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Jackie and Mark Barden, Parents of Newtown Victim: Daniel Was “A Kind Little Soul”

Jacqueline and Mark Barden’s youngest son Daniel was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. They have set up a memorial Facebook page and YouTube Channel to help “spread Daniel’s message of kindness.” This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 31, 2013.

Are you from Connecticut, or did you move into this state? How did you settle on Newtown?

Mark: We are both originally from New York. … We wound up in a situation where we were house-sitting for Jackie’s sister in Ridgefield, Conn., and we liked the area, and we liked the schools.

So we started looking around the area, and we found Newtown, and we just thought it met our needs in a lot of ways. And all the schools — we just really liked what we heard about all the schools.

Jacqueline: It is a very good school system. My husband’s a musician. They have a really good music program. That was important. My sister’s lived in Ridgefield for 35 years, so she really knew the area and kind of directed us. …

So we moved into this house, what, five years ago. … I teach in New York in Pawling in Dutchess County. We lived there for a short time before that. Then we house-sat, and then we ended up here. I’ve been thrilled. We love the area.

What do you teach? 

Jacqueline: I’m a second-grade teacher. …

And Mark, what do you play? I know that you’re a musician.

Mark: I play guitar primarily. …

And is that your profession?

Mark: It is. …

Jacqueline: Because of that we’ve been very lucky. He plays a lot out at night, and then I work during the day, so we’ve been fortunate, for someone’s always at home. So it’s really what worked for us. …

Mark: Yeah, it worked out favorable to have the time with the kids.

Now, none of them were born here. …

Jacqueline: All were born in Pawling. We lived in Pawling for seven years. … James is 12, and Natalie is 11. She just turned 11.

They love school, and they love music, and they’re doing really well. We do feel like this has been the right place for us. We would walk around the block and just talk about how fortunate we are to live in this area and this house.

Mark: We would literally say, “We’re so glad to live here.” And we still do, even more I think. Since this has happened, our community has just been so amazingly supportive. It’s really a blessing to live here.

Jacqueline: A lot of families have been asked that, you know: Do you plan on moving? I think some are considering, I really don’t know, but for us, I think that we feel even more connected.

We’ve had so much support that when people come with meals and everybody’s just been, you know, picking up James for a play date or dropping him off at soccer, or if he needs something for swimming. …

Can you talk about Daniel? …

Mark: I think Daniel is a product of all that love and all those wonderful role models focused into one kid, all of our siblings’ children. … We just admire and respect all those kids so much, and they were all such a big part of Daniel’s life, and they were all such a wonderful influence on [him], that I think he was just product of all that grace and all that love, and he just gave it all back.

Jacqueline: He was very caring and loving.

Mark: And his brother and sister were endlessly patient and supportive and loving and kind to him. James and Natalie were always playing with him. James and Daniel would be outside playing soccer, or Natalie would be downstairs doing Legos and playing school and family.

Jacqueline: Dress-up.

Mark: … They would read to him, and he was just becoming a great reader on his own. But I think because of all that closeness, all that family, he really got it. His personality was such that he really got it, and he really appreciated it. He would look at the sky and notice a pretty sky or flowers, bugs. He really noticed things.

He’d also notice that a light was on in a room and go turn it off. And he had a lot of compassion. He was always happy.

Jacqueline: He’d wake up happy. Just always very, very thoughtful.

Mark: And his teachers would always comment on how he was always looking after his classmates. He would go talk to somebody that was sitting alone. If he saw somebody struggling with something, he’d offer his help. We just heard that consistently all the way through.

Jacqueline: His teacher wrote a letter to us when this happened and said Daniel should have come with a ribbon because he was like a gift to a teacher. Those are the kids that are kind of easy to be with. …

We would get feedback from parents, … and always the parents would say he could come over anytime; he is so well mannered and so easy, and [we] love him.

Our neighbor would always say he’s like an old soul. “He’s different, Jackie.” You know, our neighbors would say that. …

Did he show any early musical talent?

Mark: I used to notice when he was very young, if I would be practicing or just listening to music, he would crawl over and put his head up to the speaker, and you could see him just checking out the vibrations in the sound.

