Latter-day Saint Life

Miracles after Sandy Hook: How a Latter-day Saint family has felt heaven’s presence after their daughter’s death


Alissa and Robbie Parker remember the first time they realized their daughter Emilie had become an unseen angel to others. A letter arrived from New Mexico from the mother of Emilie’s good friend, Arianna. Arianna had been devastated by Emilie’s death, becoming quiet and withdrawn. Then one day, Arianna’s parents heard her speaking animatedly to someone while she played alone in the backyard. She seemed happy, excited. When her parents asked Arianna who she was speaking with, she replied, “It’s Emilie. She is here with me. Can you feel her?” The Parkers have learned the power of those words for themselves as they have grown closer to Emilie and their Heavenly Father, feeling their love and influence from beyond the veil.

On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza methodically pulled a green utility vest over his black shirt, black fatigues, and black canvas belt and slid black fingerless gloves over his emaciated knuckles. He grabbed a pair of sunglasses and his mother’s Bushmaster semi-automatic assault rifle along with magazines and two handguns. Before leaving his house in Newtown, Connecticut, the 20-year-old crept into his mother’s bedroom, shooting her four times in the head with a .22 caliber Savage rifle. Then, with the assault rifle and pistols in hand, he stole his mother’s 2010 Honda Civic and drove three miles to the school he had attended just 10 years earlier—Sandy Hook Elementary.

Once at the door, Lanza used the assault rifle to shoot his way through the plate glass window and into the building. It was just after 9:30 a.m. Sandy Hook principal Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, vice principal Natalie Hammond, and school psychologist Mary Sherlach rushed into the hallway to investigate the noise. Lanza turned his high-powered rifle on the three women, killing Hochsprung and Sherlach and injuring Hammond. Hammond lay motionless on the ground even as additional gunfire struck her,  waiting until Lanza disappeared before dragging herself into a nearby room, using her own body to barricade the door.

At 9:35:39 a.m., the police received a terrifying call reporting a shooter roaming the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary. At 9:38:15 a.m., the first police officers arrived at Sandy Hook, knowing nothing more than the first few disjointed reports they received over the phone. Inside the school, Lanza made his way into two classrooms of first graders. In classroom 8, Lanza murdered substitute teacher Lauren Rousseau, behavioral therapist Rachel D’Avino (who had only worked at the school one week), and more than a dozen 6 and 7-year-old children who were huddled together, hiding. Only one girl survived.

In classroom 10, Lanza fatally shot first-grade teacher Victoria Leigh Soto when she stepped in his path, attempting to shield her students with her body. Lanza opened fire on the children hidden around the room, reloading and continuing even after his gun jammed. In that classroom, Lanza killed five students and two adults. The body of Anne Marie Murphy, a teacher’s aide who worked with special needs students, was later found covering the body of a 6-year-old boy she had attempted to save from the attack. After his murderous rampage, Lanza picked up his Glock and fired one round into the hallway before putting the pistol to his head and pulling the trigger.

In just under four and a half minutes, the deadliest elementary or secondary school shooting in U.S. history had ended. In all, Lanza fired 154 shots from his rifle and two from his Glock, killing 20 children and six school employees in a heinous and sickening act of violence.

The Unthinkable

Alissa Parker awakened to two blue eyes staring at her, just inches from her own. Her 6-year-old, Emilie, had crawled into bed, taking her husband, Robbie’s, place as he headed into work as a physician’s assistant at Danbury Hospital. The two went to Emilie’s room where she put on a fashion show before picking out her ensemble— a pink shirt with a ruffled pink skirt and pink leggings. It was a crisp winter morning as Alissa dropped Emilie off at the bus stop. Not long after, she received a phone call. An automated voice told her there had been a shooting at her daughter’s school. With shaking hands, Alissa raced to Sandy Hook Elementary.

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Evacuated children congregated around the firehouse, reuniting with their families. Alissa couldn’t find Emilie anywhere. While Robbie was trapped at the hospital, which had been placed on lockdown, Alissa waited for hours to learn any new information, her heart filling with sickening fear that increased by the moment.

