Q&A: Sandy Hook mother shares journey from tragic loss to hope

Jennifer Hubbard founds animal sanctuary to honor slain daughter, pens inspiring book

On Dec. 14, 2012 Jennifer Hubbard’s six-year-old daughter Catherine died when a lone gunman shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and gunned down 20 first-graders and six adults before killing himself.  In her suffering, compounded by the end of her marriage and the death of her father, Hubbard grew closer to God and deepened her faith. She found purpose and grace in just doing the next thing that needed to be done, particularly as she helped her son, just two years older than his sister, to also heal from the loss. God’s gentle presence was all around, as when an error in Catherine’s obituary led to the founding of an animal sanctuary in her honor to be a place of healing and peace. Today, Hubbard is the president and executive director of the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary, a national Catholic speaker and retreat leader, and an award-winning writer with Magnificat. Hubbard recounts her path from tragic loss to hope and healing in her book, Finding Sanctuary (Ave Maria Press, 2021). She recently spoke to the Denver Catholic about her journey.  The interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness. 

DC: How did you learn your six-year-old daughter Catherine had died? 

Hubbard: I was called by a friend who had gotten word that something had happened at the school. By the time I got there the kids had been gathered in the firehouse that was down the street. The protocol with fire drills and emergencies was to take a short walk down the drive and assemble at the firehouse. When I got to that meeting spot there were a lot of emergency vehicles. It was somewhat chaotic, but it didn’t take long to get everyone organized. Once it was, it was pretty apparent that there was a whole class missing. We knew there had been a shooting. Early afternoon it was announced that there were fatalities because of it. 

DC: What was your first reaction? 

Hubbard: It was not at all what I think people would envision. I don’t think anyone knows or can anticipate how they will feel in that moment whatever that moment is when you discover your world is not what it was. It was numbness. In retrospect, I was in shock. The magnitude of what had happened had not even yet come close to me. 

DC: Tragedy can lead people to or away from belief in God. You write about experiencing God’s presence in your suffering, share a little about that. 

Hubbard: The presence that I felt was a quietness and a serenity that I had not ever experienced before in my life. Partly, I believe, because all of the distractions, noise and busyness of life in a day-to-day normal world were ripped away. There were the initial preparations of a funeral and notifying people and dealing with the ritual of burying and death. Once we’d gotten through that, life became very quiet.  

That quietness is where I really discovered God in the following weeks and months. Through prayer and in just doing the next best thing — just doing what was right in front of me. Interestingly, I discovered that that’s exactly where God really wants us and where he will speak to us most loudly. It’s not in the rushing around and the striving of “I need to be bigger and better and accomplished or put on a faith.” God has plans and reasons for us to live in the moment. For me, some days it was simply getting out of bed and packing a lunch box and being there when my son got off the bus. That’s where God wanted me and where I discovered his calming presence and peace. 

DC: What role did journaling play in your healing and had you journaled prior to the tragic loss of Catherine? 

Hubbard: Journaling wasn’t necessarily something that was part of my everyday routine, but it was something I was familiar with. I was in the grocery store and this woman, her eyes spoke volumes, she looked at me with such a knowing and said, “You should write it all down because you’re not going to remember anything.”  

I started writing things down, more so in regard to my prayer life, which is something that was a part of my life before Catherine died, albeit a smaller sliver of my day. My journals immediately following Catherine’s death were very well appointed and very well scripted and I would pull out pages that I didn’t think looked nice.  My journals today are a reflection of my heart; a heart that’s not trying to be anything other than what it is.  

DC: Your time of mourning Catherine’s death included fallout with your family, the illness and death of your father, and the end of your marriage. Were you angry with God and what did you do with that anger? 

Hubbard: I wouldn’t say angry, although at times it’s probably an accurate description…more so disappointed and confused. Before Catherine died, I was growing in my faith — it was rich and alive and on fire. I really felt like I was leaning in to wherever God was leading me. I think a trap many of us who follow [Christ] fall into is thinking, I’m a good and faithful servant, why are bad things happening to me?  If you love me God, why would you do this to me?  

I was at a stoplight at a Stop & Shop. I started grumbling, it gained traction, snowballed and ended with me Iashing-out at God. I discovered I was not going to be punished because of questions I had or disappointments I felt. Now I’m quick to release those feelings because God knows what our hearts are feeling and thinking and his purpose for us is that we can hand those to him and leave them with him in a trust and a knowing that he will take them and he will make them right. When he does it will be in a most remarkable way. It may not even happen in my lifetime but that’s OK, because at the end of day God’s plan is good.  

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DC: How did you find the way to forgiveness and peace? 

Hubbard: It was a slow transformation. There is no book or checklist or roadmap that anybody can pick up and say, I’m going to do these five steps and at the end I’ll be at peace. I wish there was — that would be so great! Where I discovered it, was in just taking the everyday moments and appreciating them for what they are. And not thinking too far beyond what I could handle.  

At the beginning of this long journey, it was just the next day. I couldn’t think beyond that. Over time, as healing settled in my soul, what I found is I could look a bit further — I could hope for what was to come, and the dreams and the ideas of what my world might look like. I was able to ponder on them and become hopeful.  

Eventually, I was able to look back and see where I’d been and thought, Oh my gosh, I’m in a really good place. When I look at seasons of my life — going through divorce, the loss of my father — now I have a trust: there was a way forward before and there will be a way forward in this instance. I’m a lot quicker to settle my soul.  

DC: Have you been able to forgive the shooter?  

Hubbard: I have. I’ve never really felt a need to look at his family or actively say, I forgive you. I always had a sense of, because of some of the ground rules we set as a family, we’re not to judge. That’s a huge release. That also means not holding people ransom. That’s not my job. I want to be forgiven and I seek forgiveness every day for the things that I do. So, who am I to not extend the same?  

DC: The omission of a word in your daughter’s obituary prompted an unexpected encounter that led to founding the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary. Share a bit about that providential experience. 

Hubbard: It was just a complete omission error. We were writing the obituary and filling in the blanks on the form. The question was: In lieu of flowers, what do we want? What was Catherine’s cause? As a six-year-old it’s not like she had a charity she supported. Her heart was animals. We decided on the Animal Control Center, which is the pound. But we left out the word “control.” There’s actually an Animal Center of Newtown, which was four women. They rescued cats and had just begun rescuing dogs. They showed up at our house a few weeks later and said, “We’ve received over $100,000 in donations in Catherine’s memory and want to know what you want us to do with this money.” (The women shared that they envisioned an animal sanctuary.) 

DC: It seems God really provided the hands and means for the animal sanctuary to happen. Would you like to share a little about how it came together? 

Hubbard: The sanctuary has been a number of grace after grace after grace experiences. From the property that was gifted to us by the state of Connecticut — 34 acres — to the people that have come around us. It’s a tangible reminder of God’s provision in our lives. There’s no way that without his divinity in the moving parts and bringing the people together — people who have worked pro-bono, the people who have supported it — that it would be what it is today. It really is a place for me where heaven and earth collide powerfully.  

DC: Your book Finding Sanctuary recounts your healing journey. Who is the book for and what would you like people to take away from it? 

Hubbard: It’s for anybody who has gone through or is in the midst of going through a period of darkness and trauma. It’s for anybody directly impacted or involved with someone experiencing loss: the loss of a job, of a loved one, loss of marriage. My hope is that it can give some hope.  

COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash