Alissa and Robbie Parker have learned a lot in the decade since their daughter Emilie, just 6 years old, was killed by a shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, along with 19 other children and six adults.
They’ve learned that you can live through unspeakable loss and come out strong, though you never forget or stop missing the one who was taken.
That laughter comes back and grief, while never far away, is often replaced with fond, fun memories that bring joy.
That faith evolves and matures as surely as grief changes.
Wednesday, Dec. 14, marks the 10th anniversary of the shooting at the elementary school. And in a year marked by not just a milestone anniversary of the deaths of Emilie and many of her small classmates, but also by a lawsuit the Parkers won against a talk show host who claimed the killings were a hoax, Robbie Parker said he finds himself wanting to talk less about how traumatizing and hurtful events have been, and more about his family’s growth and how normal in many ways life now is once more.
“You can’t look at my wife and my girls — at our family — and not agree that we’re very, very blessed and we have a lot to be grateful for,” he told the Deseret News this week.
“We have learned how to be able to hold two things. We can enjoy the things that make us happy. And we can also carry with us the pain of losing somebody and the sorrow associated with that. They can exist in the same place at the same time. And that’s no longer as scary as it used to be,” he said.
The morning that Emilie died, Alissa and Emilie had been admiring the black and pink flowers painted on the wall of the little girl’s bedroom. Emilie was just beginning to understand the concept of connections and was excitedly pointing out that some of the flowers had black centers and pink petals, while others had pink centers and black petals. She is frozen in that stage of development, Alissa’s memory of the moment both fond and fraught.
Her little sisters Madeline, now 14, and Samantha, 13, have aged well beyond Emilie. Sometimes Alissa wonders what her firstborn would be doing — what she’d be like in what would have been her 16th year.
The Parkers have spent a decade honoring Emilie’s memory, but also keeping life — and childhood — as normal as possible for their other girls. And they’ve been very busy, too. Alissa wrote a book, “An Unseen Angel: A Mother’s Story of Faith, Hope and Healing After Sandy Hook.” She co-founded Safe and Sound Schools with Michele Gay, whose daughter Josephine was also killed at Sandy Hook. She and Robbie started The Emilie Parker Art Connection to bring art — which Emilie loved — to other kids across the country.
They are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and faith has been an anchor and a salve. Friends have also helped immensely, while strangers have been both incredibly kind and cruel. And through it all, the Parkers agree, they’ve learned how to not only manage the aftermath of the most profound kind of loss, but to be present for others who face challenges.
But some moments, including a succession of Dec. 14s, are private.
While the world ponders the anniversary, the four of them will spend the day together, insulated from news reports and reporters. “Usually, when Dec. 14 comes on, we just kind of stick to ourselves,” Robbie said. “We tend to try and get out of town for a break and nobody can really get hold of us. This year, we have the same kind of plans and we’ll go out of town for a little overnight thing.”
After the shooting, they moved to the Pacific Northwest, near where Robbie went to school. The first time they lived there, before Newtown, Emilie and Madeline were little. Samantha was born there. “So there are a lot of places we can go that remind us of Em. That’s what we like to do,” he said.
In 2020, Alissa retired from Safe and Sound Schools, though she said she remains the nonprofit’s biggest cheerleader. She had told the story of Emilie’s death so many times that she worried she was becoming numb to the telling in a way that didn’t feel right. “I was trying to educate people on school safety and I told that story for a purpose. I felt like it had served that purpose. So I decided to step back and kind of focus on making it real and tender again, if that makes sense.”
It worked. Last year’s anniversary was an incredibly emotional one, she said, “It came back in quite an aggressive flood of emotions. And this year, I feel like that has leveled a little bit,” she said. “It’s not overwhelming, but it’s real.”
Meanwhile, Robbie has been immersed in the lawsuit against conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of Infowars. Jones had rallied his audience around the lie that Sandy Hook wasn’t real — that Robbie Parker and others were actors hired to help the government take away guns. During the trial, Jones admitted he knew that wasn’t true, that the killings were real. From the lawsuit, which included several families, Jones was ordered to pay nearly $1 billion. The Parkers, who had been harassed by Jones and his followers for years in unspeakably cruel ways, were awarded the largest amount.