In the afternoon, an officer announced the unthinkable: 20 children had been murdered. But none of the names of the victims were released. Robbie arrived shortly after, and the two were together at 3:30 p.m. when Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy arrived to confirm the worst fears of every parent still waiting to be reunited with their son or daughter: all of their children had died.

Signs of Love

Confusion, shock, overwhelming emptiness, loss—so many emotions broke over the Parkers in that moment. When Alissa and Robbie reached their car, wondering how they would tell their two other little girls, Madeline and Samantha, that their sister was not returning home, Robbie suggested they  pray together.

The prayer was simple but poignant. They needed God’s help, love, and compassion because they were now broken and lost. Immediately, a peace and love flooded Alissa and Robbie, reassuring them that God would not abandon them. “Looking back, that was such a vital, pivotal time for us,” Robbie says. “Even though it lasted just a fleeting second, [there was] this warmth and this comfort and this understanding of ‘I’m here for you,’ and it was gone. Then going home and having to talk to the girls and having all these tough things happen, I knew I had that one moment that I could look back on, that I  could carry with me.”

During this time of darkness, thousands reached out to the Parkers, demonstrating that goodness and light still existed in a world they felt was shattered and dim.

“The first thing everyone wanted to do was to help, to serve, to do something,” Nancy Hintze, Alissa’s visiting teacher, recalls.

During this time when media vans still flooded Newtown, triggering ongoing memories of the tragedy, Hintze quietly delivered meals from ward members to the Parker home, the stake silently covered the expenses for the funeral, and the ward created three Christmas trees filled with angels donated by those who wanted to show their love for the Parkers.

“It was amazing to see how the gospel of Jesus Christ really acts in your life. It got away from all the repetitive motion that we can find in the Church and [moved to] people bearing one another’s burdens and the love that the gospel brings into your life,” Robbie says. “That was one of the few times in my life where I thought, ‘This is what the gospel is. . . . This is really what living a Christlike life means in the flesh.’ It was such a beautiful thing.”

More small miracles followed. Days after the shooting, a truck pulled in front of the Parker home and a small family business owner went to work, filling the Parker’s heating-oil tank with $500 of oil. Bins of gifts, paintings, letters, and other donations from complete strangers filled a warehouse set aside for the families of the Sandy Hook victims.

One of the most moving displays of love came unexpectedly while Emilie’s body was being transported to Utah for her burial. “I hated the idea of Emilie being alone or being treated like freight or cargo,” Robbie remembers. His and Alissa’s anxiety was soothed, however, when they arrived at the funeral home and learned that Emilie hadn’t been alone during the journey. “When we approached the entrance [to the funeral home], it was lined with flowers and stuffed animals and cards,” Alissa remembers.

The Parkers learned the gifts had all arrived with Emilie. The crews from U.S. Airways who helped transport Emilie’s body left small gifts and cards behind, letting the family know she was cared for every step of the way. Later, the Parkers learned from a friend who had been onboard the plane that flew Emilie to Salt Lake City that the pilot had asked everyone to remain seated and silent as they unloaded the body of a victim from Sandy Hook. Nearly 100 airline employees lined the tarmac, paying respect as the tiny casket was unloaded and carried away.

“That was incredibly powerful to me. It was such a beautiful moment of respect that they showed for what happened to my daughter and the life that she had,” Alissa says. “I had been dreading the idea of her being shipped, but they changed that narrative for me. They made it instead of something really cold and dark to be something incredibly beautiful and touching.”

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.’”

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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.”

Feeling Forgiveness

Forgiveness and peace, however, still didn’t come easily or immediately for the Parkers. “Hating Adam Lanza felt good. But I could see now that hate and anger were limiting me from moving forward,” Alissa writes in her new book, An Unseen Angel.

