Pain and Peace
The funeral. The first Christmas without Emilie. Returning home. All were difficult transitions for the Parkers that were coupled with a brutal sense of finality.
“There is this part about being a member of the Church that makes us feel like when someone dies, we automatically have to be okay and comfortable with the fact that we know where they are and we understand the plan of salvation and therefore the rest should be easier,” Alissa shares. But she knows firsthand that is not always the case.
“After Emilie passed away, it was very hard for me to attend church. I didn’t want to sit in sacrament meeting surrounded by whole families that reminded me mine was broken. I didn’t want to hear the silver linings; they didn’t seem to help,” Alissa says. But one day, Madeline’s Primary teacher, Terri Burley, whose son had been hit and killed by a drunk driver while he was serving a mission in Argentina, offered a piece of counsel she and her husband personally received from Elder Holland during their journey to forgive the man who killed their son: “Elder Holland spoke tenderly about our broken hearts. He said, ‘It’s okay to be sad. A piece of your heart is missing. It’s missing because it belongs to your son, and he holds it until you are reunited with him.’”
Turley reminded the Parkers to “keep a tender and sensitive heart toward the Lord because He stands ready and willing to give all that He has. Bitterness tends to shut the conduit between heaven and earth.”
In order to give Robbie and Alissa time to heal emotionally and spiritually, Turley watched Madeline and Samantha one day a week for a year—an experience she says blessed her family’s life as much as it did the Parkers.
“It was the sweetest experience to have those little angels in my home,” Turley says. “My son Jeffrey has special needs. . . . He had changed after our other son passed away. It was like a little park or a little flame [had been] extinguished. Those little girls brought it back.”
She continues, sharing a particularly special moment she had with Madeline: “Madeline was sitting on my lap in Primary, and she was crying [about Emilie] and laid her little head on my shoulder. I was comforting her, and I whispered in her ear, ‘ I have a son up in heaven, too. I wonder if they are friends.’ Madeline stopped. She turned her body and looked straight at my face and said, ‘Sister Turley, don’t you worry, because your son is going to be resurrected and you will get to have him back, so don’t be sad.’ I thought, ‘That is the sweetest thing I have ever heard.’ Here I am trying to comfort her, and her first thought is to comfort me.”
Quickly, Turley realized that her interaction with the Parkers was healing her as well. She says, “I was becoming more and more whole myself.”
An Uncomfortable Prompting
In the months following Emilie’s death, Alissa ached to feel her daughter near. Searching for that moment, Alissa and Robbie attended the temple. But while in the celestial room, Alissa received inspiration she had not anticipated.
“My whole life I’ve heard of all these amazing experiences of people at the temple and feeling connected to those on the other side and I thought, ‘This is where I’m going to be able to feel closest to Emilie,’” Alissa recalls. “I’m anticipating this moment, waiting to feel her, and only thinking about her, and instead I hear a voice in my head that says, ‘You need to meet with the shooter’s father.’” But how could she meet with the father of the man who had murdered her daughter? A man who had killed 20 children in cold blood? The thought was strange and uncomfortable, but it persisted.
Once they reached the car, Alissa told Robbie they needed to meet with Adam Lanza’s father, Peter. arrangements were made, and Alissa and Robbie prepared the message they wanted to share: that Peter should release his son’s medical information to help others understand what led to the shooting.
During the meeting, the Parkers quickly learned that Peter Lanza, who had been estranged from his son for years, had already released his son’s medical records. He, too, longed to know what happened to his son.
The discussion “opened up this floodgate, and he just started to tell us everything he was trying to make sense of,” Alissa recalls. The Parkers learned of Adam Lanza’s constant battle with mental illness, of his struggles with Asperger’s, anxiety, OCD, anorexia, and possibly even schizophrenia.
“For me, that conversation was the first time where I had a chink in my armor broken off about looking at [Adam] as a person and seeing him as somebody,” Robbie says. “That was the first time I gained any sort of sympathy or empathy, which was really weird to feel because I felt very comfortable with the anger I had toward him.”
Alissa adds, “It was a real turning point for me as far as seeing him through different eyes. Up to that point, he had just been this monster to me. And that changed just a little, in that moment. Heavenly Father helped me see the man who murdered my daughter through His eyes. For me, forgiveness isn’t just this one moment where you decide that you’re done and you’ve forgiven someone and it’s over. It’s a process; it’s these small moments that lead you to find that forgiveness. That’s what it was for me. This was the first moment where I can identify that softening, that change.”