Grace Audrey McDonnell was the love and light of her family’s lives.
Every year on November 4th, balloons go up on the mailbox in front of the McDonnells’ home. The family designs and bakes a colorful cake.
Then they celebrate the birthday of Grace, who was killed at her Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, on the morning of December 14, 2012 when a gunman walked in and shot her and 19 other children and six adults there.
The birthday celebration has been an annual rite of celebration of Grace’s life, which was cut short at the age of seven.
“We continue to just be so grateful that she was ours,” Grace’s mother Lynn McDonnell said. “Her birthday is a really special day, and we choose to celebrate her beautiful life.”
Grace’s favorite colors were pink and purple. They can be seen prominently featured in the kit her father, Chris McDonnell, wore when he competed in the 2013 IRONMAN World Championship just months after Grace died.
“He custom designed it to honor Grace by wearing the colors that she loved,” said Lynn.
Even the race itself was for Grace. Chris McDonnell had always promised her he would qualify for the triathlon event’s world championship, Lynn said.
“We continue to live the life (Grace) would want us to live, and we do that by doing everything that we loved as a family,” she said.
For Lynn, baking is one way she lives up to that commitment — she and Grace used to bake together frequently, she said.
“We are overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support from so many people,” her parents, Lynn and Chris McDonnell, and her brother, Jack, said in a statement. “Words cannot adequately express our sense of loss.”
Grace loved fashion; she loved music. Her favorite artist was Taylor Swift — whom she got to see perform live — and her second-favorite was Kenny Chesney, her mom said.
But “her biggest passion was art and creating,” Lynn said. “That’s when she was happiest, when she was painting or sculpting or creating something.”
McDonnell remembered how when Grace was just 4 or 5 years old, she asked a neighborhood art teacher when she could join the older kids for classes.
“The art teacher told her as soon as you can learn to cut with scissors, so we came home and Gracie started cutting everything she could find with scissors,” said McDonnell. “She had it down within an hour.”
“Within three weeks she was in the classes with the older neighborhood children,” she said.
When President Barack Obama visited Newtown after the massacre, Grace’s parents gave him one of their daughter’s paintings. They later visited the White House and got to see it hanging in Obama’s private study, Lynn said.
Even at age 7, Grace knew what she wanted out of life. She wanted to become an artist and paint on the beach while living on Martha’s Vineyard, where she and her family spent their summers.
“I believe that she would have made that dream come true,” Lynn said.
To spread Grace’s “light and love for art,” the McDonnells established the Grace McDonnell Art Fund, she said. It provides scholarships for young artists and supports art camps on Maui and Martha’s Vineyard, two of Grace’s favorite places, according to her mom.
Grace’s family still spends a lot of time on the Vineyard.
“We can see and feel (Grace) everywhere there,” said Lynn. “It’s a really beautiful feeling.”
One favorite spot is the Edgartown Lighthouse, which has a memorial for children who have died. Grace’s name is engraved on one of the cobblestones.
Every time the family visits the site, Lynn comes up with a different way to decorate Grace’s stone. It has been covered with flowers, shells, sea glass and even hot pink pumpkins, McDonnell said.
She remembered how the family decided to go to Martha’s Vineyard the summer after Grace died. Some people asked how they could ever stand to go back, she said.
“I said, ‘How can we not (go back)?’” McDonnell said. “So we went back to the place that we loved and she loved.”
“That has brought us a lot of peace, to be able to be surrounded by everything that she loved,” she said
Neighbor Orlando Domingos said the image of Grace that would remain with him is the little girl with bright blue eyes and golden hair, standing at the bus stop with her mother.
“She was very little, just coming into the world,” the neighbor said. “She was a beautiful little girl, a beautiful, beautiful little girl.”
* Adapted by the neverforget.com team from the Newstimes tribute on Grace Audrey McDonnell and The Wall Street Journal’s tribute for Sandy Hook victims