RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This week on Thursday marks five years since the mass shooting that killed 20 children and six educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Among those murdered was 6-year-old Avielle Richman. NPR's Tovia Smith recently spent some time with her family.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: As painful as December 14 can be for Jeremy Richman and Jennifer Hensel, even worse sometimes is the ruthless roller coaster ride leading up to it.
JENNIFER HENSEL: You ready?
SMITH: Jennifer rocks their 1-year-old boy Owen, whose birthday's in November. Their 3-year-old daughter Imogen's is a month earlier. And right in between is the day they should be celebrating Avielle's birthday.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I don't feel like singing.
HENSEL: Well, then we're not - then we're not singing.
JEREMY RICHMAN: We don't know how to - there's no way to appropriately recognize your lost child's birthday.
SMITH: This year, Jeremy and Jennifer gather with friends, including David and Francine Wheeler, whose son, Ben, was also killed.
HENSEL: We'll sing happy 11th birthday, ready?
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Happy 11th birthday, Avielle.
SMITH: Eleven candles stand in 11 cupcakes; six lit, five not.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Good job.
SMITH: Imogen and the Wheeler's 3-year-old Matty dig in, frosting first, until Imogen suddenly stops.
IMOGEN: Where's the picture of Avielle?
HENSEL: Do you want me to get it?
HENSEL: Long, curly hair in this picture. She's a curly girly just like you.
IMOGEN: Matty, look. Me show it to you.
MATTY: Avielle died?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Want to show Matty?
SMITH: These are what they call the tricky conversations.
RICHMAN: You know, you have an older sister, but she's not with us anymore, and that she was hurt, that she was killed, she was killed in school. You know, and that's a - that's a tough one to explain.
SMITH: Especially as it all feels so relentless.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history has just happened.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Terrifying shooting on the Las Vegas Strip...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Multiple casualties.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ...A gunman opening fire at the country music festival...
RICHMAN: Man, this world is just - how many times is that going to happen?
SMITH: In his car hours after the Vegas shooting, Jeremy says he first knew something was wrong when friends started texting hugs and hearts, just like after Orlando and Charleston and so many others.
RICHMAN: At first, Jen and I would just bawl. Like, it would just hit us so hard. But to be honest, now I get angry.
SMITH: They were among the many who thought the brutal murder of 20 children would finally be a turning point for the nation.
RICHMAN: I feel like we're letting it happen. There's things that could be done that aren't being done.
SMITH: For starters, Jeremey says gun control. And as a neuroscientist, he believes the way to stop abnormal behavior is to better understand abnormalities in the brain. He and Jennifer, whose also a scientist, started the Avielle Foundation to fund research and promote what they call brain health.
RICHMAN: Thank you guys so much for hosting me. Unfortunately, following very tragic circumstances...
SMITH: As news from Vegas was still breaking, Jeremy was addressing a group of nurses, making his case that just like the 20-year-old who killed his daughter, most mass shooters have an illness of the brain.
RICHMAN: It's just another organ that can be healthy or unhealthy. Just like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, we need to recognize that it's chemistry and structure and not character flaws.
SMITH: Jeremy's the first to concede the science isn't there yet but neither is his dream just pie in the sky fantasy.
RICHMAN: We need to be able to offer diagnoses. Your child has too much dopamine in his right singular cortex, which is a fancy pants way of saying this totally explains his impulse control problems.
Are you ready? Here we go.
SMITH: Smiling in her car seat on the way to school, Imogen looks exactly like Avielle at this age, and acts like her, too.
IMOGEN: His car's named hob gob.
RICHMAN: Yup, my car's named hob gob.
SMITH: The memories can make for a minefield of emotion; every minute, a mix of joy and sadness.
IMOGEN: Here is school.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Good morning, beautiful (laughter).
SMITH: Imogen's school is about as far across town as you could get from the school where Avielle was killed.
RICHMAN: Ok. Love you, baby.
IMOGEN: I love you, bye.
RICHMAN: It's really hard to drop her off at a school. That thought is always in your head. Like, five years out and it's still always there.
SMITH: Heading next to the Avielle Foundation, Jeremy acknowledges his work is not only a means to an end but also an end itself.
RICHMAN: You have a reason to get out of bed. And you have a reason to - to push and change.
This is ours.
SMITH: In his office, inside an abandoned psychiatric hospital, Jeremy presses for what he calls the huge paradigm shift to view violence as a disease, though he's quick to add to explain violence is not to excuse it.
RICHMAN: Just like you're responsible for your cardiovascular health, if you're fighting against hypertension or diabetes, it's not easy, but it doesn't mean that it's out of your control, that you're just, you know, good or evil. The same goes for this organ, the brain.
SMITH: So far, he's helped fund three studies, including one of identical twins, suggesting some neurological differences that may be associated with aggressive behavior.
NICK HOFFMAN: I mean, like, goosebumps and my hair is standing up, you know...
SMITH: The foundation's fundraiser Nick Hoffman says donations, including bags of change from lemonade stands, now total more than a million dollars for research and education, like a new brain health first-aid course.
HOFFMAN: You know, the vision that Jer and Jen had, you know, days after the loss of Avi, they've brought it to life. It's true. You know, we're doing it. And we can do more.
IMOGEN: I like that cupcake.
SMITH: Here you go.
SMITH: Back home on the day Avielle would have turned 11, Jeremy and Jennifer cherish every photo of her they've got.
HENSEL: You can see her arms around Ben. And she had just turned 6. And that...
RICHMAN: We're just getting farther out from Avielle. And it's heart-wrenching when you can't remember something. Jen and I have both, at different times, expressed this panic of I can't hear her voice in my head. And it hurts that you can't. And you know that that's just going to get more and more profound with time.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey, I didn't get my hug and my kiss.
HENSEL: Group hug.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hey, I want a group hug.
HENSEL: Oh, group hug.
SMITH: As their friends leave, they start putting away the cupcakes, still savoring Avielle's sweet spirit.
RICHMAN: I mean, I think she's everywhere. She's in the air we breathe. She's in my mind always. And she's in my heart. She's in our children and our spirits. And she's everywhere but nowhere that I can squeeze and hold.
SMITH: Instead, Jeremy and Jennifer cleave to their memories of Avielle and hope to make her legacy a better understanding of the sick behavior that took her life. Tovia Smith, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAIGO HANADA'S "SOLITUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.