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For most us, February 14th marks Valentine’s Day to celebrate with loved ones, but for many in Parkland, Florida, it is the day that marks the tragic loss of 17 innocent lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Anniversaries of trauma are difficult days. They evoke intense emotion and bring back traumatic memories from the tragedy.

It is sometimes anticipation of the anniversary that is worse than the actual day. This is not meant to say that the anniversary is an easy day, by any means. However, anticipation of the anniversary builds over time, so it lasts longer than the actual anniversary day.

Anticipation of the anniversary holds a lot of unknown. How will the day go? Will I be able to get out of bed? Will I be able to keep it together?

The anniversary and the time leading up to the anniversary is a time to pause and process your emotions. Recovery from trauma is a process. It takes time to move through the stages the grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Not everyone will experience all stages, and the order you go through them can vary. Recovery usually requires painful emotions be thoroughly processed. Journeys after trauma and loss will be different for everyone.

February 14, 2019 marks one year since 14 innocent students and 3 innocent teachers lost their lives to gun violence. It marks one year of nightmares and flashbacks for the surviving students, teachers, the MSD families, and the larger Parkland community.  It marks one year since a tragic Valentine’s day, where many started the school day like any other, left forever changed by mass violence.

To those impacted by the shooting, you may feel a rush of overwhelming feelings as you reflect on the past year and look ahead to next.Tragic flashbacks running through your head and you can’t seem to get away from your emotions. Outside pressure for what you will do or how you will mark the day may be overwhelming.

Pause. Breathe, and breathe again. These feelings are normal. If you wait a little longer and focus on your breathing, the uncomfortable emotions will eventually pass. When the sun rises on February 15, 2019, the first anniversary of the worst day of your life will pass too. It may feel like a weight has been lifted from your chest.

As you continue your recovery journeys, I send my thoughts, prayers and a few words of advice from a fellow survivor: Don’t compare your experiences. Make self-care a priority. Be kind to yourself.  Be patient with yourself. And remember, breathe.


Author: Lisa Hamp, Virginia Tech Survivor

What inspired you to write and share your story?

The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School affected so many people, and I felt like there was this whole other side to the story no one even knows about. Losing my daughter Emilie completely paralyzed me. I felt such a great loss. In my search to find and understand my daughter’s “new life,” if you will, I was able to also find forgiveness and peace. Sharing that journey with the world was not an easy decision, but I felt like it was the right thing to do.

This book is incredibly personal, filled with private, painful, but also very precious memories of you and your family. Throughout the process of writing this book, what did you learn about yourself?

I learned a lot actually.  When I began writing, I had no idea what story I was going to tell through my experiences. I knew that we had had many unique experiences that were important our family and I wanted to record them for my young daughters. But as the story began to unfold on paper and I began to connect the dots, I saw for the first time the whole story. I was stunned.  The picture before me was so beautiful! To see how all the pieces connected together was amazing.  I felt very humbled by the many blessings our family had been given and how far we had come in the years following Emilie’s death.

In the book, we learn from Emilie that “Everything is connected!” This is one of the themes in your book. Can you talk about the connection between forgiveness and healing? What role has forgiveness played in your journey of healing?

In the beginning, forgiveness wasn’t even something I was thinking about.  I wanted to focus on my family and our healing, and the forgiveness part would come later.  But, of course that is not what happened. I found that healing and forgiveness went hand and hand and I couldn’t do one without the other.  

After Sandy Hook, you reveal that you struggled with your identity, the idea of being defined by tragedy. How important has this book been in helping you own your story, in helping you define you and/or your family’s identity?

Emilie was so much more than the tragedy at Sandy Hook.  Her life was full of color and light! I did not want her identity to be defined by someone else’s actions. This story gives people a look at the whole picture of what her life looked like, before and after.

You share many sweet stories of Emilie. It paints a colorful picture of Emilie’s personality. We learn that she was and continues to be a source of inspiration for many. How do you want your daughter to be remembered?

I guess I would want her remembered the way our family remembers her.  As a chatty, colorful, messy, caring, emotionally sensitive little girl that always put others before her.  She was a loving leader and playmate to her sisters, and an example of Christ-like love to my husband and me.  

How did you decide what stories you wanted to share and what stories you wanted to keep private for you and your family?

Oh, there is a whole additional book of stories we didn’t end up using for the book.  Some were by choice and some just didn’t fit the main thesis of the book. This is Emilie’s story and we had to use that as a guide to decided what stories needed to be told.  

For those who haven’t read the book, what are some of the themes readers can look forward to?

I hope people walk away understanding how connected we all are to the ones we love and that those connections are never truly lost. There is a lot of hope in knowing that. In the darkest of times, it can be hard to see the light. I learned through this experience that the light is all around us, we just have to choose to let it in.

What do you hope people will take away from An Unseen Angel ?

There is so much despair and darkness associated with the shooting at Sandy Hook and I hope this story will show people the other side. The side that can inspire us to look at the world in a different way… the way Emilie saw it. It’s a world full of color and hope and above all else, goodness.  

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Alissa Parker is the mother of one of the 20 children who died tragically in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. After Emilie’s death, Alissa began TheParkerFive blog as a tool to express the emotions she and her family experienced throughout the grieving process. She is also the cofounder of the Emilie Parker Art Connection, a charity helping local community arts programs for children, and Safe and Sound Schools, a touring national advocacy group that helps people take action to make schools safe.

From as early as I can remember, my daughter Emilie had crayons in her hands because she LOVED to color! I remember getting frustrated when I would clean our van and find melted crayons all over the floor. Crayons were her constant companion. Every year at Christmas, we would buy a Costco size stack of construction paper to work through for the year to come. As the piles of papers would stack up, I usually found a place to stash them for the time being. She couldn’t stand to throw any of her art away and I didn’t know what to do with it all.

After she died, the crates of drawings I have from Emilie have been such a treasure. As I looked through them, I realized they were a gift for me to see the world through her eyes. I saw her version of the events of her life, the good and the bad. I took all those drawings and compiled them into scrapbooks. When I need a reminder of good in this world, I turn to these drawings and see the bright colors of life in them.

Art for Emilie was a way to express herself. Since her death, my husband Robbie and I wanted to take Emilie’s love of art and pay it forward to those who need it the most. So we began The Emilie Parker Art Connection. Through the Art Connection, we have been able to give resources and opportunities for the art community in honor of Emilie’s memory. One program in particular we have been working with is Art with Heart. An organization who uses art to help children overcome trauma through creative expression. This is something that we have seen personally help our own children in their grief for the loss of their sister.

As we look to continually improve our schools, we have found art to be an incredible resource. When art is used to decorate the halls and rooms of our schools, we are able to increase the connections our children feel to their environment. They gain a sense of increased ownership and pride with their school. This has been proven to decrease vandalism and destruction of property in our schools.

Art is a very powerful tool. It connects us to each other, to our community and schools. Most importantly, it can connect us to our own hearts.  When that connection is achieved, lives are changed forever. Personally I have been touched by the healing power of art. It has allowed me to heal. When I see that same healing power touch the children we have come into contact with, it warms my heart. Emilie would be so proud to know that her love is being shared and is helping others.