Friday, May 12 would’ve been Emilie Parker’s 11th birthday. The little girl loved art, reading and cheering people up when they were sad. On December 14, 2012, she and 19 other children were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
More than four years after the horrific tragedy, Emilie’s mother, Alissa Parker, has released An Unseen Angel: A Mother’s Story of Healing and Hope After Sandy Hook, a powerful book about finding joy and compassion in unexpected places.
On the eve of Emilie’s birthday, Parker spoke with HuffPost about the book, her family’s journey and the way her outlook changed after she lived through every parent’s worst nightmare.
An Unseen Angel is dedicated to Parker’s two younger daughters, 8-year-old Samantha and 9-year-old Madeline. The author told HuffPost she initially started writing the book just for the two girls.
“They were very young when Emilie died, and I knew they wouldn’t remember very much,” she said. “I wanted to preserve this story for them so that as years passed, they would be able to go back and see what happened.”
As she wrote about the outpouring of compassion and support from family, friends and strangers after the unspeakable tragedy, Parker realized her story might be able to inspire others.
“There’s so much negativity and darkness surrounding what happened at Sandy Hook, and this was a whole different perspective,” she explained. “It’s the lighter side, the side that shows how good humanity is. And I just wanted to share that with people.”
The title of the book stems from Parker’s belief that her daughter Emilie is an “unseen angel,” always with her as she goes through life and witnesses the beauty of the world and humanity. This message ties in with the book’s theme of healing through faith.
Though Parker grew up in a Christian household and always considered her religion to be an integral part of her life, she said she didn’t feel comfortable expressing it with others until the aftermath of Emilie’s death. Spending time with the parents of other kids who died in the Sandy Hook shooting helped her open up.
“I was with a large group of people who were all grieving from the same exact moment,” she recalled. “We had all different faiths, all different experiences, and we yearned to learn from each other and hear what the other had experienced, what worked for them, what they believed. All those barriers just broke down.”
She added, “I realized how much there was to learn from other people, other faiths, and how important it was for me to be able to share my belief system with others because there’s so much we can learn from each other.”
A little more than a year after the shooting, Parker and her family moved back to the Pacific Northwest, where they had lived for a short time when the girls were younger.
She and her husband, Robbie, worked to move forward with their lives, focusing their energy on raising Madeline and Samantha. Still, there are certain times of year that can be particularly challenging.
Emilie was born on the Friday before Mother’s Day in 2006, and the Parkers brought their baby home on the actual holiday.
“I remember just being so overwhelmed with the idea that on my first Mother’s Day, I got to bring my child home with me,” the mom recalled. “And so I had this kind of special connection to the holiday because it always fell kind of around the time that I became a mother, when Emilie was born.”
In the months after the tragedy at Sandy Hook, Parker noticed that Emilie’s birthday would fall on Mother’s Day that year. In that moment of realization, she felt a pain in the pit of her stomach.
“It had always been so special to me, and I didn’t want that tainted,” the mom said. “I felt like so much had been taken away from me, and I didn’t want that joy that I felt to be taken away from me.”
Getting through the double whammy of Mother’s Day and Emilie’s birthday at the same time was incredibly tough and emotional, but Parker said she worked hard to focus on the blessings of being a mom and the time she had with Emilie, rather than the horror of what happened to her.
“I’ve had to train my brain to not wander and think about the past and future and be overwhelmed with the emotions that those thoughts always bring me,” she said. “I try to be present in the moment, to focus what is happening right now and what joy I’m seeing.”
The Parkers tend to go away as a family around Mother’s Day. On Emilie’s birthday, they try to do something she enjoyed, like going to the beach, and the mom usually gives each of her girls something that belonged to their big sister.
“Because they were so young when she died, I put away a lot of her toys and things she had into these little boxes for the girls. So when it’s her birthday, I pull something out that she would’ve wanted them to have, that’s age appropriate for the season in their lives.”
The birthday tradition is just one of the ways the Parkers keep Emilie’s memory alive for her sisters. “We try to be really natural about the way we talk about Emilie with them. I never wanted them to feel like anything was either forced, or on the other hand, taboo,” the mom told HuffPost.
