He Tried to Hold Up the Sun

Updated: May 18, 2019

After every consecutive mass shooting since Sandy Hook, people would send little broken heart emojis and sad-face emojis to Jeremy Richman and his wife Jennifer Hensel. For Orlando, for Las Vegas, for Charlottesville, for Parkland - again and again, more and more.

Jeremy Richman, father of Sandy Hook shooting victim Avielle Richman, stands as if he's propping up a big, smiling sun.
Jeremy Richman, father of Sandy Hook shooting victim Avielle Richman stands as if he's propping up a big, smiling sun in an August 17, 2017, picture. .Photo Credit: National Geographic

Jeremy was a neuroscientist who began researching the neurological origins of violence in the brain after his six-year-old daughter Avielle - the couple's only child at the time - was murdered during the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012.

It has been just over six years since Jeremy Richman lost his little girl in the school massacre. No one will ever truly know or understand what feelings pushed him to apparently take his own life.

What we do know is that for every year Jeremy's little girl Avielle lived (she was six years old when killed), Jeremy spent the same number of years using all of his intellectual power and internal fortitude to improve brain health and fight against what he labeled as an epidemic of violence in this country.

And yet after the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy, mass shootings continued to happen, again and again and again.

When nothing changes

Many thought Sandy Hook would be a turning point and a wake-up call for this country. Afterall, if little six-year-old kids getting shot by a madman in their classroom didn't drive everyone into action to solve this problem, what in the world would?

Apparently nothing. Still the shootings happened and still Jeremy and his wife received streams of sad-faced and broken-heart emojis from people every time another mass murder appeared on the news.

Jeremy told NPR in 2017 - on his daughter Avielle's would-be 11th birthday - that eventually the incoming emojis after another shooting tragedy started to make him feel less saddened by the news, and more angry.

Photo Credit: ABC News

"How many times does this have to happen?" Jeremy told NPR he recalled thinking after the Vegas shooting, "I feel like we're letting it happen. There's things that could be done, that aren't being done."

After the Sandy Hook shooting, Jeremy - who had a doctorate and professional experience in neuroscience and neuropsychopharmacology - left his job as a researcher for pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim to establish the Avielle Foundation with his wife Jennifer, a multidisciplinary scientist with a master's degree in pathobiology.

Jeremy told state lawmakers at a 2013 hearing that everyone must "act to ensure this (mass shooting) doesn't happen again." Instead of focusing on gun issues alongside many other Sandy Hook families, Jeremy Richman chose to study the origins of violence in an abnormal brain through research at the Foundation.

By identifying neuropathways in the brain that harbor abnormal impulses for violence, and by providing public health awareness and better mental health treatment, Jeremy believed that society would then have a better understanding of how to mitigate violence.

He worked to further the science behind what makes a healthy brain, and called on state leaders to fix a broken mental health care system and remove the stigma from psychiatric illness.

Jeremy's death speaks to how "insidious and formidable a challenge brain health can be," read a statement by the Avielle Foundation, released after Jeremy's body was found early this morning, March 25, 2019, by an electrician working on renovations at Newtown's Edmond Town Hall.

Jeremy became incredibly driven to make sure mass shootings never happened again. So, it must have been horribly discouraging to see school shootings continue to unfold by the hundreds since the Sandy Hook massacre.

A father's sorrow, a scientist's fight

Some survivors of mass shootings - as with one of two recent Parkland shooting related suicides - can be struggling with survivor's guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. The amount this may intensify when you're the parent of a very young mass shooting victim can never truly be known by anyone else.

Jeremy Richman appeared to have the profound goal of figuring out how to solve the puzzle of a sick mind in order to end mass shootings. A scientific battle to map out and conquer the part of the brain where darkness and violence lurk was how Jeremy knew how to fight.

Such an undertaking takes time and patience. I would imagine that many of those working the hardest in this country to quell mass shootings - as Jeremy Richman did - felt a sense of urgency. When continuous reports of yet another mass shooting are reported, perhaps that sense of urgency turns into a sense of hopelessness.

We all try to protect our children from the proverbial snakes in the grass that pop up in fields where they play wide-eyed and innocent. We pick up our kids and hold them high off the ground. We chase the snakes away, or yell at them, or throw rocks at them, or even kill them if we have to. These are all things we can do as parents.

But what if more snakes keep coming? What if the snakes grow bigger? What if they turn into monsters and there's just too many to chase away, or yell at, or throw rocks at? As Forrest Gump says when Jenny throws a pile of rocks at her childhood shack of a home that harbored so many of her demons: 'Sometimes there just aren't enough rocks."

Maybe Jeremy Richman felt like there just weren't enough rocks. Maybe we are all beginning to feel that way?

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