"He Has Become Our Light": Oprah Talks to the Wheelers
Francine: My faith and my community. I am grateful every single day for my family, my friends, and my church. David and I have such an incredible network of people who support us and love us. I don't think we could make it without them.
David: Strangers, too. From around the world. People we'll never meet, never know. There's a couple in Texas who sends us a card every week. Still. It's so powerful.
Oprah: David, I've heard you say, "Through our pain, we are trying to get perspective." What perspective have you found?
David: Well, suffering and grief are intensely personal experiences. One of the hardest things has been learning how our processes differ. I've needed to do some things in the journey of my grief that have caused Francine pain, and she has had to do some things in hers that I haven't felt were right. For example, I woke up one morning last March realizing that I had to visit the school. I had to see Ben's classroom and ask the detectives all the questions that were on my mind. Francine, however, was not ready to hear about it and did not want me to go. She didn't want to know that I was carrying the information that she knew she would have to learn eventually and that would hurt her very deeply. But you have to respect the other person's processes to keep a marriage going. You have to let them do their own thing. So I went, and then she went when she was ready.
Oprah: I think it's so important for people to understand that. No two people grieve the same way. If you don't respect that, a marriage can be destroyed. So when do you know to back away and when to move into your partner's space?
Francine: We have to communicate really, really well.
David: There's no room for games.
Francine: For example, we'll be arguing over little things—like, say, David's forgetting to tell me about Nate's Cub Scouts meeting—and as we sense it escalating, we'll recognize that what we're really upset about is the fact that Ben is not here. So we'll say to each other, "Let's flip the switch!" Not going down that rabbit hole.
Oprah: Not that rabbit hole. David, I know you call yourself a "happy atheist," so I won't ask you this question, but Francine, did you ever find yourself angry with God for allowing this to happen?
Francine: Early on my pastor said to me, "You know, it isn't God who did this." And so I thought about it, and I can honestly say I've never been angry with God. I've been angry at evil. I'm angry that we have the free will that makes something like this possible. But angry with God? No.
Oprah: How do you each think you've changed from this experience?
Francine: I am more courageous, and I value my truth to a much greater extent than before. For many years, I did things through filters. You know, maybe I shouldn't say that or maybe I won't do that or maybe I'll just be safe here. Since the tragedy, I feel released from all of that. The cost is too great. I have to say what's in my heart.
David: This has made me look at the bigger life questions. I was not raised in a particular religious tradition, so I've started reading the books of great thinkers. Like Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.
Oprah: That's a hard read. Frankl was writing about his experience surviving Nazi concentration camps.
David: Yes, but so much of what he writes resonates with me. He concluded that our purpose as human beings is to find the best possible answer to the questions and problems that life presents us every day.
Oprah: And to do that with love.
David: Right. Because man's salvation—and he means that not only in the religious sense, but actual survival—is found in and through love. So that's how this has changed me; I'm much more open to these thoughts now.
Francine: Somebody said to us at one point, you can't ever fill that hole in your heart, but what you can do is cover your heart with love to protect that sacred hole.
David: So our job now is to make our hearts bigger than the loss. And there is only one way to do that: We have to make our decisions out of love.
Francine: When we make decisions out of fear, that's when we have problems.
Oprah: Have you gone through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's stages of grief [denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance]?
Francine: I feel like we go back and forth through those.
David: When it's the violent loss of a 6-year-old, you bounce all over the place. It is literally minute to minute at the beginning, then hour by hour, and then hopefully day by day. The stretches of time between the enormous knee-buckling waves of grief that take us down get longer, but the waves still come.
Oprah: What does a bad day look like?
David: Bad days are when I just can't get to the place I need to be in order to feel open, and instead cynicism, frustration, and the desire for revenge take over.
Francine: For me, it's when I miss feeling Benny's body. He was such a lovable little boy. Always letting me hug him and kiss him. Those days, I'll just cry all day long. But I cry every day. And every day I get angry that this could happen, and every day I think, "Did I dream this? Am I in a dream?"
Oprah: What do you turn to or what tools do you use to help you work through a bad day?
Francine: I go for a run. I call my friends. I make myself write down everything I am grateful for in that moment. I'll try singing. I'll sit and listen to Nate. I also use prayer.
David: I'm more internal. I will occasionally call a friend, but I have found great comfort in Eckhart Tolle's concept of the observer.
Oprah: Meaning you try to observe your thoughts, in the moment, and not let them take over.
David: Yes. It doesn't always help when the waves of emotion are overwhelming, but it opens the door to a place where I can find stable ground.
Francine: We've also come to lean on four or five couples who also lost a child in the tragedy. We didn't know most of them before, but now we're very close; they lean on us, too.
David: They're like family. We want nothing more than to be there for them.
Oprah: Well, I have to tell you that it's been an honor to have you both here. Hearing you and seeing you operate the way you do, with love, has certainly made me stop and think, "Am I activating that way of being for myself? Am I being as loving as I could possibly be?" I am sure others will feel some of that, too. But before we end, tell me: Where do you think Ben is?
Francine: He's in the sky. He's in my heart. He's with Nate. He's talking to friends. He's in my dreams. He's everywhere.
David: He is a part of us, and he is everywhere.
Oprah: Thank you both for your example. You are what spirituality is.
Sandy Hook: A Place for Change
Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit founded by members of the Newtown community, brings together Americans determined to prevent gun violence against children. To learn more, go to SandyHookPromise.org. Ben's Lighthouse, named in honor of Ben Wheeler, offers programs for the long-term well-being of children and youth in the Newtown area; visit BensLighthouseFund.org.
More from the Wheelers