Sandy Hook mother finds it in her heart to forgive
NEWTOWN - In the weeks after her little blonde daughter was murdered, Alissa Parker desperately wanted to feel the girl’s buoyant presence again.
The grieving mother of three questioned everything she believed after the slayings of Emilie Parker and 25 others at Sandy Hook School. But the mother knew, as a devout Mormon, that if she persisted in prayer, God would allow her to feel Emilie’s presence, just as God had done for her husband, Robbie, when Emilie appeared to him in a dream.
But keeping Alissa Parker from what she wanted most was a monstrous obstacle - a young man named Adam Lanza, whose final act before shooting his mother, 20 first-graders and six educators was to take his own life.
“Hating Adam Lanza felt good,” admits Alissa Parker in her book “An Unseen Angel,” which has just been released.
In an interview last week, the 35-year-old resident of Washington state said the turning point came within two months of the massacre, after a series of unexpected encounters, when she was able to forgive her daughter’s murderer.
And as impossible as it may sound, she was able to love him.
“I didn’t realize that having that hurt and anger consuming my heart was preventing me from feeling peace and hope,” she said during an interview last week. “I didn’t realize that I was getting in my own way.”
It’s no coincidence that Parker’s book has been released during Lent - the season leading to Easter. It was on Easter morning four years ago when her prayers were answered and she felt Emilie’s presence among her sisters.
“When I lost that connection with her, I went on this journey to find her again, and it was a beautiful experience,” Parker said. “One of the reasons I wrote this book is I wanted people to see the larger picture of her life.”
The idea of Emilie Parker’s living presence is a key concept in the book, which weaves the mother’s sacred moments of belief with universal themes, such as the stages of grief and peace in the midst of suffering.
Alissa Parker attaches deep significance to the death of her beloved father just a few months before the massacre, as a precursor for steps she would have to take to accept Emilie’s death.
The book also dedicates space to the unforgettable day on Dec. 14, 2012, when Lanza shot his way into a locked Sandy Hook School and committed the worst crime in Connecticut history. At the moment police told her none of the children who were shot had survived she collapsed in panic, unable to breathe, and would have gone to the hospital. But her husband pleaded with her not to leave him alone.
Robbie, a physician’s assistant whose faith is also highlighted in the book, said during last week’s interview that there is something redeeming about the pain of death and dying, because everyone suffers it.
“Grief is really ugly, and trauma is a horrible thing to go through, but at the end it leads you to a beautiful place,” said the husband, who moved his family to Washington state in 2014. “As painful and as hard as the work and the effort is, it is worth it, because as you start to go through it, you do see the beauty around you.”
Forward with forgiveness
Alissa Parker’s journey to her daughter through forgiveness began with a remarkable private meeting with the shooter’s father just one month after the massacre.
Alissa and Robbie Parker went into meeting with Peter Lanza thinking they could get him to share medical information about his troubled son, whose struggles with autism, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder were so acute by the time he was 20 that he had become isolated, anorexic and fascinated with mass murder.
At the time, Alissa Parker was tortured by guilt that she had been unable to protect her daughter from Lanza. She would imagine herself intercepting Lanza’s car on the way to the school and ramming him off the road. She imagined confronting him that morning and smashing his head with a baseball bat.
She was not looking forward to being reminded of him during the meeting with his father.
“I knew my anger would overcome me if I saw his emaciated face and his huge, haunted eyes,” Parker writes in her book. “I truly hated him.”
So it was a surprise during the meeting that she felt her heart soften as the father described a younger Adam Lanza who had once been happy and social.
“It really changed my heart,” Parker said during last week’s interview. “He humanized his son for me, and I no longer looked at him as an isolated monster.”
Although Alissa Parker left the meeting without an answer to her question about why Lanza snapped, she felt something larger was being accomplished in her heart.
For the first time, Lanza was more than murderer, although Parker was still far from forgiving him.
“In our faith background, forgiveness is something that we are asked to do, but honestly, I just didn’t feel it,” Parker said. “I only cared about my family and what we needed to do to get through this, and I felt like ‘he can come later.’”
At the same time, Parker was finding outlets for her emotions. Pairing up with her “sister in grief” Michele Gay, who also lost a daughter in the Sandy Hook massacre, Parker co-founded the nonprofit Safe and Sound Schools.
But more than anything else, Parker wanted to feel Emilie again.
And more and more, she was understanding through prayer that she had to forgive Lanza first.
Finally one night, in a vision she describes in the book, Parker saw Adam Lanza sitting in a dark room. With trembling hands and a tense voice she vented her anger on him until she felt the rage inside dissipate.
“I don’t know how to forgive you,” she said just before the vison faded. “I don’t know if I am capable of that kind of forgiveness.”
It is not until the end of the book, when Alissa Parker recalls giving up her anger over her father’s death, that she documents the final step she took to forgive Lanza.
The key came when she decided it was up to God to judge Lanza, not her, she said.
“My heart burned with a joy so powerful it brought me to tears,” she writes. “[I]t was possible to forgive Adam Lanza.”
During last week’s interview, Parker said she found the courage to do what she thought was impossible because she knew it wasn’t her doing.
“I didn’t go looking for it,” she said. “It found me.”