Parker, 35, decided to write this book — An Unseen Angel — for Emilie’s sisters, who were just 3 and 4-years old when Emilie died. She wanted to document what happened in the days and months after the tragedy. And she wanted to let the world know that their story did not end on the worst day of their lives.
“Most people know of that tragic day and the darkness that surrounded it. What they did not know is that in the aftermath, there was some good that came out of it,” she said in an interview. There were a “thousand acts of kindness and there was a miracle of healing in our hearts.”
Emilie was the first child for Robbie and Alissa Parker. The couple met in middle school in Ogden, Utah, and married soon after Robbie returned from a two-year mission for the Mormon church. They had three daughters in three years. During those intense early years, Emilie was Alissa’s constant companion and often the only person at home to talk to as Robbie was busy in graduate school. Emilie was cheerful and precocious, expressive verbally and artistically. She loved to draw and paint, often filling a notebook a day with her pictures.
The family moved to Newtown, Conn. the winter before Emilie started first grade at Sandy Hook, when Robbie took a job as a physicians assistant at an area hospital. They were enchanted by their new home town with its lush green lawns and old fashioned general store.
The last morning of Emilie’s life, on December 14, 2012, started sweetly, Parker writes. Her daughter climbed into bad with her, and they spent some lingering, cozy moments together. Their good bye at the school bus stop was more abrupt, as Parker was distracted with her younger daughter. She recalls last seeing Emilie scrambling up the stairs of the bus, her long hair uncombed and flying behind her.
Later that morning, she was Christmas shopping when she got a call, an automated message that there had been a shooting at the school. Her worst nightmare became real in the hours that followed.
Parker never wanted to see her daughter’s body, preferring to remember her last living moments instead. She writes how she pressed her forehead against the closed door separating her from the viewing room at the funeral home. From there, she relayed her deepest ache: “I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you.”
Her book chronicles the grief that enveloped her as she returned home — to her daughter’s unmade bed, the unfinished drawings on her art table, her old life.
The once easy joys of motherhood became sources of pain. Holding her younger daughters’ hands made her miss the feel of Emilie’s fingers, always calloused from hours of coloring. She could not bring herself to play with the girls. “It reminded me too much of Emilie. I would become physically ill if I forced myself to try.”
Most of all, she longed to feel close to Emilie again. She would lie awake at night concentrating on her, praying she would appear in her dreams.
It was this need for connection that put her on a path to forgiveness, she said.
A few weeks after the shooting, she and her husband traveled to the Mormon temple in New York City, to pray for some reassurance that their daughter was okay.
As they sat there in silence, Parker received a message that was clear, if bewildering, to her: Talk to the shooter’s father.
And so, just five weeks after the shooting, they sat down with Peter Lanza, in the conference room of an office building.
There they met another devastated parent. Lanza, who had been divorced from Adam’s mother and had not seen him in two years, talked about his son. He described a boy who once loved Legos and went on hikes. At 13, he was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome and prescribed different medications. He bounced between specialists. He left the public schools to be homeschooled and became increasingly isolated and miserable, Parker writes.
She left the meeting with a far more human portrait of Adam Lanza and a measure of compassion for his father.
“I was living with a horrible loss. He was living with something worse,” she writes. “I was surrounded by sympathy and compassion for what happened to my daughter. He was blamed and despised for what his son had done. Peter Lanza was alone in the world.”
Her perspective also changed as she heard from other parents, who reached out to say their children had problems similar to Lanza’s, and they worried they were capable of hurting others. She wondered how she would respond as a parent given such challenges. And she grew more aware of the struggles suffered by many children with mental illness.
Still, could she forgive Adam Lanza? She didn’t know.
In her effort to try, she imagined sitting across from him and telling him what she felt. She did not want to look at him. “I knew my anger would overcome me if I saw his emaciated face and huge, haunted eyes,” she writes.
Staring at the floor, she vented her fury that his mother enabled his behavior and that his father was not involved. And she raged that she could not prevent what happened. “Every day I imagine what I could have done to stop you. I picture myself ramming my car into yours, knocking you off the road into a ditch. I picture standing in the classroom with a baseball bat, swinging it at your head and knocking you to the ground,” she writes.
After ward, she felt deflated. “Hating Adam Lanza felt good,” she writes. But it did not bring her any closer to Emilie.
Through her fog of grief, she was continually grateful for the kindness that was shown to her family. She writes about a free tank of heating oil that was delivered to her house soon after the shooting and the thousands of pink ribbons that lined the fences, trees, and mailboxes on the family’s route from the airport to their home town in Utah, the day they returned to bury Emilie. There were countless prayers, boxes full of letters, and a warehouse packed from floor to ceiling with gifts for her family and the families of the other victims.
Above all, her faith comforted her. She resisted feeling angry towards God. “It was not my nature,” she said. It felt better to have a partner in a loving God, she said. She believed Emilie was in heaven and that her family would be reunited there if they followed what God — and Emile — wanted them to do.
Alissa Parker starting a school safety advocacy organization in the months after the shooting. And she started a blog, called The Parker Five, which helped her process what had happened.
As she became stronger, she felt herself softening toward Lanza. Her constant search for answers about why he had committed such violence and how it should be judged had exhausted her. She ultimately decided to hand that reckoning to God. That was the first step to forgiveness, she said.
“As I made this decision, a burden so deep and so heavy it had nearly crushed me was physically lifted from me,” she writes.
Letting herself feel joy was uncomfortable at first, but she said, the more she let go, the better she felt.
A little more than a year after the shooting, the Parkers moved to the Pacific Northwest, close to where Robbie had gone to graduate school. The move gave them a fresh start. It offered distance from the disturbing memories of Sandy Hook and brought them close to places where they had happy memories. They bought a small farm in Washington, with a pond and a chicken coop and a shed they turned into an art studio.
Forgiveness is not an easy process, she said. “It’s a choice over and over again. I am still forgiving him today,” she said.
The emptiness is not gone from their lives, but they have a lot of joy. And sometimes, in small moments and big ones, she feels Emilie near.
“I miss her. I love her,” she said. “I am at peace.”
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