Grieving mother finds path to hope, healing
NEW HAVEN >> Alissa and Robbie Parker moved their family back to Washington state a year after their oldest daughter Emilie, 6, was killed four years ago in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
It was just one of many steps on the journey to healing that Alissa Parker in her new book, “An Unseen Angel.”
Parker writes about being immobilized by grief, then finally feeling hopeful about life again through many avenues, including faith, therapy, a meeting with the shooter’s father, the support of friends and strangers, and best of all, “a visit” from Emilie.
Parker said in a recent interview about the book that she now realizes “evil didn’t win that day,” and shooter, Adam Lanza, wasn’t a “monster.”
Just as her recovery was gradual, so was his decline, she came to realize after a visit with his father.
“It’s amazing how gradual that paralyzing phase is and all of a sudden,” Parker said.
The 174-page book that Parker wrote over two years is a quick read full of harsh and poignant moments on the journey.
She wanted it to be as much a tribute to her daughter who spoke sentences at 9 months old, loved the color pink, was a talented young artist, loved being “fancy,” and who was in the midst of boxing her own toys to give the needy that Christmas when she was killed Dec. 14, 2012, 11 days before the holiday.
“It’s very reflective of my daughter,” she said of the book, even sure to mention Emilie’s faults, such as messiness.
Parker didn’t want Emilie’s short, but meaningful life defined by the shooting, she said.
Through God, she writes, “I have finally come to the understanding that Emilie’s story is one of joy.”
Parker admits there were some places she didn’t want to get into in the book, so she skipped those.
“I had to do it in a thoughtful way,” she said.
She found in the journey that it was “OK to lower my expectations.”
“I had to have a lot of patience with myself.”
The book opens with a powerful story about a police officer returning Emilie’s belongings from that day, including the clothes she wore: a dark pink shirt, a pink-pleated skirt with ruffles, pink leggings, and black and pink snow boots.
The Parkers expected the belongings to arrive in a bag marked “Evidence,” but instead it was in a white child-sized trunk with pink polka dots.
A note the size of a business card was tied to the top and read: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard. — A.A. Milne”
Inside, on top, was a purple fleece scarf that Parker’s mother had made for Emilie a week before the shooting. When her husband unfolded it, Parker wrote in the book, she “convulsed.”
The scarf had six bullet holes.
“Nauseous,” as she wrote, Parker took the scarf from her husband, ran her index finger over the holes and arranged it the way she had on Emilie that morning.
She realized when she bunched it up the holes represented the trajectory of a single bullet “passing through the folds of fleece wrapped around her neck.”
She wrote: “I realized that it was probably the shot that killed my child. I looked at Robbie and we cried.”
The family moved to Newtown in January 2012 because Robbie Parker had landed a job as physician’s assistant at Danbury Hospital.
Alissa Parker wrote of falling in love with Newtown and seeing it as place they could “put down roots and start our happily ever after,” following years of schooling and starter jobs.
That went awry when Lanza fatally shot his mother in their house nearby, drove to the school with a semiautomatic rifle and killed 20 first-graders, and six staff members.
As the months went on and the families of victims learned more “grisly” details, Alissa Parker started to have nightmares.
“Like an awful movie, I saw Emilie’s death over and over again in my mind,” she writes.
“Each time I learned something new, the movie would play again. I thought a lot about the fear and the pain Emilie must have felt.”
She would begin to put herself in the story and imagine all the ways she could have saved Emilie.
Parker also began have the “persistent” thought she needed to talk to shooter Adam Lanza’s father, Peter Lanza. She reasoned, in part, that Peter Lanza might be the one person “with access to information that might explain why his son did what he did.”
They reached out to Lanza and he agreed to meet them at an office building in Wilton.
She writes that he never expected to hear from any of the parents and he was “genuinely grateful for the opportunity to meet with us.” Lanza was also filled with “anguish.” His hands were shaking and his face was flushed, she wrote.
Peter Lanza told her he hadn’t seen his son in two years — although he tried — and that he had “developed into a very different young man,” from the little boy he raised.
He told the Parkers that his son’s actions were “evil” and that their words to him were “‘a glimmer of light through the dark agony.’”
Parker writes: “When I first arrived, frankly, I didn’t care what Peter Lanza felt. … By the time we left, my perspective had changed. I was living with a horrible loss. He was living with something worse.”
She goes on to explain in the book: “I was surrounded by sympathy and compassion for what had happened to my daughter. He was blamed and despised for what his son had done. Peter Lanza was alone in the world.”
Parker, in an interview, said the two-hour meeting with Lanza changed the way she views Adam Lanza.
“We couldn’t understand what got him to this point. He wasn’t a monster,” she said.
Looking at him differently gave her some closure, Parker said.
But the best closure was connecting with Emilie one night while Parker was lying in bed trying to fall asleep.
It definitely wasn’t a dream, Parker said.
She writes: “With my eyes closed, lying in my bed, I felt a strong burning sensation in my heart. … My left arm started to tingle and I began to feel the now familiar sensation that Emilie was somehow with me.”
Soon, she saw that she was in heaven, a beautiful place with people all around, but faces indistinguishable. She couldn’t see anything clearly, but she could “feel” Emilie standing next to her.
Before she knew it, “I was literally holding the precious, rough, artist’s hand that I had thought about, had missed almost every day since her passing,” Parker wrote.
Parker concludes in the book: “Emilie was happy. I lay in my bed and began to cry with gratitude,” Parker wrote.
Alissa Parker recently returned to this area for a visit to promote the book and faced some emotionally jolting moments, including driving through Newtown for the first time since moving.
She also gathered with other parents of victims.
“I had a really hard time with the road that led to the school,” she said, adding there is no way to avoid the road if traveling in Newtown.
Part of that trigger is imagining Adam Lanza driving to the school, she said.
Alissa Parker said she also has “found courage,” to get involved with a cause she cares about, as many of the other parents have.
She and Michele Gay, the parent of Josephine “Joey” Gay, another child killed in the shooting, have founded Safe and Sound Schools, a nonprofit that promotes safe schools and provides information on making schools safe.
Emilie and Joey were close friends and Joey’s birthday party was to be the day after the shooting.
Each year on Emilie’s birthday, May 12, her parents and two younger sisters visit a beach in Oregon that Emilie loved. They listen to her favorite songs, remember her, and each sister gets a gift from Emilie’s belongings. They’ve even worn necklaces of Emilie’s artwork for the celebration.
Emilie would have been 11 this year.