NEWTOWN, Conn. — Alissa Parker remembers clearly what turned out to be her last conversation with her oldest daughter, Emilie, 6. They were in the little girl’s bedroom, looking at the flowers painted on the walls. Emilie pointed to a pink flower with a black center and a black flower with a pink center. She was excited.
“Mom, we need to talk about what I learned. Don’t you see? It’s a connection. Connections are everywhere; everything is connected.”
There’s a smile in Alissa Parker’s voice as she tells the story, because she’s been living the power of unexpected connections in the year since Emilie died. The girl was one of 20 children and six adults killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Dec. 14.
The concept that so tickled Emilie has become a running theme in her mother's life. The year brought unimaginable grief but also personal growth and moments of joy Parker had trouble picturing she'd ever feel again. She is now connected to so many people she never would have known, so many projects that make up her child’s legacy. Even the connections in her personal beliefs and close relationships are stronger, she told the Deseret News.
Parker describes herself as more self-aware. She’s given herself permission to shut off the negative. “I understand my limits. I understand my triggers and I understand what’s good for me. I have the choice to allow myself to be around those things or not.”
That means she often avoids news or conversations that will rile her. She describes that choice as “a powerful tool in my grieving. That has allowed me the peaceful moments and time to let it go so it can be quiet and it can be sweet. I look at myself and I look at (husband) Robbie and I am amazed at how much peace that brings me.”
She has learned to slow down and breathe. She tries to be "truly present in important moments, though it’s not always possible." Mostly, she lets herself “take the time to be with my children and really see my children,” speaking of daughters Madeline, who’s now almost 6, and Samantha, close to 4. “It’s almost as if you take out the noise and you can see the color. That’s the most inspiring thing about Emilie’s life and the way it impacted me. She made me see past that noise.”
Paying attention to goodness
Alissa Parker has been learning this year about both her relationship with God and with Emilie. “I am understanding the principle that she’s away, but she’ll never be gone.” Parker grew up believing there is a life beyond this one; she is now certain of it, she says. “Emilie's a presence we feel often and she feels very much still part of our family. What a blessing to have that surety and knowledge.”
Evil is often readily visible, Parker notes. Goodness may be more subtle. One must pay attention. “What I’ve been able to see is beyond words. I have read thousands and thousands of emails and letters and people expressing to me the way they were touched by the life she led — by my daughter — that testified to me how God’s love changed their life.”
While she refuses to feed the sensationalism that often surrounds tales of Sandy Hook — “I kind of shut down when people want to talk about the bad,” she says — she loves sharing the beauty of Emilie and her goodness, which remains. “I have been in a unique position where I feel like I’ve witnessed a miracle of God’s hand in many, many people’s lives.”
The Parkers sometimes struggle with what to tell Madeline and Samantha. Madeline has some of her own memories of Emilie and they will try to hold onto those. Samantha, though, is the age Alissa was when her own grandpa died. She’s well aware that her memories of him are stitched together from pictures and from stories others told her.
Robbie and Alissa Parker made the girls a memory book with pictures of the big sister they will grow up without. “It’s a very informal book, with papers and spots for the girls to write memories. They can look at it any time they want, grab memories and write it down. Often, it’s things I’ve told them, and they retell in their own words. We try to make it very natural and not force anything either way. If there’s something they want to say that involves Emilie, we talk about her very openly, but we do not force them to talk about her if it’s not what they’re thinking about. They love talking about her. … That’s part of our healing, being open and still remembering everything about her, good and bad.”
Madeline sometimes remembers childish fights they had and they laugh about it now. Emilie is not being remembered as flawless. She was a “child of complexity and layers” and beautiful because of them, her mother says.
“I definitely want the girls to look back on their sister and remember how much she loved them. … She was their fierce protector, their comforter. She was the one with the big ideas and the one that always knew what to do and how to make it fun. That’s what I want them to remember.”
The girls were especially close, she says, because the family moved numerous times as Robbie Parker got his education and launched a career. The girls didn’t always have time to make new friends, but they were best friends to each other.
At Emilie’s funeral, Quentin L. Cook, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told the Parkers not to allow might-have-beens to torment them. That’s advice Alissa Parker says she has tried to take to heart.
“He said not to dwell on things that Emilie was not going to experience here in this life. I think that is probably the No. 1 thing you deal with in a loss. You have to grieve their future; you have to grieve the things you don’t get to experience with them. You can forgive someone for doing something — I feel I have come to terms with who did this, but at the same time, it’s not as simple as forgiving just one time.
“She missed Halloween and I feel anger building up inside of me and I feel that loss. I have to choose to forgive him again and to grieve and then I have to choose to let it go. So that advice that Elder Cook gave me was very beautiful. It gave me the power, the control to let things go because he promised me it would be okay and promised it would help me. It has been one of the greatest blessings that I’ve had — the power to let things go and be okay with it. You have to deal with and acknowledge them, but you can let them go.”
Forging new connections
When children visit Riverside Park in New London, Conn., they are drawn to Emilie’s Shady Spot, a playground with joyful features Emilie would have loved. It is one of 26 playgrounds built in three states devastated by Hurricane Sandy as part of “The Sandy Ground Project — Where Angels Play.” Each playground is dedicated to the memory of one of the children or adults who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
As she recently stood with her family at its dedication, Alissa Parker says the kindness of the community “blew me out of the water — how much this playground meant to them. I was not expecting that or the thought and emotion and effort” put into crafting the site that bears her daughter’s name.
Emilie told her stories with art, so as her family tried to figure out how to honor her, they knew that would be key. Her pictures inspired the Parkers to give other children the chance to express themselves artistically, so they formed the Emilie Parker Art Connection. All the money they raise goes to providing hands-on art experiences. They have given scholarships to arts-related classes and opportunities. They also donated canvases so adults and children can express themselves, with the resulting art to be displayed.
“I can’t tell you how many times I see things and hear her voice saying, ‘Do you see the connection?’ ” Parker says as she explains the organization’s name. “It’s been a very profound thing to me to see how many things are connected — our lives, as well as how we can connect through art.”
Because Emilie loved "The Nutcracker," the Parkers are sponsoring a performance this year by Imagine Ballet Theater, a nonprofit company in Ogden. Forty children who might not otherwise be able to see it will, because the Christmas ballet brought Emilie such joy.
“We have tried to do something sweet in all the communities that gave her so much,” Parker says.
While Art Connection is for Emilie, Parker co-founded Safe and Sound Schools for herself so other parents won’t experience a loss like her family’s. She and Michele Gay, the mom of Emilie’s friend Josephine, who was also killed that day, are the driving force with other Sandy Hook parents. They have amassed online resources on best practices to make schools safer from intruders and other dangers. They speak to community groups on school security. They work with police, superintendents, educators and others to address safety issues because no federal or state regulations tackle it.
“It’s up to each school district to improve its security and safety on their own,” says Parker. That’s tough with no guidance and little money to pay for it, so the organization focuses on practical, easy, low-cost and no-cost measures to make immediate safety improvements.
“We are throwing our money and as much time as we can into this,” she says. “The objective is to make our schools better and to give information to people.”
Parker notes that she is careful how she uses the voice she never wanted to have, that of a mother who lost a child violently. “What I realized through this is there was a powerful evil that day. But the strength and power of God’s love I’ve seen was a million times over that. … If I am using my voice, I want it to uplift and I want it to be a powerful voice. That’s why I am willing to talk when I do.”
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