Recently, I had the tremendous honor to welcome former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to Newtown as part of the Symposium of Hope: Recovery and Resilience after the Sandy Hook Tragedy, hosted by United Way of Western Connecticut and Western Connecticut State University.
Mayor Giuliani was incredibly generous with his time and wisdom. He met privately with first responders–including police, state troopers, firemen and ambulance crew–and separately with victims’ families. Later, he delivered the keynote address at a dinner in Danbury for educators, first responders, mental health professionals, local government officials, clergy, community leaders and others who have been on the front lines of responding to the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Drawing on his experience leading New York in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Mayor Giuliani talked in very personal terms about moving forward after experiencing unspeakable tragedy. There was much to take in and reflect upon, but a few points stood out for me that I would like to share with you.
Speaking of the memory of the traumatic event, he said that over time, “you find a place to put it.” It doesn’t mean the pain goes away or that you forget, but rather you learn to carry the memories with you in a way that allows you to go forward in life, shaped, but not overwhelmed, by pain and darkness.
Moving forward is important, he said, because there are others relying on you. A spouse, children, co-workers. If you get stuck in grief then you won’t be able to help others whom you love and who need you to be strong.
But perhaps Mayor Giuliani’s most poignant point was illustrated with the story of a family struggling to find its way after suffering several deaths a mere months apart.
The story begins shortly before 9/11. He was at a meeting with the family of a fireman who had died. In the span of eight months, this fireman’s mother had lost her father, her husband and now her son.
Besides being grief-stricken, the family was torn: in one week, her daughter was supposed to be married. Half of the family wanted to postpone the wedding and the other half wanted it to take place as scheduled. After some time listening to the family argue back and forth, the family matriarch abruptly ended the discussion. That’s enough, she said. “Not only are we going to have the wedding, but it is going to be bigger and better than ever,” she said.
Curious, Mayor Giuliani asked her what made up her mind. She told him that her decision was influenced by something her parents had told her as a young girl. Namely, that life will have its moments of great joy as well as its moments of tragedy and despair. So when you have a wonderful moment, such as a wedding, you have to embrace it and enjoy it to the fullest. Otherwise, the dark moments will take over.
Shortly thereafter, Mayor Giuliani was asked by the family if he was available to walk the bride down the aisle since her grandfather, father and eldest brother were all deceased.
“I said, ‘I don’t know what I have planned that day but whatever it is, it’s cancelled.’”
Then a mere five days before the big day, disaster struck: the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Initially, everyone assumed that the Mayor would have to excuse himself from the wedding. As one of his staff was about to leave the room and inform the family, the Mayor said, “Wait a minute.”
He remembered what the family matriarch had told him about making the most of life’s wonderful moments. And on her wedding day, Mayor Giuliani walked the bride down the aisle.
I want to thank Mayor Giuliani, his staff and everyone involved in the Symposium of Hope, including our panelists, expert advisers and donors, for their incredible contributions, support and words of wisdom and comfort.
We know the long road ahead will be challenging and the United Way of Western Connecticut is committed to continuing this important community dialogue, which is so critical to the healing process, in the months and years ahead.