Mark Barden, a jazz composer and guitarist, hasn’t been able to write music since his 7-year-old son Daniel died in last year’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. “I had a few pieces that I’d been working on just prior to the tragedy, and one was a piece I was writing for my children and for this beautiful little moment when I’d come home from a gig,” he told Metro. “They’d all be sleeping and I’d kiss them on their little cheeks – I called it ‘quiet grace.’”
Barden has not been able to finish the piece. Instead, he finds solace in spending time with his two surviving children, James and Natalie, 13 and 11, respectively.
“I bask in my kids – I just bask in them,” he said. Barden said his children have been incredibly strong since the tragedy. “They talk about Daniel not with sadness, but with fond recollection,” he said. “I’m not there yet – I can’t do that.” Even in the sterile conference room at Sandy Hook Promise, where Barden works, the air is heavy with grief.
But Barden and his wife have been able to lean on his children. “When Jackie [my wife] and I have our breakdowns, they come right to us with compassion and empathy,” he said.
Barden recalled when his daughter Natalie bought eggnog and put two mugs in the freezer for him and his wife – a holiday tradition in his family. “She left a note – have some eggnog – and she had gone to bed and in the morning she said, ‘Daddy, did you have the eggnog?’” said Barden. “I said, ‘It reminds me too much of last year – I just can’t,’ and she said, ‘I know. I understand.’”
Barden said what he misses most is seeing his three children together. “They were great together,” he smiled. “They were on the swim team together last fall and Daniel managed to do one meet. He was swimming one of his heats – this little swim stroke, somewhere in between a breaststroke and a doggie paddle, this amorphous little flapping – and James and Natalie got to the end of his lane, cheering him on and when he got out of the water, they both hugged him. I said to Jackie – this was a six-hour event – it was worth every bit, watching that. ”
Barden, who was a stay-at-home dad before working full-time with Sandy Hook Promise, said Daniel’s absence in his home is “profound.” Barden said, “There are all kinds of unexpected triggers outside – any of the milestones, like Daniel’s birthday or Halloween or the first day of school.” The holidays are especially tough. The very morning of the shooting, Daniel, who did not know how to play the piano, asked his father to teach him how to play “Jingle Bells.” Barden said Daniel woke up extra early to learn how to play and the two of them sat at the piano. “He played it beautifully,” said Barden.
Daniel, like his father, loved music and was the drummer in the family band; Barden played the guitar while Natalie sang and James played the bass. The four of them had mastered “What a Wonderful World” for family parties.
Barden said Daniel had an eclectic taste in music: He loved classical music, Steely Dan and Alison Krauss. “You wouldn’t expect that from a seven-year-old,” laughed Barden. Daniel was also easily moved by music: Barden recalled Daniel’s reaction to the song “The Christmas Shoes” during a car ride. “It’s about a little boy whose mother was dying and he wanted to buy her a pair of shoes,” explained Barden. “I look in the mirror and see Daniel looking out the window with tears rolling down his cheeks. That’s the depth of his empathy right there.”
He picked up a photo. “That’s my Daniel,” he said with a mix of pride and heartache. His fingers and his voice shook. “That’s my sweet little boy we lost last year.” He said Daniel, whose teachers lauded him for reaching out to outcasts and new kids, inspires him to move forward with his mission. Daniel's sweet disposition inspired Barden's niece to start a Facebook page called "WWDD: What Would Daniel Do?" The page has over 40,000 likes.
Barden said right after the shooting, he knew he had to do something. “James looked beyond his own, unimaginable grief and said, ‘I hope this never happens to any other family again,’” said Barden.
Now, Barden has found his calling, which is to work with the Sandy Hook Foundation to teach people to “parent together” and open a dialogue about gun safety and mental health at the grassroots level. “It’s about being aware or more aware of all children,” he explained. “The lesson I apply to this from Daniel is to notice the kid sitting alone. Sometimes they don’t want to be alone.”
Barden can’t seem to say Adam Lanza’s name, but he did say of the 20-year-old gunman, “The sad connection I can’t help thinking is this individual who went into school and killed all these little first graders was the kid who sat alone.” Barden said through Sandy Hook Promise, he hopes to help community leaders and teachers identify at-risk children and address their needs.
Barden talked about how Daniel used to pick up worms and ants off the driveway and place them back on the grass. “I take that spirit and I take James’ spirit of ‘No other family should have to go through this’ and honor all of the lives lost,” Barden said of his work with Sandy Hook Promise. “If I feel like I’m doing something positive and bringing meaningful, lasting change that will ultimately save lives, then I will dedicate the rest of my life to that.”
Learn more about Sandy Hook Promise.
Follow Andrea Park on Twitter: @andreapark