Last Christmas he got a drum set for Christmas, and just recently we really kind of started working on it a little bit. And on the occasion of my father-in-law’s 90th birthday party, we decided to put together a little song as a tribute for him at the party. So Daniel played the drums on that, and my son James played the bass, and Natalie sang, and I played guitar. And it was “What a Wonderful World.”

So he performed it there. And then we did a kids’ open mic, and he performed it there. So those were his two gigs. He could hold a beat; he could keep time. He didn’t have a lot of chops yet, but he could keep time. That’s pretty much all you need right there. The chops will come. …

I temper it with, of course, we’re his parents, and he was a kid like any other kid. He’d fight with his siblings just like any other kid. He was exceptionally sweet and exceptionally considerate. …

Jacqueline: … He was just very aware, and I find that Mark is very thoughtful, my husband. And I said to you the week before: “I think Daniel’s the most like you. Not to take anything away from the other two; he’s just very aware and thoughtful.” And he said, “Jackie, he puts me to shame.”

He was just unusual. Some of the stuff he would do, we would kind of look at each other like, how did he know to do that? You know, his kindness and his thoughtfulness and his awareness.

Mark: Our last morning together, I had come upstairs to find him kneeling on the counter, right next to the stove, trying to get to the microwave. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “It was beeping; I wanted to get your coffee out for you.”

Meanwhile, there’s a pot of hot oatmeal right next to him. I’m like: “You know what? You worry about your stuff, and I’ll worry about my stuff.” I had to reprimand him on his last morning, but that was because he was up on the counter trying to help me out and get my coffee out of the microwave.

Jacqueline: Or the time … I was going to the supermarket, … and the kids all wanted to go with me, and Mark was going to another store that was not as exciting, and the kids were coming with me. And all of the sudden I see Daniel run to you.

Mark: Yeah. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “Well, I saw you were going all alone, and I wanted to comfort you.”

Jacqueline: He always felt like he needed to comfort someone.

Mark: That was just a perfect slice of his personality. …

So as you move forward with your lives, what do you think you take from Daniel? … What will be different about you as you go forward?

Mark: I don’t know if we’ll be different. I think we’re going to try to make sure we honor Daniel by continuing that close family bond and continuing our communication with our children. …

Can you talk about the morning of the 14th and how it unfolded for you?

Mark: … On the morning of the 14th, I was walking James down the driveway. It was still dark at 6:20, and we hear little footprints behind us on the driveway. And Daniel had gotten up and realized that the house was dark and empty and that we were on our way to the bus, and he ran down the driveway with his pajamas and with his little flip-flops on so he could hug and kiss his brother goodbye. That’s the only time that ever happened. …

He and I came back into the house, and I said: “Look, the sun’s not even up. You can go back to bed and sleep some more if you want.” And he said, “No, Daddy, now we have more time for cuddling.” So that’s what we did.

We got on this couch right here and we cuddle. Goofed around and played, and then he noticed out that window that the sky was starting to become all red and orange, and the Christmas tree was over there, and he said: “Look, you can see the reflection of the Christmas tree lights in the window with the [sunrise] behind it. Isn’t that beautiful?”

It was beautiful, and so I went and got the camera and took a picture of it. So we have this picture with that window with that Dec. 14 sunrise and just a few little lights of a Christmas tree.

Daniel was big into foosball, so we had some time for some foosball. And then he had to kiss his sister Natalie goodbye, too. Made a point to give her a hug and a kiss goodbye and put her on her bus. …

Then after breakfast, we sat down at the piano and I taught him how to play “Jingle Bells,” which he did perfectly, and I just remember looking at his little hands and just thought his little hands were so cute and so beautiful.

Then it was time to walk Daniel into the bus, and almost every morning, we had to play tag on the way to the bus. And it was all this running around, all the way up and running through the lawns, and I asked him, I said: “Do we have to play tag today? Do we have to play tag every day? Can we just hold hands today?” So we did. We just held hands. …

[How did you hear what happened? What was it like for you?] 

Mark: I was pretty much in denial up and until we had the confirmation. I came back from the bus stop and I went into my studio downstairs to start doing some work, and I got an automated phone message from the school. The schools were in lockdown.

