I have had the rare and achingly beautiful honor of getting to know Robbie and Alissa Parker, the parents of Emilie Parker, a victim of the Sandy Hook shooting that took the life of 20 elementary students and 6 school employees.
Over the past year, I have read their story, heard their story one-on-one, and have even had the unique privilege of writing a small piece of their story. Alissa and Robbie's bravery has astounded me as they have shared vulnerable, spiritual aspects of their loss, opening my eyes to how an act of violence can impact a family.
But what is equally astonishing to me is how the Parkers have managed to find light amidst darkness and suffering. It didn't come all at once but rather through years of pain, therapy, and relying on the Lord. But it did come.
With the numerous school shootings this year, my mind keeps reaching back to those messages they shared with me, ones that have given me peace as my heart breaks again and again at the images and stories flooding the media. Alissa and Robbie showed me that in a world that is broken, dark, and dim, there is still light. The Savior will reach out, He will comfort us, He will embrace us, He will never let go, even when our hearts break.
In an interview, Robbie shared with me, “I remember when I was at church sitting in sacrament meeting, I kept thinking that if only I could have known what would happen that day, I would never have sent Emilie to school. I would have protected her, made sure nothing happened to her. But then, I felt this very distinct thought from Heavenly Father, saying: ‘I knew what they would do to my Son.’ And it just hit me. Heavenly Father sent His Son to this earth, fully knowing what they would do to Him. He watched as His Son was crucified and endured so much. As a father, that struck me, bringing a deeper sense of what the Atonement means and how much our Heavenly Father loves His Son and all of us.”
In her book, An Unseen Angel, Alissa tells of the miracles and grace of God that came into her life after Emilie's death. Here is one powerful moment from her book that reminded me of the inherent kindness of others and our desire to reach out and find hope during moments of tragedy.
At the same time Robbie and I were dealing with this leaden grief, feeling we barely had the strength to make it through each day, we were asked to attend dozens of meetings—meetings with the police, with school administrators, with Newtown officials. Along with the other bereaved families, we sat in crowded rooms, learning more and more appalling details of what had happened.
The picture painted by these grisly details gave me nightmares. Like an awful movie, I saw Emilie’s death over and over again in my mind. 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. Many times I would insert myself into the story, imagining all the different ways I might have saved her. If only I could have saved her. I would have eagerly given up my life to spare hers. I wondered if there had been angels with all the children that day. I so hoped there had been. Was Jesus himself there with Emilie? Would seeing Him have comforted her?
A memory suddenly surfaced that I had forgotten long ago: Emilie was almost four, and for the first time she began complaining of nightmares. After bedtime stories, I would tuck her into bed and lean in to kiss her good night, and she would begin to cry and panic because she didn’t want the bad dreams to come. I would hug her and comfort her, and we would talk about her dreams and how they made her feel. At the end I told her if she wanted extra help, she could say a prayer to help her feel better. A few weeks passed, and she complained less and less about her bad dreams. One day, while walking through Costco, Emilie excitedly remembered to tell me some news.
“Mom! Guess what! Last night I was having a bad dream. I said a prayer and Jesus came in my room! He made me feel all better!”
Shocked, I asked, “Jesus was in your room?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed.
“How did you know it was Jesus?” I asked.
“Because,” she said with a smile, “He told me His name!”
As I recalled this long-forgotten story, the same feeling I had felt back then came rushing through my body. It was a fire burning inside my heart, confirming and consoling. I began crying as I realized that Jesus in fact had been with her the day she died, as He had been with her in one way or another her whole life. I knew that Jesus was with my Emilie. . . .