The last morning Alissa Parker had with her daughter, Emilie, 6, they admired the flowers painted on the little girl's bedroom wall. Emilie pointed joyously to the pink flowers with black centers and black flowers with pink centers. She'd figured out that things connected in myriad ways, and it excited her.
A few hours later, on Dec. 14, 2012, a lone gunman killed six adults and 20 children — including Emilie — at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Parker has been pondering and noticing how connections build and strengthen ever since: Connections between parents who lost their children that day, connections that prompted strangers to write thousands of letters of comfort to families reeling with loss, connections that have created programs and playgrounds in honor of those who died. She even formed a connection with the gunman's father.
In the last 4½ years, Parker has written TheParkerFive blog to process the emotional roller coaster she's ridden with her husband Robbie and their daughters Madeline, 9, and Samantha, nearly 8. She co-founded Safeandsoundschools.org with Michele Gay, the mom of Emilie's friend Josephine, who was also killed. They help communities improve safety at local schools. A family charity, The Emilie Parker Art Connection, funds hands-on art experiences, since Emilie loved arts and crafts.
Alissa Parker wrote a book about faith in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings.
Parker has also written a book, "An Unseen Angel," released this month by Shadow Mountain Publishing. In it, she recounts experiences that prove to her that God can use even the worst actions of humankind to set free the very best of humanity.
In an interview about her new book, the Deseret News asked Parker about forgiveness and healing and how to move forward after tragedy. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: Why did you write the book?
Alissa Parker: In the beginning, I wrote it mostly because I wanted to preserve what had happened for our daughters, as a reference for our experiences. They were so young when Emilie died and I wanted to be able to have that story for them when they had questions and they wanted to know how we got through it. Then, as I began writing it, I just felt like people had such a limited view of what had happened at Sandy Hook. They really only knew about that dark day. And I wanted to show them that there was so much goodness and beauty that surrounded our family’s experience. I wanted to broaden their view about that type of day and see that there was some light that came out of it.
DN: How do you keep Emilie’s memory alive for Madeline and Samantha?
AP: I think we’ve done it in a very organic way. We’ve really focused on making sure that we talk about her when it’s relevant and that when memories pop into our head we share it with each other, good or bad. There are funny fights that the girls remember or “Oh yeah. She had really stinky socks.” Just anything that comes into our minds, we try to acknowledge it and talk about it. It’s made it very normal for us to have her still a part of our family’s day-to-day references. And that has really helped to keep her spirit alive. We talked about this book with the girls and they’ve read these stories. I’ve been amazed how many news stories they’ve remembered about her because their memories have been very limited. But this has really been kind of fun to see what they remember about her.
Alissa Parker, left, and her husband, Robbie Parker, center, carry their daughters following funeral services for their 6-year old daughter, Connecticut elementary shooting victim, Emilie Parker, Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Ogden, Utah.
DN: Has life settled into a rhythm and what is it?
AP: I still do a lot of school advocacy work with Safe and Sound. We continue to educate people and create new programs. We have different resources available online. We also go and do a lot of speaking at communities about how to get started making a school safer.
But things have definitely settled. We’ve moved to the Northwest, bought some property out there, and it’s pretty low-key, which is exactly what we wanted. We’ve been doing work when we can. But we’ve worked really hard on keeping our family a central focus of all that. Life is normalizing, and we were all ready for that. … Being removed from (Newtown) I think was a benefit for us as far as creating a normal environment for the girls, and not having that follow them to the degree that it probably would have if we would have stayed. The girls don’t talk about it much … but they’re still pretty young. They’re treated very normally, and I appreciate that. They’re just normal kids.
DN: What happened to you was unthinkable, but do you have any advice for parents who lose children to disease and accidents?
AP: The No. 1 thing I would say is to learn to have patience with yourself. It takes a lot of time. For me, that was very foreign, to not be able to function the way I normally did, to not be the same mom I was before, to not have the energy that I did. And that was a steep learning curve for me to accept and change my expectations with what I was capable of doing and to learn to be OK with that.
The process of healing and dealing with the pain in your heart just takes time. Sometimes it takes a lifetime, but it does get easier.
DN: How did your faith help with this?
AP: When she died, I remember I turned to Robbie and said, “Is this all true? Are all the things that we believe true?” It wasn’t even so much that I was doubting it, it was more the fact that I needed to know. It wasn’t enough to have the faith I had had before. I needed to know. Even though in that moment I couldn’t have that definitely answered for me, I had faith in the process. And so I went to Heavenly Father with that faith and that experience and that relationship from my life and was able to apply it until I was able to gain the knowledge that I needed to know where she was and to know it was all true, that He was always there. I had an amazing father, Douglas Cottle, who taught me what that relationship looks like and I was able to model that with the relationship with my Heavenly Father.
Alissa Parker folds clothes that belonged to her daughter Emilie. Parker says the year since losing Emilie in the Newtown school shootings has brought unimaginable grief but also personal growth and moments of joy.
DN: Your book is also about goodness. Can you talk about a couple of things that really stood out to you?
AP: When this happened and I felt really consumed with the power of one person’s evil choice, it was very difficult for me to see that light. I remember not wanting to see it in the beginning because I just felt so consumed and hopeless. And one of the things that really stood out to me, and I wrote about this in the book, is when I came to Utah for the funeral, and I saw these thousands and thousands of ribbons that were tied in honor of Emilie — the pink ribbons that were all over. I looked at every single one of them and I pictured the hands that tied it as we drove down the road to our family’s home. I thought about God’s love and how powerful and widespread it truly is. And then I thought about all the thousands of letters that people sent and I thought about all the acts of kindness that I was hearing about. All of those things showed me that I was the witness to a miracle, that I was given an opportunity to see how big God’s love is.
I don’t think people often get the opportunity to see God's work, because his work is quiet. That was a beautiful thing to be able to not just hear about it but to be part of his work — to see how magnificent it truly is.
DN: Has that changed how you approach other people’s sorrows?
AP: Yeah. I am a lot more empathetic and I’ve walked away realizing that I have been given a gift of being able to recognize other people’s sorrow. And though I can’t really completely understand them, I can empathize with them on a level I never did before and that has been a very valuable tool for not just me as a person, but for me as a mom, so that I can teach my kids to be better people, to be more thoughtful and to see things from a different perspective.
The Parker family received hundreds of letters in the days and months after the Newtown tragedy.
DN: You wrestled with forgiving. Can you share that?
AP: Forgiveness was much more of a process than a moment in my experience; that was not something I had anticipated prior to (Emilie's death). I had never had to forgive on such a level before.
I remember all the moments where I was challenged to look at (the gunman Adam Lanza) differently and let my guard down and soften my heart and immediately my heart would be filled with peace. And I remember wanting to resist that peace and not wanting to feel comfortable with it … that I knew the pain that she had suffered in those final moments and I wanted to hold onto it. I felt like if I let that go, it was a disservice to what she had to go through and that, as her mom, I was supposed to feel that pain.
I wanted to hate him. I wanted to be angry. That was a really tough choice to finally learn to accept that was what I needed in my life — to let it go and to heal. It was strange how hard that was, to want something good. It sounds very foreign to someone else, but in the moment, that was a really hard choice to make.
Some days I am better at it than others. Some days I hold onto it a little bit, but it does get easier.
DN: What do you hope people remember about Emilie?
AP: I hope they remember her compassion and her love for the people around her. This experience has taught me that she continues to love those around her. That was something that was a talent of hers, a gift that she even at such a young age exemplified in our family. If they could remember anything about her story, what she taught our family, it would be to love those around you and have compassion for them.