(Paul Grondahl)

Media: Times Union

NEWTOWN — As dusk settled Saturday on this once-serene and bucolic town, newly shattered and struggling to comprehend a raw sorrow, residents brought bouquets of flowers and notes of sympathy to the town square where they had laughed and sang carols and watched children romp with joy just two weeks earlier during the annual lighting of the town Christmas tree.

"We were just here for the tree-lighting and now we're here for this. It can't be any more awful," said town resident Carol Tomassetti. "The children who were killed were probably here that night, running around and having fun. We can't imagine this in Newtown."

Poignant signs of condolence and makeshift memorials were springing up along the shop-lined, postcard-perfect Main Street. Above a cluster of red balloons, someone had hung a sign: "Hug a Teacher Today." At the Toy Tree, a toy store for young children, workers had taped a sign to the front door: "We are devastated by this tragedy. These are our friends and our children's friends. Our hearts are broken and our love, prayers and deepest sympathy are with everyone in our community." Across the street, an American flag and 27 numbered blank slips of white pieces of paper were attached to a large sign meant as a "flag of honor" for those killed at the school."

At the Wishing Well gift shop, owner Tamara Doherty and her husband, Shannon, filled Christmas orders and gift baskets with heavy hearts and a simmering mixture of anger and fear after their daughter in junior high and son in middle school were kept in lockdown at their schools while the shooting spree unfolded at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"My kids were scared and I don't know how to talk to them about that yet," Tamara Doherty said. "I know they will know some of the kids who were killed and that will be a hard conversation. I have no answers for them. They are still frightened. They had their sense of security and innocence taken away. My husband and I are angry, but we have nowhere for our anger to go. I know I can't send my kids back to school. I'm not ready for that and they're not ready for that."

Doherty said she is adamant about gun control, a topic that might not go over well in the rolling countryside around Newtown, where hunting is popular and the local fish and game club is filled with sportsmen who feel they have a right to bear arms, she said.

"As a mother, I just want my kids to be safe," she said. "There will always be troubled individuals like him (Adam Lanza), but we need to keep guns out of their hands. So many people around here have guns. They consider it their right. I want my kids to be safe, and if that tramples on their rights with guns, so be it."

Doherty said her emotions were raw after a conversation Saturday morning with a teacher aide at Sandy Hook Elementary School during the shooting rampage who also is a part-time employee at her shop. "She was hysterical, and I just told her I loved her," Doherty said.

At Connecticut Counselors, a half-dozen counselors came in on Saturday to be available to talk with townsfolk and especially families who may have had children attending Sandy Hook Elementary School. They had counseled some of the children and parents at the school affected by the shooting.

"We're just hear to listen to their stories and to provide them with a safe place and a healing space," said Karen Schaum, a licensed professional counselor.

"We're still at the stage of disbelief and shock right now," said Kim Morello, a licensed professional counselor. "This is the time that people need to come together and surround themselves with people who love them."

Counselors offered these tips:

Make sure the child knows that you are available to listen and use a calm tone when speaking.

Get down to the child's level.

Reassure the child that they are safe.

Do not minimize the child's feelings.

Follow the child's lead and if the child wants to talk, listen. If the child wants to be held or is clingy, hold them and be patient.

They suggested that adults return to a day-to-day structure as soon as possible.

At the Newtown United Methodist Church, parishioner Steve Agnew greeted a steady stream of mourners who entered the sanctuary, where clergy were available for those who wanted counseling.

"We moved here from Tampa, Fla., for this town's Norman Rockwell feeling," Agnew said. "We're all just trying to grieve and heal now."

Agnew's son was locked in his middle school in town during the shootings. The father is proceeding slowly and patiently, waiting for his son to express his grief.

"We told him it's OK to be angry and scared," the father said. "We have been honest and haven't sugarcoated everything because he's talking to his friends about it. He said he wasn't ready to talk about it yet. Like the rest of us, he's still trying to process what happened."

pgrondahl@timesunion.com • 518-454-5623 • @PaulGrondahl