That happens occasionally for a number of reasons, usually innocuous, and it could be in a 50-mile radius, so I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought.

And then I think I did go on the Internet and start trying to look around and see why the schools were in lockdown, and then there were reports of a shooting.

Jacqueline: Then I called.

Mark: At that point they said it was the high school. And you called me from your work. … We were just trying to gather information to see what was happening, and then we got the news that there had been a report of a shooting at Sandy Hook School. I ran out the door. I just headed to the school quickly.

When I arrived on the scene, it was overwhelming, the number of emergency vehicles and military personnel and helicopters. At our little Sandy Hook School, which is quaint, bucolic, down-a-country-road little school where I knew everybody because I was in there volunteering fairly regularly, and it was just such a comfortable little quiet environment, and to see it transformed into a chaotic emergency scene is surreal.

There’s a firehouse down the street from the school, and were having everyone assemble, and they were bringing all of the students and personnel in the school and having us meet there.

They were assembling the grades in the garage of the firehouse, and I was just waiting to collect Daniel. There were some reports flying around that maybe the principal had been injured, and I was preparing myself in having this dialogue with Daniel, because I was sure that this was going to be a traumatic experience.

My friend Melissa had collected her second-grader, who was Daniel’s best friend. … And I said, “Melissa, you should go home and be with them.” And she said, “No, I’ll stay here with you until you get Daniel.”

So they asked all the parents that had not yet been reunited with their children to assemble in one room, immediate family only. Melissa said, “I’m staying with you.” So we went into the room, and somebody had gotten the report on their phone that students are all OK but the principal had been shot. So I was thinking, man, this is serious; this is bad.

And I was still trying to figure out how I was going to explain this to Daniel and to my other children. … So then the state police came in with this announcement, that 20 children were dead.

Jacqueline: We still had hope, because they had made us all, if you’re missing someone, to sign your name. So I went and I counted, and it was 24 names. So I’m thinking, well, there’s 24 people, not thinking of the educators, so I said to Mark: “There’s four extra kids on that. Daniel’s still OK.” So we were waiting, thinking maybe he’s still OK.

Then they said that two children were going to the hospital, so we still were thinking it’s OK; he has to be the one. And then finally the governor came and said, “If you’re missing someone, they didn’t survive.”

Then we realized why there were more than 20 names, because there were other people, teachers. Families were there, and the governor said, “You can stay.” And we said: “Why are we staying? You know, we need to go home.” And that was it.

Were all the kids home at that point?

Jacqueline: They were at Melissa’s house because they got off the bus, and her husband picked them up.

Mark: … Later that day she brought them up to us, and we had to tell them. …

How quickly was it evident that the community would be rallying to help you?

Jacqueline: I don’t know.

Mark: I think it was evident by the fact that Melissa’s son had endured this catastrophe and instead of going home with him, she stayed with me. So it was immediate. …

Jacqueline: It was immediate support. … We had a lot of people coming, and then immediately Melissa put a meal train together that day — you know, you don’t need to worry about meals. And people really respected our privacy but would email and just say, “If you need anything, you know we’re there for you.” We had a lot of people, though, we knew that they were there, but [they] definitely knew not to overstep. I think we were lucky. …

At the same time you’re dealing with this unimaginable grief, you still have important roles as parents to James and Natalie. How did you balance that? Did you?

Jacqueline: I think initially we were in so much shock that it wasn’t like we were crumbling. … We had family around. There were probably the first week 30 people sleeping in this house. And we would make a point to talk to them privately.

Mark: And we really didn’t make an effort to hide our emotions from then. I think we were both … on the same page that it is what it is, and it’s OK for them to see that; it’s OK to be sad.

And we didn’t design it that way, but it kind of worked out that we were alternating our meltdowns. So I could hold Jackie when she was falling apart, and she could hold me when I was falling apart.

I think that was hard for them to see. James came over to us one time and just put his arms around us and said, “I hate to see you like this.” So there’s a lot of different levels of support and grief and emotions and going around.