Robbie Parker said the lawsuit was about reclaiming his daughter’s — his family’s — story and the truth of Emilie’s death. The lies had tarnished Emilie’s memory, he said, noting that the jury’s verdict sends a very clear message to others and returns that part of his life and Emilie’s story to the Parkers, where it belongs.
While Alissa Parker describes faith as an “incredible, integral part of our healing,” she keeps finding “layers that need work” and the lawsuit was part of that. Jones, she said, not only discredited Robbie, “but got millions of followers to say awful things about our daughter. And the pain of that, that was a layer. So all of these things were a step of reclaiming and processing our grief.”
Throughout, therapy has helped her cope, Alissa said candidly.
Not long ago, she said she realized she needed more than talk therapy, though. So she began to work with a trauma specialist.
Ten years to reflect on Sandy Hook and miss Emilie has changed them, taught them and even helped them in some ways, Robbie said. “It’s taught us to be more understanding and see the world differently and be more compassionate and loving.” He said he’s learned to process his own emotions in a healthy way and deal with unhealthy emotions in a better way.
They’ve had good friends who lost children and Alissa has seen their progress in the same way they’ve seen hers. She says healing is so gradual as to be nearly indiscernible day to day, but life does improve. She’s watched others pass through what she has, pain that is all-consuming for just years and years and feeling very hopeless and overwhelmed. “But you do get stronger and you do see improvements — so small and gradual, but they add up.”
Her grief still sometimes overwhelms her, “but the pendulum has definitely swung in the other direction,” she said, to those fun, silly memories and laughter and fond stories in which Emilie laughs and is kind and gives hugs and is her little sisters’ endless playmate and best friend.
Robbie works in a newborn intensive care unit and believes his own grief has prepared him to help other families going through their very hard things. How he is with families who are devastated or scared or otherwise in pain after Emilie’s death is very different than how he was before Emilie’s death, he asserts.
Alissa thinks we all comfort people in the way that works for each of us when we need comfort. What helped her most were the encounters where people cared enough to just listen, to sit with her grief and not try to solve it — undoable — or direct its path. Many people won’t talk about loss, because it’s uncomfortable for them. She has felt all the emotions that go with loss and knows the importance of listening to whatever someone needs to say, unfiltered. Being given that opportunity was what helped her most in the early days of her own profound sorrow.
Asked what they hope people take from the Sandy Hook deaths, 10 years later, Alissa responds: “There’s always the call-to-action piece I feel so passionate about and wanting people to really evaluate and ask questions about the safety of schools and the safety of our kids. And to not be complacent.” She hopes people “start asking themselves those hard questions. Where are we at with schools and keeping kids safe? Where are my own kids at with their mental health? Are they getting the needs that they have met? Are we making sure that our kids are as healthy as possible?”
Robbie thinks that what most people know about his family is their sorrow and the loss of Emilie. “Almost everybody that knows about us knows us through this lens. So sometimes I feel like I have to remind people just how normal we are. We’ve been through some really, really hard things, but we’re not broken. And grief isn’t contagious, so being around us doesn’t mean it’s going to be like a pity party.”
That applies to others you know who suffered losses, he adds. “I appreciate the fact that I do feel more comfortable being in uncomfortable things with people because there’s an opportunity for real connection and understanding to really support others. If there’s somebody that they love that’s going through something, it’s not about trying to fix something or make the pain go away. Support has a million different pieces; find the one that’s comfortable for you to lend a hand to somebody else.”
Recently, the four of them and some other family members went to the dedication of a memorial to Sandy Hook victims in Newtown, Connecticut. She described it as “wonderful,” from the chance to visit with old friends to the memorial itself: A huge sycamore tree growing on an island surrounded by a water feature. The 26 names of those who died ring the water’s edge. The families were each given a wreath with their loved one’s name to float into the water.
The sycamore is a storyteller’s tree. Legends surround it, providing meaning. In Israel, the sycamore symbolizes spiritual rebirth, while other places see it as a sign of protection or divinity or strength.
There are bits of all those things in Sandy Hook’s story.