Newtown, Conn. – On the far western edge of rows of graves in this town’s cemetery, Ana Grace Márquez-Greene’s heart-shaped, granite headstone sits atop a hill overlooking a small pond.
Close by are the graves of her first grade classmates — Charlotte Bacon, Allison Wyatt, Jack Pinto — whose lives were taken a year ago when Adam Lanza opened fire inside Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Toys, wreaths, notes and decorations adorn their graves for a holiday these 6-year-old kids will never celebrate again.
“Ana’s absence is profoundly felt,” Nelba Márquez-Greene, Ana's mother and a family and marriage therapist, said at a conference on violence and mental health last week. “There is no corner left untouched when you lose a child…most days, it feels like hanging on to the edge of the cliff for dear life.”
To be sure, Márquez-Greene and husband Jimmy Greene could have retreated into their own world of loss, but the family almost immediately after the tragedy launched the Ana Grace Project — an initiative that partnered with her former employer, the Klingberg Family Centers, which helps communities identify mentally ill children like Lanza to prevent tragedies similar to the Sandy Hook school shooting.
“It is our family’s effort to address the kind of violence that took Ana’s life,” Márquez-Greene said, further noting that more work is needed to “help us invest in creating solutions that will draw people away from violence and replace it with the powerful love and connection that can only be found in a healthy community of caring.”
Addressing The Violence
A short woman of Puerto Rican descent with a cherubic face and shoulder-length chocolate-brown hair, Márquez-Greene has become one of the most visible faces representing the victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy. She has appeared on shows like “60 Minutes” and “Good Morning America” along with speaking at events like “Ted Talks” to raise awareness of treatment for young people suffering from severe mental illness.
“She is extremely strong, extremely determined to make something positive out of the loss of her daughter,” Steven Girelli, the president of the Kleinberg Family Centers, told Fox News Latino. “I can’t keep up with what she does and I’m not suffering from the loss of a child.”
Though he’s got her child’s blood on his hands, Márquez-Greene has come to believe that Lanza was as much a victim as a perpetrator of his crimes.
Even as much of the world vilifies Lanza and his mother Nancy — it was hard for his family to find a cemetery that would accept his body — Márquez-Greene constantly makes sure to include the two when speaking about the people who died last December. During last week’s conference, the Ana Grace Project put out 28 candles for the dead — 26 for the children and teachers who died at the school, and two more for Lanza and his mother.
“That’s how we see Adam Lanza’s case,” Girelli added. “He had very serious mental health issues that were only compounded by his isolation.”
A Chilling Portrait
While a recently released report into the shooting provided no motive for why the 20-year old Lanza committed the massacre at the Connecticut elementary school, it revealed a chilling portrait of a loner who years earlier wrote a book in the fifth grade about children being slaughtered and grew up to become obsessed with mass murders.
Always withdrawn, Lanza became even more secluded in the months leading up to the shooting: Blacking out his bedroom windows with trash bags, never leaving the house and communicating with his mother only by email. She was the first victim he killed in his rampage.
Lanza was diagnosed in 2005 with Asperger's disorder — an autism-like condition that is not associated with violence — and he lacked empathy for others and behaved strangely, the report noted.
Investigators seemed puzzled by Lanza’s actions — noting that while he "was undoubtedly afflicted with mental health problems… he displayed no aggressive or threatening tendencies," Connecticut State Attorney Stephen Sedensky III concluded in his report.
Lanza’s mother has taken much of the blame for creating an atmosphere that enabled her son to commit the mass murder. Besides not taking active steps to deal with her son’s psychiatric issues, she had bought the guns he used in the attack and she often took him to shooting ranges and even wrote out a check to buy him a pistol for Christmas.
In the year following the shooting, Lanza’s mental health and any warning signs have been debated extensively by political pundits, doctors and law enforcement. But mental health professionals claim that looking into his past is nothing but Monday morning quarterbacking, adding that it is very difficult to pinpoint what would compel someone to commit an act like Lanza’s shooting.
“People with mental problems account for a very small percentage of those who commit violent crimes,” Steve Dubovsky, the head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University at Buffalo, told Fox News Latino.“You have to be careful when you’re taking a person’s violent act and then pointing to an event in the past as evidence.”
Bobovsky noted there are some identifiers that people with violent mental health issues exhibit when they are younger, such as cruelty toward animals, a lack of emotion and no meaningful attachments with others.
For his part, Lanza exhibited very few — if any — of these symptoms, which makes it all the more difficult for investigators to determine his motives for opening fire inside Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“We just don’t know for sure why some people commit these crimes,” he added.
Still Wounded, Trying To Move On
What is known, at least to the roughly 27,000 residents of Newtown, is the lingering, deep wound that the mass killing had inflicted on the tight-knit community.
The center of Newtown lays about one mile from Sandy Hook Elementary, up a hilly, wooded road filled with small restaurants, churches and grocery stores.
To someone unfamiliar with the events of a year ago, the area would appear to be just another tony, quaint New England village going about its business.
Closer inspection, however, reveals that scars of the shooting are still palpable.
Flag poles around town stand at perennial half-mast.
Buildings feature touching memorials to the dead like large green ribbons and painted signs.
Local diners still have bins collecting donations for the victims.
The entrance to the elementary school is under heavy guard as construction workers raze the structure, wiping out the scene of the crime.
Students were temporarily placed in another building this year. A new school will be built, but it remains unsure if it will be at the same spot.
But new classrooms and hallways by themselves will not likely be enough for the community to truly move on. As Márquez-Greene sees it, there remain deeper issues that must be unearthed, not just to move past the tragedy from a year ago but also to prevent similar future horrors.
That’s why she feels so strongly about the project she founded in her daughter’s name, with the hope that mental illness will be addressed and exposed at the national level like never before.
Perhaps an announcement from none other than the second most powerful person in the country could be seen as a step in that direction.
Vice President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday a new push to increase access to mental health services, including a federal infusion of $100 million — half geared to establish and expand mental health services at community health centers and the other $50 million eyed for more mental health facilities in rural areas.
“The fact that less than half of children and adults with diagnosable mental health problems receive the treatment they need is unacceptable,” Biden said in a White House statement. “The President and I have made it a priority to do everything we can to make it easier to access mental health services.”
The move could be interpreted by some as simply throwing money at the problem, but for activists pushing for more awareness of mental illness, it would seem that the more attention, the better.
“We’re looking to find and help the person who could commit an act of violence like Lanza,” said Girelli. “Someone in a deep, deep depression and cannot see any way out of it except by an act of violence.”
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.