Jacqueline: We would try to talk to them at night when they went to bed, just kind of check in and see how they’re doing and what they’re feeling.

Mark: Yeah, keep the dialogue going.

Jacqueline: They’re very different. James is much quieter than Natalie. So we would check in on him, and he’s very logical, very, you know, “This has happened, and we kind of need to…” — not move on —

Mark: He did say that we can’t do anything about this, and it’s not going to do us any good to get all broken down and emotional and sad about it. I think his psyche is indicating to him to embrace the happy moments that he’s had with Daniel, and I think that’s a very healthy thing to remember, all the good that we had for seven years rather than define Daniel by this incident, which is way more evolved than I am.

… Do you feel like you’ve made some progress in processing it? … Is the world making any more sense today?

Jacqueline: I think it changes. It’s so different every day.

Mark: It seems like time is either going very quickly or very, very slowly. It just doesn’t seem to be going at its normal pace anymore. … I’ve been kind of using a mechanism, I guess subconsciously, [I] have this feeling like Daniel’s not around right now, because there were plenty of times where Daniel wasn’t around. So this was one of those times where he’s just not around right now.

Jacqueline: And then it all hits you like a ton of bricks.

Mark: Yeah, you get hit with that whole forever thing. That’s hard.

Jacqueline: And he’d look at a picture and think that was all you have.

Mark: One of the other parents and I were sharing a common thought, which was we’re as close to them as we’re ever going to be right now. I keep having this feeling of this distance that keeps increasing. Like in another minute, I’m going to be another minute farther away from my existence with Daniel in life. And that’s kind of hard to deal with. …

Our 20-year-old niece brought us a journal. She said, “Here, I want you guys to have a journal to write down your thoughts about Daniel,” which I thought was brilliant. I never thought of that, and I just think it’s such a great idea.

So Jackie said we need to start dedicating a little time every morning to having some dialogue about Daniel, and we need to start talking about him and remember brief stories about him and writing them down. We’d hate to ever forget any one little thing about him. …

When did you start thinking you have a larger role to play here, that you want to be part of something larger and lasting. …

Mark: I think it was part of the grief. I think it was part of the process, like there has to be some good here. We have to do something. Because of the nature of the extreme violence that is associated with this event, I think it was immediate for me, like we have to fix something. …

Tell me something about what you’ve done and what you want to accomplish.

Jacqueline: We’ve become involved with the Sandy Hook Promise, which is an organization of Newtown residents that want open discussion to see what can be changed.

I think it’s important that there is a discussion, not just, “This is what needs to be done.” And I think that that’s something that Daniel would do. I think that’s the way he was. He wasn’t confrontational. …

We do believe that changes have to be made, but I think it’s important that we listen to each other. And when we learned about the Sandy Hook Promise — it was initially Newtown United — we feel like it fit us.

We’re not political, Mark and I. We’re not confrontational people. We don’t know a lot about different issues. And this was an organization that wasn’t like, “This is what we believe.” It’s more, “Let’s learn about it.” So that really was for us comforting that we didn’t have to say that this is what we believe, because we didn’t know enough to say that this is what we believe. …

We also are trying to spread Daniel’s kindness through a Facebook website that my niece started, “What Would Daniel Do?” That’s something that we do feel we have to spread that, because he was such a kind little soul and thoughtful, and it’s been wonderful to have people that will say, “I start my day going on that Facebook website, because it’s so uplifting.”

A lot of people have turned to that and said, “This is something good that has come out for me, and I have changed the way that I look at things,” or “I have changed the way I look at my children.” So that’s been very important for us. We have to do something. We feel like we have to make some good of this. …

… Is there an escape from the grief?

Jacqueline: I think so. … Mark goes out and plays soccer, or he’ll play freeze tag outside.

Mark: We sit down and eat together as a family, but there’s several other relatives with us, usually nine of us now. It hasn’t been just the four of us yet, and that was something that was very important to Daniel was dinnertime. Everyone had to be in their seat and everyone had to be seated. … Always had to say grace.

