In our exclusive interview, Parker shares how she works to forgive, heal, and find beauty after losing her daughter, Emilie.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes. In that moment I was overwhelmed with love and happiness. I felt Emilie again. She was here with her sisters and me, finding the sweetest, most tender way to make her presence known.” (An Unseen Angel, 2017)
Emilie Parker’s first word as a baby was “happy.” That word could easily describe the life Emilie had been living with her family in the “storybook” town of Newtown, Connecticut. However, that happiness was taken in a violent instant in 2012 when Emilie became one of 20 children killed in the Sandy Hook School shooting. Grieving in the aftermath, Emilie’s mother Alissa Parker has come to realize that unspeakable act does not mean the end of Emilie’s powerful life force. It marks a painful yet rewarding spiritual journey Alissa describes in her newly released book An Unseen Angel.
Alissa’s remarkable journey not only leads her to forgiveness of Emilie’s killer but also unexpected and joyous encounters with Emilie’s presence. Emerging from her deepest grief, Alissa has the stunning realization that Emilie’s life purpose is not over and that, most of all, she will always be happy. We spoke one-on-one with Alissa to learn more.
For Her: As a mother myself, I had some fear learning about your story. What would you say to people/parents who may shy away from reading your book?
Alissa Parker: I understand that people hesitate because they think this story is about how our daughter died. All they know is what happened at Sandy Hook that day. But Sandy Hook doesn’t define our family and it felt natural to not go into detail about how this happened to Emilie. We didn’t want her life defined by another person’s choices.
If people can get past that hurdle, they’ll see this book is about the life we discovered after Emilie’s death. People who have lived without such a tragedy will have things in common with our story. I really believe there is a lot of beauty here worth sharing.
Many people marvel at your forgiveness of the shooter Adam Lanza. Are there ever times you fall back on anger?
Yes, I do. I was one of these who was not in a hurry to forgive. I had it on the back burner, no hurry. I was content with my anger. But small miracles emerged regarding our daughter that led to more understanding of her. It challenged me to look at him [Adam Lanza] differently. I had been comfortable with anger. Letting go felt peaceful which felt very foreign and strange. I didn’t like it because, in a weird way, I felt I needed to feel pain forever for our daughter.
But forgiveness isn’t ‘one and done.’ I have to choose it constantly. Some days I am better at it. Others I wallow a little and then move on. It’s complicated and (laughs) I think I get more credit than I deserve. It wasn’t a quick choice. I still have twinges of anger and intense sadness. In the future, I will have to forgive him again. It gets easier the more I do it.
What was your forgiveness process? Did you get counseling?
A lot of counseling! Individual, couples, group therapy. I’m a firm believer that when something like that happens, it’s impossible to navigate our emotions correctly without help. I felt so lost. I wanted to be able to help and serve my family. I needed to do this for my family’s health and healing.
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I had been raised to forgive and I knew I would eventually. But I had to see him through Christ-like eyes, which was a slow process. I have my own imperfections and I still feel Christ’s love. Seeing Adam the way Christ would made me think of all the children who suffer with mental illness. Adam never had the resources he needed. It doesn’t excuse the act but it made me feel more compassion for him. I will never fully know why this happened but God does. He is the ultimate judge and I don’t need to carry that burden. Justice will be served. That’s something I can hand over to Christ.
Was your husband Robbie able to forgive? What role did he play in this process?
Yes and we both are sometimes in the lead together. And we both take steps back at different times. We give each other lots of leeway during those times because we understand exactly how each other feels. When one of us is stuck somewhere we give each other room. And that is hard for me to be patient with myself when I get stuck. I understand now there is no timeline for healing.
Have there been times when people on the outside do not understand your healing process?
There is a shorthand with people who have experienced the loss of loved ones which has been a great comfort. But with people who haven’t endured this type of loss, sometimes they may say something insensitive but it is important to me to not take offense. I often repeat to myself: ‘Their intention is not to hurt your feelings.’ I want to make sure not to respond to awkwardness because the truth is I was feeling awkward too. The most basic questions such as ‘how many children do you have?’ would leave me speechless. I had to learn to redefine what was comfortable to me. There were many times, the answers I gave wouldn’t sit right with me. So, then I’d try again until I felt it was right.
So, how do you answer that question now—how many children do you have?
‘I have three daughters. The oldest would be 10, the other two are 9 and 7.’ I then leave it up to the other person whether they want to ask a follow-up question. It’s my sweet spot right now.
Are there any ways you are a different person since before the shooting? More religious, less so?
I feel more in tune with my spirituality. Before this, I felt like I had faith. But I never had to so strongly apply it. It’s shown me how big God’s love is for all his children. Amazing people have sent thousands of letters to us. It felt like the world understood this one person’s evil act. I had felt consumed by that evil. But seeing how this touched other people’s hearts, His love overpowered the other. It was so important for me to see.
In the book, you mention several instances where you have intensely felt Emilie’s presence. Why do you think this has happened?
I wish I had the answer! I’d love to know. In the beginning, I wanted it immediately. I was obsessed with it but nothing happened. But as soon as I made a change in my heart, of accepting God’s timeline, these small miracles started. I believe that until I put myself in a place to receive it, it couldn’t happen. But it doesn’t happen all the time. He does it when He knows we need it. And, it’s not always when we think we need it. Or how we want it. It goes against my natural grain to wait. I’ve had to learn to trust that He knows best.
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Now that you’ve moved away from Connecticut to Washington, do you ever return for visits?
I hadn’t been avoiding going but I also wasn’t trying to get there until we just visited recently. I love, love, love the people of Newtown. However, there are a lot of triggers associated with that place. Going back was bittersweet. It was not easy and I experienced feelings I hadn’t had in a long time.
What is your daily life like now?
First, and foremost, I am a stay-at-home-mom. Our life is pretty simple. We live near a bunch of farms. Life is quiet and tranquil, with a slow pace. Then there’s our non-profits Safe and Sound Schools and The Emilie Parker Art Connection. We love working on those. And I speak around the country about spirituality and talk with so many people. It’s pretty amazing. Overall, we are very happy out in Washington.
Please tell me about the book cover: the girl on the swing, with the light shining on her.
It was important to us to have a picture that is reminiscent of Emilie, but not actually her. From the beginning, I’ve been very conscious of protecting the integrity of the story. The cover is her essence. It is not about tragedy, but about hope and light.
What is the most important thing you want readers to learn from this book?
I would love the readers to walk away with another perspective of this event. We cannot let darkness overwhelm this story. There is so much light.