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Survivor of Cheshire crime offers advice

Updated 10:22 pm, Thursday, December 20, 2012
  • Dr. William Petit, who survived a 2007 Cheshire home invasion that took the lives of his wife and two daughters, poses for a photograph at his home in Burlington, Conn. Photo: Autumn Driscoll / Connecticut Post
    Dr. William Petit, who survived a 2007 Cheshire home invasion that took the lives of his wife and two daughters, poses for a photograph at his home in Burlington, Conn. Photo: Autumn Driscoll

 

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Dr. William Petit Jr. has been in the crucible of suffering left in the wake of violence.

The lone survivor of the deadly 2007 Cheshire home invasion, a crime so heinous it garnered international headlines and framed the debate over the future of capital punishment in Connecticut, Petit qualifies as more than an empathetic figure in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

Petit's wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, were left to die in their burning home after being sexually assaulted and doused with gasoline by their captors, who are on death row.

In an interview with Hearst Connecticut Newspapers, his first since the school shootings last Friday, Petit, 56, commiserated with victims' families and their anguish.

"I would tell them if I was sitting in front of them that the hurt and the hole in your heart never goes away and you adjust to it," Petit said by telephone.

Petit agreed to share his story with the hope it might help some the families of the 20 children and six adults killed at the school, saying he is open to talking to them.

"You think the same thing hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands and thousands, of times," Petit said. "It's there all the time."

Petit, who remarried four months ago and now lives near Hartford in Burlington, was returning from a visit with his parents Friday when his sister broke the news about the school shooting by phone.

"It was just an awful, sinking feeling," Petit said. "I almost couldn't make it home. I was crying in the car and broke down."

A well-known endocrinologist at the time of the home invasion, Petit was beaten with a baseball bat and tied up in his basement by Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, who tracked Petit's wife and youngest daughter from the parking lot of a local supermarket.

Petit said it's natural to question one's faith after such a traumatic experience.

"The first thing is you're angry with God," Petit said. "It's OK to be angry with God."

Since his world was turned upside-down, Petit said he has tried to focus on the memories of his wife and daughters.

"I think you feel best when you're thinking positive thoughts about your loved ones and about the good times," Petit said.

He established the Petit Family to promote science education for young women and help victims of violence and people with chronic illnesses such a multiple sclerosis, which his wife had. Last year, petitfamilyfoundation.org disbursed $260,000 in grants, with $100,000 going to build a health lodge at the Channel 3 Kids Camp in Andover, Petit said.

Petit avoids allowing himself to become consumed by anger.

"That's nothing that you invite because it usually takes you to a dark place," he said.

He also emphasized he doesn't have all the answers for the victims' families about grieving.

"I would tell them you have to do it in your own time," Petit said.

Petit strongly recommends the families seek professional counseling, saying family and friends are not an adequate substitute.

"It's really not a badge of honor to try to tough things out," he said. "Your friends need to be your friends. Your spouse needs to be your spouse."

Petit also offered advice for well-meaning friends of the victims' families.

"Just being with people is important," he said. "I think it's important to know that you don't have the answer. The little hug. The little bit of food. When people would share memories or a photo or an anecdote."

Having a year-round support network is critical, according to Petit, who said holidays such as Christmas and birthdays are particularly difficult times.

Petit acknowledged the outpouring of support can also be overwhelming.

"From my perspective, most of the people in Newtown need time and space," he said.

neil.vigdor@scni.com; 203-625-4436; http://twitter.com/gettinviggy