Jacqueline: It was a very big thing with him. …

Mark: So that’s going to be hard. We haven’t had to visit the dinner table with just the four of us minus Daniel yet. And thanks again to all our wonderful family kind of rallying around us and making sure that I don’t know when the time will be right, but at some point we’ll have to do that. …

There are many milestones you have to come [to], but we’ve been seeing a therapist, and she told us, you know, don’t feel guilty about having fun and laughing. Grieving is not 24/7. You’re constantly in that state of gloom. It comes in waves. …

Was it tough for the kids to go back to school, or were they eager, [or somewhere in] the middle?

Mark: Initially it was hard.

Jacqueline: On many levels.

Mark: They were anxious. I can remember tucking them in, and I didn’t know how to reassure them that they’re going to be safe in school after this when they were first going back. How do you say, “No, you’re going to be OK”? You want to say that, but gosh, have we seen that anything is possible. But they did actually do quite well. …

Eased back into it. They went for a day, day or two, and then they couldn’t go again for a day, and then they went back and kind of eased into it, and we kind of encouraged them to start getting back into their sports and their music regimens and all that, which they’re getting back into.

Jacqueline: Little by little. … Natalie was very much like, “I do not want anyone talking to me about this; I just want to be a regular kid.” Her teachers are wonderful, and we’ve been communicating with them, and they spoke to the class. …

James, on the other hand, I said, “Should I email your teachers and talk?” He said, “Mom, if people need to come up to me, then they should be able to.” That was his way. …

I can only imagine [how] surreal it all must have felt, suddenly seeing the president here, or the president wants to meet you, or the vice president’s on the phone.

Jacqueline: So strange.

Mark: Sitting in the dining room, … my sister-in-law walks in with the phone, very casually, “Joe Biden’s on the phone.”

Jacqueline: And he wants to talk to me. …

Mark: So you spoke with him for 15 minutes, and I spoke with him for about two hours, something like that. It was over an hour.

I thought it was a great talk. I didn’t feel like it was the vice president talking to some nobody. I thought it was just a couple guys, because we now have this unfortunate common bond, and we shared our feelings on that, and he shared some insight onto what to expect as time goes on, and we talked about our experience of being dads, and I think we had a lot of common ground there, too.

I never got the sense I was being placated or that he was doing this out of a sense of obligation. I felt it was very genuine and very sincere. …

So what sort of things did you tell him?

Mark: He told me a lot of things. He ran through his whole agenda of what he wanted to bring to the president, and he was very detailed with where all these ideas came from.

He was drawing out his experience with addressing the automobile industry and how they had to make some serious safety reform to make cars safer, and how all of that was a struggle to get airbags in place and change the roofline and change the crossbar that goes up, shoulder harnesses and all that.

He went into some of their discussions on mental health issues and his meeting with the video game industry, and so it was a lot of him explaining to me all of this that he wanted to bring to the table.

And then we talked about the personal stuff, just actually sharing his tragedy and our tragedy, and so we got pretty personal in that area. And then we just kind of shared some philosophies about raising children. He said, “Mark, if you ever can’t sleep some night, Google me, and you’ll see they called me Amtrak Joe.” He said 7,000 trips or miles that he logged because he wanted to go home every day and see his kids.

And you know, I’m right there with that. We have a common philosophy on you have to be there with your kids, do whatever it takes to be there with your kids, within the framework of your lifestyle, I guess. I understand that a lot of people have jobs that don’t make that always possible.

Jacqueline: Or when you’re there with your kids, make it count. … I think we all are overwhelmed with life, but you just kind of have to sit back and maybe prioritize which is more important. … It’s definitely not easy to raise children, but it’s just making that little effort when you can. I definitely believe that. …

… Do you have ideas on reducing gun violence?

Mark: The gun issue is challenging for us because neither one of us had the opportunity to grow up in a family that had guns, so we don’t know a lot about gun culture. So we’re trying to learn, and I understand they can be used as tools.

Jacqueline: Or defense.

Mark: I’m trying to learn about these battlefield machinery that was used in this school, and I’m trying to find out where their redeeming qualities are. Or I’m trying to find a good argument for how they should be accessible or why they should be accessible to civilians, or why they should be in the hands of the public.

