Michele Lopez of Key West taught first grade for 33 years at Gerald Adams Elementary School before retiring in her hometown.
So she felt a need to attend Sunday afternoon's interfaith prayer vigil, organized five days ago by the owners of the Southern Keys Cemetery in Big Coppitt.
"I just can't get myself together," said Lopez, following the hourlong service held on a corner of lawn beneath blue skies lightly spackled with clouds. "I just can feel those kids depending on their teachers. Sometimes they make a mistake and call you Mom."
Led by the Rev. Darryl Robinson, president of the Interfaith Ministerial Alliance of Key West and Vicinity, the simple service tackled subjects such as violence, death, grief and anger with prayers, songs and pleas for healing.
Barely a week has passed since 20-year-old Adam Lanza burst into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., armed with two handguns and a Bushmaster .223 AR-15 semiautomatic rifle that he fired into 20 first-graders and six adults.
As first responders arrived, Lanza killed himself. Earlier that morning he shot his mother, Nancy Lanza, 52, four times in the head, police said.
Sunday's programs listed the names and ages of the slain children, all ages 6 and 7, and their teachers and administrators. Nancy Lanza's name appeared at the end, but her son's name was left off.
"It's so unfortunate that we again have to gather because of the brutal, senseless taking of life," said the Rev. Steve Torrence, the Key West Police Department chaplain and pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church. "It seems like we've been doing this way too often."
The cemetery's owners, Stanley Sabuk and Suzanne Teicher, said they decided to hold the service as a way to deal with the grief they heard locals speak of after the massacre.
As Lower Keys religious leaders took turns at the podium inside the quiet cemetery that rests by the ocean, 7-year-old Meredith Delostrinos, a second-grader at Poinciana Elementary, sat in the front row of folding chairs.
Dressed in a dark-pink patterned dress with a matching headband, Meredith's feet couldn't quite reach the ground.
Meredith sang with some school chums, including her best friend, Savannah Oropeza, 7, Paul Crespo, 9, and his brother David Crespo, 8, and 8-year-old Marina Goins, whose mother, Daliana Goins, is a guidance counselor at Poinciana Elementary.
The children lingered with their parents after the service, the boys eating apples and Meredith and Savannah inseparable, their arms around each other's small shoulders.
"She's my age, she's just short," Savannah said when the girls were asked their ages.
About 50 people attended Sunday's service, and guests who spoke represented various faiths.
"We reach out to the community in Newtown, Conn., because they are our brothers and sisters," said Robinson. "We reach out in love and compassion. We also are here today because we need healing. It has riveted the nation and brought tears of sadness."
The Rev. Randy Becker, of One Island Family, The Southernmost Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Key West, said, "No life stands individually. The lives lost in Newton are lives lost to each of us."
Simply asking the question of whether life still has value "answers itself," said Becker. "We are here together."
Becker invited everyone to attend a public forum about children and violence at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 23 held at Unitarian Universalist, 801 Georgia St., at Petronia Street.
The date, he said, is exactly 40 days and nights after the Newtown massacre.
Each speaker delivered a personal message of hope.
The Rev. Gwendolyn Magby, of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Key West, prayed not to let the massacre separate Christians from God.
"Your holy word teaches us that we face death all day long," Magby prayed. "You even remind us in your holy scriptures that we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."
Carl Schutze of the Baha'i Faith in Key West said we shouldn't fear death, depicting the body as a cage and the soul as a bird.
Rabbi Shimon Dudai, of Congregation B'nai Zion in Key West, offered a prayer in Hebrew for the souls of the dead. He said it was difficult enough to find words for adults who die after having raised children and lived full lives.
When the death toll includes 20 children killed in cold blood, Dudai said, it makes many question the value of life. He suggested a return to simple acts of kindness and not getting caught up in "tiny little problems."
Dudai said, "We have to stop all the highfalutin' terms and go back to basics. If we don't, we will fail our ministry and fail the innocents who died in vain."