Could you forgive someone who killed your child? Many if not most of us, I think, would say "never." Yet I met a couple in our Parents Manhattan offices, Alissa and Robbie Parker, who are in the continual process of forgiving a person who did the unthinkable. Alissa Parker has just published a book—An Unseen Angel: A Mother's Story of Faith, Hope, and Healing After Sandy Hook—about their daughter, Emilie, who was 6 years old when she was murdered in her first-grade classroom.
As a parent, I admit: I wasn't sure I felt brave enough to read about the Parker family's suffering. And I wondered, before sitting down with Alissa's book, if others would be able to understand her and Robbie's strong sense of Christian faith and spirit of forgiveness, considering the tragedy that was forced upon them as a young family who had only just moved to Newtown, Connecticut, filled with optimism for their future. My worries were unfounded: I read An Unseen Angel, which is captivating and deeply moving, in just two days. And the Parkers' messages—including that sometimes we will never have an answer to the hardest questions in life—can resonate whether you're a spiritual-minded person or not.
"Emilie's life isn't defined by someone else's choices and actions," Alissa told Parents. Robbie added, "What happened to her is tragic, and that day was tragic, but her life wasn't tragic. We know as her parents that she was beautiful, and smart, and her life was amazing." As part of her healing, Alissa started writing a blog, The Parker Five, to contemplate her many happy memories of the Emilie she knew. In the book, which is peppered with Alissa's personal, beautiful photos of Emilie, Alissa writes about Emilie's goodness, how she was a morning and a night person, and how she would sit in bed for two to three hours coloring or drawing until she fell asleep. When Emilie met a boy named Parker in her kindergarten class, she amused her family with the exciting news that one day they would marry and he would become "Parker Parker." Emilie was the leader of the family's "little girl pack," the oldest sister her siblings Madeline and Samantha adored.
How does one forgive someone who isn't here to even attempt to explain his actions? "Forgiveness is not a simple process," Alissa writes. "It is a choice that needs to be made over and over again, with each fresh hurt and each missed milestone in Emilie's life."
To help prevent such a tragedy from happening again, Alissa launched Safe and Sound Schools, a nonprofit organization she cofounded with Michele Gay, who lost her daughter Josephine ("Joey") at Sandy Hook, to help empower schools with tools to become safer. Since 2013, more than 100,000 visitors to the site have downloaded free materials for use in their school or professional community. The organization has also visited schools in 31 states, and more than 30,000 people have attended its speaking engagements and workshops.
The Parkers, who have moved out West, sometimes meet people who are surprised to learn they lost a child at Sandy Hook, and are brought back to their own emotions and exactly where they were that day. Alissa appreciates their empathy, but also wants people to know they're okay. Alissa tells us: "Because of the work we've put into it, as a family we're doing really well, and there's a lot we're blessed with."
One night, Alissa's daughters pointed out that in most of the fairy-tale princess stories they read together, someone dies, and reflected: "Someone died in our family, but we have a happily ever after, too."
An Unseen Angel: A Mother's Story of Faith, Hope, and Healing After Sandy Hook ($14.99) was released April 4, 2017 and is available wherever books are sold. For more information on the book and the nonprofit organization Safe and Sound Schools, visit SafeAndSoundSchools.org.
Gail O'Connor is a senior editor at Parents and a mom of three.