. At first, he said, "we would just bawl - it would hit us so hard." As the slaughter and inaction went on, he grew increasingly fed up with hearing about thoughts and prayers: "That’s not going to change anything. What I need to hear is: ‘My heart is broken, and my boots are on the ground to fix it.’” For friends and fellow-survivors, the death of this seemingly tireless fighter who "had such a clear purpose of what he wanted to do to honor his daughter" was shocking, but horribly unsurprising. Said one: “He was a brokenhearted person, as we all are. "It never ends, said Gilles Rousseau, who lost his 30-year-old teacher daughter at Sandy Hook, and who remembered Richman as "very smart, and very sensitive. He was always sad. You could feel the sadness in him." "It never ends. Death brings on death."
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Update: An autopsy has confirmed that Richman killed himself. In her first public statement, his wife Jennifer Hensel said he "succumbed to the grief that he could not escape," and the work of the Avielle Foundation will continue.
Avielle with her parents. Family photo
At the D.C action, David Hogg took this photo of Rand Paul's door, noting, "This is not what democracy looks like."