A Mother’s Memoir: ‘Finding Sanctuary,’ And God, After A Child’s Death
It is a beautiful weekday afternoon. The sun is shining, but it is not very hot. It is that perfect mid-spring temperature where it just feels good to be outside without a jacket for the first time in months, yet not so warm that the heat is unbearable.
There is a gentle breeze. In the background there is the quiet, steady hum of interstate traffic that can be heard but not seen.
Nearby, one man is riding his bicycle across some of the trails of The Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary near Old Farm Road. Another is sitting on a bench shaped like a large purple butterfly, his leashed dog laying at his feet. A young woman runs with confidence up the dirt road that currently serves as the access road to the property named for one of the children killed on 12/14.
A few minutes later a vehicle drives up the same road. It is driven by Jennifer Hubbard, whose daughter inspired the naming and new use of the former state property.
Hubbard is the president and executive director of The Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary. She is a national Catholic speaker and retreat leader, frequently featured at Legatus gatherings, and she is an award-winning writer with the Catholic magazine Magnificat.
She is now a published author, having written a memoir that is both heartbreaking and encouraging. It is at times raw, sometimes emotional, and occasionally includes a thought that — much like a well-written eulogy — makes one laugh at what feels like should be inappropriate.
Readers may even find themselves holding their breath while reading Finding Sanctuary: How the Wild Work of Peace Restored the Heart of a Sandy Hook Mother, wondering how Hubbard took each strong — and very often painful — step following the death of her beautiful daughter one sunny Friday morning, 8½ years ago.
Released in April by Ave Maria Press, Hubbard’s book challenges readers to acknowledge what many people have thought in dark times, even if they have not said such things out loud: Why does God allow children to be killed? Does God care about us? Is God really interested in each one of us?
In the introduction to Finding Sanctuary, Hubbard says 12/14 set into motion a journey she could never have fathomed and a healing she could never have predicted.
“My hope is that in hearing my story, reading my experience, it gives the reader pause,” Hubbard said that recent sunny afternoon. It took a few invitations from publishers, she said, before she agreed to write her story. One of the reasons she finally acquiesced to Ave Maria Press, she said, was to show people that life is not always easy.
“We are the Facebook generation,” she said. “Everyone thinks, ‘Let me show you how perfect my life is.’ We only see the good.”
Once she decided to write, Hubbard said, it was important for her to show people that there is no right or wrong way to respond to losing a loved one.
“I am no longer trying to grieve the ‘right way,’” she said. “There is no ‘right way,’ and I think as a town we all know that.”
Hubbard expects Newtown residents will read the book differently than those who live elsewhere.
“People in Newtown, if they choose to read this, I think they’re going to understand completely and fully,” she said. “Sandy Hook changed 26 families. It also changed our town, and I don’t want to discount that fact.
“The hurt and pain is here. I think we’re healing, though,” she added. “I am struck by the fact that next year will be ten years. I think that will be a hard year. I think it will bring up a lot of emotions.”
For anyone who picks up the book, there will be any range of emotions in response to Hubbard’s story.
“Some people will bristle,” she said. “Some will also say ‘Why? Why did God let this happen?’ and others will say ‘Yes! I’m not alone!’”
The Look Of Real Life
Ten journals Hubbard has filled since the death of her daughter helped her craft her book. Without the journals, she would not have been able to remember the days, weeks, months, and now years — especially the earliest days and weeks — following 12/14.
Hubbard has been journaling all her life, she shares in Finding Sanctuary. Following Catherine’s death, however, it was among the furthest things from her mind.
A conversation in a grocery store prompted the renewal of the habit.
“I’ll never forget the day, and I’ll never forget the conversation. Soon after Catherine died, one of the grocery store conversations started out like all the others and ended in my offering the obligatory, ‘I am good, we are OK, and he [her son, Freddy] is going to be just fine.’ On this day, however, I jokingly added, ‘And if I could just remember a sentence of what I read, I would go from good to great.’
“She winced, her gentle eyes flooded with a knowing. ‘Write it down,’ she gently suggested. ‘Write it all down — everything and anything — because you will not remember any of this. And this is not something you will want to forget.’
That was the start of Hubbard returning to a journal she had been gifted, which had been sitting in her nightstand alongside a book she had been reading and the Bible she was struggling to understand, she shares in her book.
From there she began polite journal entries, coupled with daily scripture readings. Sometimes she would copy prayers, or segments from books she was reading.
She planned, Hubbard wrote, to keep using matching journals, to build a set. In those first days of post-12/14 journaling, she even tore out pages and started over if she wasn’t happy with the look of a page, or if she had to scribble something out.
I thought I was doing it all right. And yet, claiming victory — that wouldn’t happen for a while. I had only just begun my quest for peace and healing and had not yet even scratched the surface in feeling the depth of pain I felt in a goodbye I was not yet prepared to offer.
Hubbard takes readers with her, from the moment Governor Dannel Malloy told a room of parents that their loved ones were among the fatalities inside Sandy Hook Elementary School to the breaking point when she let out a bloodcurdling scream while sitting in her car in the middle of an intersection, in the middle of the night, and then yelled and cried and pelted God with questions.
The journals began to take on the look of real life after that. They went from neatly organized prose and illustrations to scribbles, triple underlines, even pages where watermarks gave witness to tears that puddled as she wrote, where the intensity of her writing left gouges in the page.
Hubbard continues her story, rebuilding her life and some important relationships — even finding some very important new friends — along the way. In a subchapter called “Seek And You Shall Find,” Hubbard recalls words from the Gospel of Matthew that opened her eyes, she wrote, “with a tilt-my-head, problem-solved moment.”
The book can be “very heavy in parts,” Hubbard admits. It was her publisher, she said, who suggested having conscious breaks at the end of each chapter.
Each of the eight chapters, therefore, is dedicated to a step in Hubbard’s process. Each closes with scripture, and then a few questions to challenge a reader to really think about what they have just read or prompt group discussions.
Father Peter John Cameron, OP, the founding editor-in-chief of Magnificat, crafted the foreword for Hubbard’s book, which he calls “astonishing” and “achingly beautiful.”
Jennifer Hubbard’s book is indeed both things. It is written like a good letter, as if Hubbard is speaking with close friends and confidants. It was written, she said recently, so that others see “whatever is right, people can find some glimmer of hope.
“There is good in the world, more good than bad,” she shared. “As humans, we tend to focus on good or bad, but there is a happy medium.”
Jennifer Hubbard’s book, Finding Sanctuary: How the Wild Work of Peace Restored the Heart of a Sandy Hook Mother, can be purchased most places where books are sold including Turning The Page, within Clock Tower Square, 477 Main Street (Route 25) in Monroe; through the publisher (AveMariaPress.com), Barnes & Noble (in stores and online) and Amazon.com. It is available in paperback and e-book formats, for $15.95 and $11.99, respectively.
Associate Editor Shannon Hicks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.