“The more I read, researched, and learned everything I could about the shooter and his history, the more questions surfaced to which I would never find answers. . . . I finally came to the conclusion that I would never know. I would never fathom what was in his heart. But God could. God knew how to hold him accountable. God knew how to judge him. That burden was not for me to carry; rather, it was for me to lay down at God’s feet. . . . As I made this decision, a burden so deep and so heavy it had nearly crushed me was physically lifted from me. My heart burned with a joy so powerful it brought me to tears.”

As their sadness, anger, and hatred gradually faded, Robbie and Alissa were able to feel Emilie’s presence near. “My heart needed to heal in order to feel her again,” Alissa says. “It wasn’t until my heart had softened that those moments where I could have her be with me became available. They were small, short, beautiful, intensely euphoric moments that I wanted to hold onto with all of my might, but yet, somehow it would probably overwhelm me.”

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Alissa continues, “I mostly feel Emilie around her sisters. It’s just such a sweet thing to think that she is still their big sister and loves them and is with them.” The first time Alissa felt Emilie was Easter morning. “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” was playing on the stereo and Alissa was overwhelmed with thoughts of what was missing from their family celebration: Emilie’s Easter basket, her excitement over a new fancy dress, her smile, her hugs.

But as Madeline and Samantha twirled to the music, Alissa was enveloped by a sense of warmth, peace, and comfort. Alissa writes:

“I knew that Emilie was there dancing with her sisters as they had done so many times before. In that moment, I was blessed to finally feel all the happiness of those memories again, all the joy and the laughter without the pain of loss. Emilie was giving me the chance to see that our family would always be connected, through time and eternity. . . . For that moment, we were all there as a family, tied together eternally by the redeeming love of Jesus Christ. The feeling faded quickly, but even after it left, I knew I had been changed forever, lit with a new light of hope.”

Finding God

Despite the darkness and pain that came from losing Emilie, the Parkers have found their relationship with their Heavenly Father growing stronger and more complete as they learn to rely on His grace and forgiveness, understanding His love with new depth. “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,” Robbie recalls. “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.”

“Sometimes people want to ask ‘Where is God in all of this?’” Hintze says. “It [is] very easy to see and dwell and live in the darkness. . . . [However,] if you want to be in the light, you have to look for it, you have to work for it, you have to be diligent, but it is always there, and that is where we will find God. It is a choice we have to make to seek it out. Alissa and Robbie have made that choice over and over again.”

Safe and Sound

Since Emilie’s passing, the Parkers have used their personal experience to become advocates for school safety and art therapy.

Along with Michele Gay, another mother who lost her daughter during the Sandy Hook shooting, Alissa established Safe and Sound Schools, a nonprofit that seeks to empower communities to build safer schools. In addition to providing customizable programs, podcasts, materials, and resources, Safe and Sound Schools helps create school safety councils, allowing students the chance to improve their school’s safety with innovative solutions.

In addition, the Parkers have established a nonprofit focusing on supporting local art communities and helping children who have suffered trauma, neglect, or abuse through art therapy. The organization, Art Connection, was inspired by Emilie, who was a prolific artist and used pictures to record her feelings and bring light and joy to others.

“[This experience] has changed us. It has made us better, and it has inspired us to do things that we otherwise wouldn’t have done,” Robbie says. He recalls a message one woman shared with him. “She said, ‘Isn’t it amazing how God won’t waste an opportunity?’ For anyone else who is going through whatever it is that they’re going through, if they can look at it with that same mentality, that this is an opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted. As hard and as difficult as it might be, it shouldn’t be wasted because God’s not going to waste it.”

Learn more about Alissa and Robbie's incredible story of hope and healing in An Unseen Angel.

An Unseen Angel

An Unseen Angel follows Alissa Parker after she lost her daughter Emilie in the Sandy Hook Elementary mass shooting. Alissa started a life-changing journey to answer soul-searching questions about faith, hope, and healing. As she sought for the peace and comfort that could help mend her broken heart, she learned, step by step, how to open her heart to God's grace and will.

The story of Alissa and Emilie reminds us that the bonds of love continue beyond this life and that despite tragedy and heartache, we can find strength in our family and our faith.

Lead image by Jed Wells; other images courtesy of the Parker family
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