A crowd of several hundred gathered on a cold, raw, rainy Sunday night in West Hartford's Blue Back Square, coming together as a community to share grief, express sympathy, and pay respect to the victims, families, and residents of Newtown as the world struggles to understand the unspeakable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School which took place Friday morning.
A string ensemble of current and former members of I Giovanni Solisti played in the background as candles in the shape of a heart were lit in front of the courtyard's pergola.
"Our hearts are literally broken," said West Hartford Deputy Mayor Shari Cantor who began the ceremomy. Cantor worked with resident John Lyons and Kristin Ferris to organize Sunday's vigil.
"Anything I have to say seems inconsequential. Some will say it's too painful to remember, but we can't forget," said Mayor Scott Slifka. "Others speaking here tonight may be able to make sense of what happened, but I can't," said Slifka, adding that his emotions are framed not as mayor, but as the father of a 4-year-old.
“A wife who loses a husband is called a widow. A husband who loses a wife is called a widower. A child who loses his parents is called an orphan. But there is no word for a parent who loses a child; that's how awful the loss is," Slifka said, quoting the words of Jay Neugeboren in An Orphan's Tale.
"This loss is terribly difficult for the living – to imagine small children losing their lives in the way is unfathomable," said West Hartford Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen List.
"There is so little good to come out of this, but the one thing, that is the heroism of the teachers," said List, who is a personal friend of the Newtown superintendent and had previously met "the wonderful, talented, bright, and caring [Sandy Hook Elementary School] Principal Dawn Hochsprung."
"[Educators] do what they do every day of their lives – protect the children," List said.
Board of Education Chair Bruce Putterman said he sent a message of support to the Newtown Board of Education on Friday. The response he received in return from a board member was, "Imagine the worst and then multiply it a million times. Those sweet, innocent angels ..." Putterman said.
State Sen. Beth Bye, who along with State Rep. Brian Becker represented the town's legislative delegation at the vigil, asked the crowd to join hands, to radiate our love.
"Children understand the power of love," said a tearful Bye, as she recounted the story of a preschooler who years ago told another student that "hate is not as strong as love."
Board of Education Vice Chair Elin Katz introduced Attorney General George Jepsen. "This has touched a nerve across the country, across the world," Jepsen said. He said that now, no child will be able to go to school, no parent will be able to drop them off without thinking that something like this could happen.
The words of "Amazing Grace" filled the night air, sung by First Baptist Church Music Director Mindy Shilansky, as a prelude to prayers and readings by several local clergy.
"Darkness doesn't drive out darkness, only light does; violence doesn't drive out violence, only peace does; fear doesn't drive out fear, only love does," said Pastor Tom Carr of the First Baptist Church.
Rabbi Michael Pincus of Congregation Beth Israel led the crowd in the moving and inspirational words of the 23rd Psalm.
Rev. Jan Nielsen of the Universalist Church said, "We gather here – people who are broken-hearted in need of healing." As Nielsen ended her prayers with the words "May our tears remind us that our hearts hold the power of love," the mist turned to steady rain.
Rev. Bob Hooper of St. James's Episcopal Church said that whether you light a menorah or an advent candle, remember that "this is the season of light."
"Hug your child tighter, keep your loved ones closer – that is light," Hooper said.
Rabbi Debra Cantor of B'nai Tikvoh-Sholom was the vigil's final speaker. "We extinguish our candles, but we bring their light with us. We offer our love to the people of Newtown. We promise all of our children that we will do everything to keep them safe."
As the vigil concluded, 27 tolls of a bell donated by the Hartford Fire Department sounded mournfully in the night air, and the crowd began to sing "We Shall Overcome."
The Town of West Hartford has also set up a fund to support families and the community of Newtown. Donations to the "Sandy Hook School Support Fund" can be dropped off at the office of Town Clerk Essie Labrot. She also has a book that residents can fill with "thoughts, poems, and prayers" which will be presented to the Town Clerk of Newtown.