Newtown victim Anne Marie Murphy's parents face new normal after Sandy Hook massacre

Anne Marie Murphy, a special education teacher at Anne Marie Murphy, a special education teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary, was killed when a gunman opened fire in the Newtown, Conn., school. Her father, Hugh McGowan, said first responders told him his daughter used her body to shield the children. Photo Credit: Handout

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There are hugs from the mailman and telephone calls from people they haven't seen in 30 years. Opening letters and gifts from strangers all over the country has become part of their daily conversation and routine.

So have tears.

Two months after the Newtown, Conn., massacre that left 27 people dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the 86-year-old parents of slain teacher Anne Marie Murphy are getting used to the new normal. While the Dec. 14 killing of 20 children and six adults by an assault rifle-toting gunman hurled the nation into an emotional debate over gun control, the issue is not in the front of Alice and Hugh McGowan's minds.

Instead, they struggle every day with personal grief.

"I think about her all the time," Alice McGowan said.

"I miss her phone calls -- 'Hey Pop!'" Hugh McGowan added.

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Their 52-year-old daughter, a married mother of four children, was a special education aide who worked one-to-one with 6-year-old Dylan Hockley. The McGowans said authorities told them that their Annie, as they called her, was found with her arms around the little boy, both of them dead, Annie's body positioned as a human shield for a group of children huddled behind her.

From that moment on, the McGowans were under siege by the media. The once-happy retired senior citizens were surprised that news reporters from around the world were suddenly calling them at 6 a.m., knocking on their front door, camping out in front of their cozy Katonah house. It was here that they raised a brood that counted Anne Marie Murphy as the sixth of their seven grown children, who have blessed them with many grandchildren who are all still constantly around.

A TIME FOR HEALING

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"It's settling in on me that she's gone," Hugh McGowan said. "In the beginning, there was the wake, the funeral, stuff was happening, you're just caught up in the whirlwind."

When the press left, the McGowans began sifting through the condolence letters and mementos sent by adults and schoolchildren. Then, in early February, the McGowans, along with two dozen of their clan, went on a daylong healing retreat, just for the family. There were presentations by a Methodist minister and Catholic priest and then, a time when everyone was broken into small groups of four to share.

"We told stories about Annie," Alice McGowan said. "Everyone was very relieved when we came out, I think." In keeping the healing going, she added that "everyone's gone into therapy."

The storytelling has made it possible for the family to laugh and tell jokes again. After all, they say, their daughter was a "fun-loving," "witty" soul.

Along the way, they are learning to deal with the spotlight. Alice McGowan still marvels over her daugther's funeral at their local Catholic parish down the street, at St. Mary of the Assumption Church. Ten priests stood at the altar along with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York. Police motorcades escorted them to the cemetery while residents lined the streets and saluted.

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"We were honored and flattered for Annie's sake," Hugh McGowan said.

Then there was the unexpected tribute at the White House on Feb. 14, when President Barack Obama presented the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal to the families of the six slain Sandy Hook faculty members. After Anne Marie Murphy's husband Michael Murphy and two of their children returned from the Washington ceremony, they dropped by in Katonah for a large family gathering, where the dining room table was still piled high with condolence gifts from across the nation.

"Everyone took something," said Alice McGowan, who is partial to a heart-shaped pillow made by a seventh-grader from California and a sand dollar-shaped Christmas ornament bearing the words, "The ones we love never truly leave us."

MOVING FORWARD

The dining room table is cleared now, with the remaining items boxed and sent for storage at a Newtown warehouse. But the nation's mourning continues.

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On March 1, ground will be broken for a playground to be named after Anne Marie Murphy in Sea Bright, N.J. It is the first of 26 new playgrounds that the Fightfighters' Mutual Benevolent Association is building in communities affected by superstorm Sandy. Twenty of the playgrounds will be evenly divided between New York and New Jersey locations, with six more in Connecticut. Each will be customized to reflect the personality of its namesake; there is talk that Murphy's might include a dog run because she was fond of dogs.

The memorial is "appropriate because she was very involved with athletics and so forth herself as a young person," Alice McGowan said.

What they cannot deal with is the gun control debate. Do they relate to it? "I don't think so," Hugh McGowan said.

"I don't like to hear about it," Alice McGowan said. If anything, she said, her thoughts are with her daughter's work with autistic children and the troubled Sandy Hook gunman Adam Lanza, 20, who took his own life as well. Immediately after Anne Marie Murphy's death, the family asked for donations to be sent to Autism Speaks.

"Children like him need to get the help they need," she said of Lanza. "The boy that did this was the type of boy she would have wanted to take care of."

The McGowans said they will never get over their daughter's violent death. "Using the word 'murder' is terrible," Alice McGowan said. "It's awful to hear but it's the truth."

Looking ahead, it's their faith that holds them steady in coping with the loss of their daughter. Their routine has always been to attend Mass every morning, plus an extra service on Saturday evenings. But now, Alice McGowan prays the rosary a little differently. Her slain daughter "gets her own rosary every night and the kids get the other one."

"A lot of people wrote in their letters that she's in a better place," Hugh McGowan said.

His wife agreed. "I know she's happy now," Alice McGowan said. "I'm sure she's looking down on everything and she's taking good care of her husband and four children."

Meanwhile, Hugh McGowan struggles with the notion of not having seven children anymore. "You know what I have to get used to saying?" he asked. He held up the five fingers of one hand, and one finger on the other.

"The six of us," Hugh McGowan said.

"It's weird," Alice McGowan added.

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