Most parents would crumble upon hearing news that their child was murdered, and would struggle to find meaning in their remaining days. Scarlett Lewis did crumble and struggle — but her rise from darkness into light has been nothing short of remarkable.
Lewis, a former Darien resident, is on a mission. Her goal is to empower children across the globe to choose love instead of hate, compassion instead of spite, forgiveness instead of vengeance, acceptance instead of judgment. And her new book, “Nurturing Healing Love,” appears to be doing just that.
“For people going through any sort of hard time — I want to provide perspective for them, so that they can choose to forgive,” Lewis told The Darien Times. “I want to promote the idea that there is meaning behind all suffering. It’s in the meaning that you find your freedom.”
Her book was published just two months before the one year anniversary of the death of her 6-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, who was killed by Adam Lanza along with 19 other children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in one of this country’s most horrific school shootings.
Co-written with Natasha Stoynoff, an author who has written several books including some with psychic John Edward, Lewis’s book takes readers through that tragic day and the ensuing months that followed her family’s recovery.
“I fell in love with Jesse while writing,” Stoynoff told The Times, “and Scarlett and [her son] JT, too. The entire family.”
While it covers the day of Jesse’s death, much of the book is devoted to Lewis’s personal journey. As Stoynoff went through Lewis’s journal and grew closer to the family through interviews, her obligations deepened.
“When I interviewed Scarlett in her living room and she told me of her very personal and private pain — when we went to the grave site together and talked to Jesse — I felt a heightened sense of responsibility, that I had to take very good care of her,” Stoynoff said. “That her heart was in my hands.”
There is a moment in the book where Scarlett is at Jesse’s funeral, and she grabs his hands to bring them warmth. It was a difficult scene for the publishers, Hay House, to allow, as they feared it might be too much for the reader, Stoynoff said. But they worked together to make sure it was included.
“That was such an achingly true moment between mother and child that any parent would relate to,” Stoynoff said. “Wanting to hold his hands so long until you warm them, bring him back, make him warm again as he should be.”
The book’s message is one of hope. Despite book sales not being quite as high as anticipated (100% of the proceeds go to the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation, including the publisher’s profits), reviews have been “amazing,” Lewis said. Of the 53 Amazon.com reviews posted by readers as of early January, 49 gave the book top honors at five stars, and another two gave it four stars. Lewis guessed that book sales might be slow because people are “afraid of being too sad.”
“The message is a positive one,” she said. “The world is a better place today than it was on 12-14,” the date of the shooting.
Stories and anecdotes have poured in from around the world as people continue to be touched by Lewis’s resilience and her foundation’s work. People have reported an array of spiritual experiences tied to Jesse and his life, from unexplained footprints in the snow to a child speaking with Jesse’s spirit about aspects of Jesse’s life that the child couldn’t have known about.
Even her collaboration with author Stoynoff had a serendipitous genesis. Stoynoff had been good friends with author Norris Mailer, widow of author Norman Mailer. Norris and Stoynoff both had an affection for “Gone with the Wind,” and before Norris died, the pair agreed that if Norris ever reached out to Stoynoff in the afterlife, she would use the name Scarlett (the main female character the book and film).
Stoynoff, initially hesitant to take the job working with Lewis as she was busy with other projects, changed her tune when she learned her first name was Scarlett. Connections between the two continued as the collaboration grew.
“Reading her journals, I truly felt like I was in her mind, her heart, feeling every moment she went through,” Stoynoff said.
Lewis’s resilience has inspired meetings with the Dalai Lama, President Barack Obama, and numerous talk show hosts, journalists and authors. Self-help guru Tony Robbins reached out to her and other relatives of shooting victims to learn how they cope. Lewis’s son, JT, told Robbins how he’s raised money for a Rwandan woman to attend college so she can care for her nine brothers and sisters. Robbins was so impressed, Lewis said he gave JT $10,000 for his foundation and wants to be his mentor. This money will pay for three more years of college.
Despite her inspirational strength, Lewis still wakes each day without young Jesse’s smile to greet her. On the anniversary of his death, Lewis and 50 friends and relatives visited Jesse’s grave, which is just down the street from the Lewis family farm, to celebrate “a short but incredibly well-lived life.”
Survivors of the massacre recall Jesse telling his classmates to run once the shooter found his first grade room. They have said they owe their lives to Jesse, who showed a courage that most adults never display. Whether he stayed behind because he was injured or because he chose to is unclear, Lewis said, but heroism at such a young age is nothing short of miraculous.
“I visit his grave all the time,” she said. “I try to make time for me and for him. That’s when I allow myself to be sad. And it’s incredibly sad. I miss him so much.”
For Lewis, Jesse’s death was not the fault of a deranged murderer. It was society’s fault for allowing Adam Lanza to slip through the cracks.
“We as a society need to take responsibility and do something,” she said. “If each person took responsibility, and did their part for compassion in the world,” perhaps school shootings will soon be a thing of the past.
Remembering the life Jesse lived gives her strength. The day he died, he wrote, thinking of the words phonetically, “Nururting Helin Love,” on the family chalkboard, which gave rise to the book’s title and Lewis’s mission. Jesse would ask his mother to stop and pray for a terminally ill family friend whenever he felt the urge, Lewis said. People remember his sense of humor, his smile, and the sparkle in his eyes.
That sparkle is what Lewis has used as fuel for her campaign to help people to choose love. President Obama invited her to a mental health conference with 200 of the top field professionals. Lewis’s foundation was the only preventative mental health organization there, she said.
“What I’m proposing, is to put gratitude and compassion into schools,” she said. “This will cultivate a minimum level of optimism that results in resiliency that will help them get trough the bumps in life — sort of like the resiliency that I have to work my way through my own tragedy. I do this by doing exactly what I talk about — gratefulness, compassion and service to others.”
She recommends people keep a daily log of things they are grateful for. Whenever she feels she’s getting into a rut, she notes three things she’s thankful for, and that translates into positive energy and a better mood, she said. Lewis noted the importance of also participating in one act of compassion each day.
“If every family, over dinner, talked about an act of compassion they did that day, that would change the world,” she said.
What’s next for Lewis and the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation? This summer, she’s planning on taking a “love bus” tour across the country to continue taking her message of love and compassion to the masses. She’d like to one day meet Pope Francis, and she invites the Catholic Church to investigate the numerous divine experiences that have surrounded her life since Jesse’s death.
The Darien Community Association is hosting Lewis for a book signing on Tuesday, Jan. 21. The cost is $5 for members and $10 for the public. All proceeds go to Lewis’s foundation. Barrett Bookstore will have her book for sale at the event, which begins at 11 a.m. at the DCA building at 274 Middlesex Rd. For more information, call 203-655-9050 or email [email protected]
“Compassion is two parts,” Lewis said. “One is feeling another’s pain. The second is actually doing something to ease each other’s pain…. It’s the choose love movement. I love this.”