I’m trying to learn about that, because a lot of people obviously think they have a place in the public’s hands, and I haven’t found it yet. I’m looking, I’m asking questions, I’m reading, and I can’t seem to find any logical, reasonable purpose for that type of machinery to be available to the public.

What gun enthusiasts have told me is these guns are no different than semiautomatic weapons that have been around for decades. It’s just a cosmetic difference. Is that satisfactory, or do the cosmetics in fact make a difference? …

Mark: Well, not even the cosmetic issue but the actual mechanical issue of the ability to fire so much high-caliber ammunition so quickly. I’m not sure where you need that. … I think the mechanism that allows that to dispense so many high-caliber bullets so quickly is more suited for the battlefield.

Jacqueline: We were told that the police were at the school three minutes after 911 [was called], that the whole incident occurred in four minutes.

Mark: Less than four minutes.

Jacqueline: And he was able to, I mean, 26 people. That says it all to us. Something’s wrong [with] that.

Mark: And he was prepared to do a whole lot more, for that one particular rifle I think he had 300 rounds ready to go. And because our first responders got there so quickly I think is the only reason that many more lives weren’t lost.

No one would be surprised if you said — knowing what you know, going through what you’ve gone through — your mind is made up, complete ban and full confiscation; get these weapons off the street by any means. But it sounds like you’re taking a more careful, thoughtful [approach].

Jacqueline: We’re trying to be more open-minded.

Mark: … Let’s try to see what makes sense for everybody, and let’s just talk about it. I want to know what you have to say, and I’d like for you to listen to what I have to say. …

This is not a debate that has engendered a lot of that desire to hear the other side. Is that the conclusion you’ve reached as you researched this? My sense is it’s a pretty divisive issue in the country.

Mark: It is, and we’re hoping to promote some more reasonable discussion, and again, in a way to honor our little Daniel, who was all about seeing somebody sitting alone and comforting them. So let’s not say you’re sitting alone, and I’m sitting alone over here. Let’s talk to each other. …

… Do you generally feel supportive of efforts expanding the assault weapons ban, restricting high-capacity magazines, even as you continue to look and think about the issue for those things that hit a common-sense button for you?

Jacqueline: I think so. … I think also background checks are a big thing. We’re learning how 40 percent of guns are sold without background checks. We were surprised how much investigating they did for us [when] we just received two kittens from a shelter. I think the background checks need to be looked at.

That’s another thing we’re learning, that you can lie in a background check. People maybe aren’t as truthful as they should be, and that goes unnoticed or not really sure, but I think changes need to be made there.

Mark: I think everybody should be able to agree on just responsible gun ownership. What’s the big deal about that?

On issues like registration and permitting and the like, there is a lot of pushback on that. … 

Mark: Yeah, but you have to be licensed and registered and insured to drive a car. Car’s purpose is to take you from point A to point B, but you have to follow pretty strict, logical protocol to do that.

I know [the] post office even set up a special post office box in Newtown to handle the enormous outpouring from all over the world. Did letters find their way to your address as well?

Jacqueline: We’ve been overwhelmed from all over the world — letters, stuffed animals, Christmas ornaments, a lot of books. We’ve been taking our time going through each box, and we have family members that will help us and read each letter and appreciate each letter, and you know, it’s pretty amazing, the support and the feelings. All lovely, all supportive, all kind.

Mark: You get a scope of how this has touched everybody, everywhere.

Jacqueline: Mothers, fathers.

Mark: Kids.

Jacqueline: All different religions. It’s just everyone. A lot of students have written pretty wonderful letters, high schoolers, little ones. Kids will draw pictures and send them to us.

From all over the world, or just mostly here?

Mark: Mostly the United States, but we get stuff from other countries.

Jacqueline: Afghanistan, we’ve gotten letters.

Mark: U.K., France.

Jacqueline: Germany. Pretty amazing. …

This is sadly not the first mass tragedy in the nation. Is there something different about Dec. 14? Might change come culturally, legislatively in ways that it hasn’t in past tragedies?

Mark: I don’t think we should compare tragedies. I think what we should do is we should say we cannot any longer be defined as a culture that accepts this as part of our culture. …

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