“I didn’t want them to feel competitive with her memory, so I was really conscious of making sure we only brought her up when it was appropriate and not force stories,” she added. “But I also didn’t want them to feel like they couldn’t bring her up whenever they felt it was appropriate either.”
For the most part, keeping this balance has been effortless, Parker noted. The parents also created a memory box for their daughters. Whenever they think of a memory or story about their big sister, they write it down and put it in the memory box.
“It’s been fun for them to have a place to put it,” the mom said. “It’s almost like there’s this anxiety ― you feel like you’re going to lose the story, so when they had a place to put it, it was a release for them.” The girls have filled the memory box a couple of times, so their parents took the papers out and a made a little book for them.
Madeline and Samantha were also among the first people to get a copy of An Unseen Angel, though they haven’t read the entire book yet.
“We’ve made it clear to them from the very beginning that we’ll tell them whatever information they want to know about Emilie,” Parker explained. “They ask questions, which we answer, but there are certain things that they have made clear to us that they’re not ready to know about.”
Specifically, the girls don’t yet want to know the particular details of how their sister was killed that day. So when they received the book, their mother told them which sections to skip to avoid those details. “I told them that when the day comes that they want to read that and want to know a little bit more, we could sit down and have a conversation and read it together,” Parker said. “They’re comfortable with those parameters for now.”
The horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School are mired in an extra layer of torment. Though many public tragedies spawn conspiracy talk, the conspiracy theory movement around Sandy Hook has been particularly insidious, having reached a wider audience in part thanks to Infowars founder and notorious President Trump ally, Alex Jones.
Many so-called “Sandy Hook truthers” have targeted the Parker family specifically ― using photos of Emilie’s younger sisters as evidence that she’s still alive, accusing her parents of being “crisis actors” and referring to the young victim as EmiLIE.
Emilie’s mother said they refuse to let this vile phenomenon affect them.
“We’ve really tried to focus on our truth,” Parker told HuffPost. “I’ve never done anything with the idea that I’m trying to convince them of anything. I’m just living my truth. And I realize that we live in a country where freedom of speech is very valuable, so I have to accept that that’s the consequence of living here. And that’s OK. I just have to let it go and realize they don’t have power over me.”
To say Alissa Parker has demonstrated incredible strength would be an understatement. One of the more striking parts of An Unseen Angel is her account of meeting Adam Lanza’s father and finding the courage to forgive the man who killed her daughter.
“I think the thing that I hadn’t expected in talking to [Peter Lanza] about his son that I gained from it was my viewpoint and how I saw the shooter,” Parker recalled. “Up to that point, he was the monster who did the most horrendous thing I could ever imagine, and that was it. That was all. And I was comfortable with that.”
“After speaking to his father, this entire picture of his life unfolded before me. He no longer was just that monster. He was a person who struggled with really intense difficult things throughout his whole life, where the system failed him, he failed himself, his parents failed him, over and over again,” she added.
Though this realization didn’t take away Lanza’s accountability in Parker’s eyes, it brought her to a place of empathy and eventual forgiveness.
“It showed me to have more compassion for his entire life and to understand that he was the sum of all of these experiences, not just a monster that day,” she explained.
“In some ways it made me think about other people who might struggle with similar things and how we tend to vilify people who are capable of doing these things,” Parker continued. “I didn’t want to take that attitude toward those who have struggled. I wanted to have a positive, loving, compassionate attitude ― to say, ‘I want to be there to help you. I want to be there to be a solution to your struggles, not make you feel more isolated or more alone.’”
Ultimately, An Unseen Angel tells a powerful story of anguish, loss and healing that most parents would never want to imagine having to endure.
Beyond sharing her personal journey, Parker hopes her book can inspire readers with its message of resilience. “Whether it be losing a loved one and grieving or going through a difficulties like losing a job, there are so many ways that we all can take these experiences and see how we can adopt these lessons in the challenging times in our lives,” she told HuffPost.
“When we go through difficult, dark times, that there’s always hope, and there’s always light around us,” she added. “It’s just choosing to let it in that’s not always easy.”