This post, written by Michele Gay and her family, originally appeared in The Newtown Bee on November 17, 2017.
December 14, 2017, will mark five years without loved ones for families of children and educators killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The Newtown Bee will share remembrances of victims of 12/14 throughout the fall, written by family members or with the assistance of staff at The Newtown Bee. Not all families care to participate, and we respect that. This week, the family of Josephine Gay shares these words.
December 2017 brings the fifth anniversary of losing our daughter and sister Josephine Grace at Sandy Hook School. The youngest of three daughters and the center of our family’s life, she was born on December 11, 2005, in Columbia, Md.
Just a few months after Josephine’s birth, our family would move from the bustling Baltimore-Washington suburbs to the small Northeastern town of Newtown. After months of house hunting, phone calls, and research, we settled on the quiet little village of Sandy Hook.
Josephine lived most of her life of 7 years and 3 days as a Newtown resident, among some of the finest friends, neighbors, and community members that we could have hoped for. Those closest to our family knew her best as “Joey.”
She was affectionate and friendly, determined and hardworking, mischievous and fun-loving. She was the “girly-est” of our girls. Joey adored her older sisters and worked hard to keep up with and direct them whenever and however possible.
As she grew, we watched her closely, noting great differences between her development and that of her older sisters. Close to her second birthday, she was diagnosed with autism, and later with global apraxia and apraxia of speech. She worked very hard to learn to move her body, communicate, and meet the milestones that had come so easily to her older sisters.
Her indomitable spirit, determination, and desire to connect with others would ensure that her family and friends understood her and looked out for her, going to great lengths to share in and celebrate her accomplishments. Her classmates eagerly learned sign language and encouraged and included her whenever they could. She was blessed with true friendships and loved by many of her peers, neighbors, and teachers.
Yet the gap between her growth and that of her peers would increase as they progressed through preschool and kindergarten. The resources of our small town school system could not fully support her learning and development, so she would spend hours after school and on weekends at occupational, physical, speech, and behavioral therapy, her sisters tagging along and participating wherever they could.
As she approached first grade, our family had to make a difficult decision: continue this challenging routine or search for a community with the resources to more fully support Josephine. We labored over the decision, knowing that life in Newtown had provided a safe, supportive, and compassionate community for Joey and our family. We wondered if we would find another place on earth like this.
We found our new home in nearby Sudbury, Mass., and we began to prepare for our move in January 2013. We looked forward to this new chapter and the new opportunities that awaited our family, and took comfort in the fact that we would never be far from our Newtown friends and neighbors.
Despite our hopes and dreams, plans and preparations, Josephine would never move with us. She was killed in her classroom along with many of her beloved friends and teachers at Sandy Hook School on the morning of December 14, 2012. The loss of Josephine is still unimaginable and as difficult to understand as it is to bear.
Yet our love for her never ends. Our faith that she lives in heaven sustains us. Our friends and family are ever mindful and prayerful for us. Somehow we are moving forward with her.
Carrying on with our move only one month after her death was an overwhelming undertaking. It was difficult to imagine how we would survive without the love and support we felt in our Newtown community. Nevertheless, we made the move with the support of many Newtown friends and neighbors and were received with open arms in Sudbury.
Only a few hours away from our Newtown friends and neighbors and the families of loss that we clung to, we made frequent trips “home” for support, meetings, and difficult decisions. We chose when to come and go and which events we had the energy to attend and support.
Living outside of Newtown, our family was free from many of the difficult pressures and challenges now facing the community. We resolved to build and protect our daughter’s legacy ourselves and in our own time.
We chose to create a legacy for Joey that focused on her extraordinary life, not her tragic death. As her family, we are honored to be the custodians of her voice and her legacy. Although it has been both eye-opening and heartbreaking to witness the efforts of others to use her memory and our tragic loss for their own politics, purposes, and pursuits; many friends, neighbors, and perfect strangers have rallied around and alongside us with unconditional and unwavering support, helping us build and protect a legacy fit for Josephine.
Joey loved school, her friends, and teachers. She lived a wonderful life both gifted and challenged by autism. She thrived in our family of faith. These are the pillars of her legacy, the legacy that we have built with the support of so many generous hearts and hands both in Newtown and nationwide.
We started building Joey’s legacy first with the Doug Flutie, Jr Foundation for Autism. As donations from friends, family, and strangers poured in following her death, we opened Joey’s Fund for families with autism. Joey’s Fund has granted more than $55,000 each year since the tragedy to provide direct support to families with autism. We see the generous spirit and smile of our daughter alive and well in the faces of these exceptional children.
In the spring of 2013, we founded Safe and Sound Schools with the Parker family [whose daughter, Emilie, also was killed during the tragedy] to help school communities build and ensure the safest possible learning environment for children and teachers. Traveling the country advocating, speaking, and teaching with the guidance of national school safety experts, we’ve watched this grassroots effort blossom and grow, helping thousands of school communities striving for safety.
December 14th is always a difficult day for us. This year, like every year since 2012, we will attend early Mass, spend the day together sharing memories, and thanking God for His steady presence in our lives.
We will celebrate Joey’s 12th birthday this year on December 11th, wearing purple in her honor, tying purple balloons on the mailbox (a tradition started by our Newtown friends and neighbors), and accepting donations in her memory for Joey’s Fund for families with autism. To learn more or support Joey’s Fund please visit: http://bit.ly/2AlbSUF.
We continue our work with Safe and Sound Schools, sharing our message of hope, education, and empowerment with school communities across the country. To learn more about Safe and Sound Schools or to support or join our national effort, please visit safeandsoundschools.org.
We are grateful for the many thoughts, prayers, and acts of humble service that have lifted us up and helped us carry on in memory of our precious daughter and sister, Joey. We eagerly wait for the day that we can see and hold her, not only in our hearts and minds, in our arms once again.
With love and gratitude,
Bob, Michele, Sophie and Marie Gay 💜
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.
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.
The morning of December 14th, 2012, my world was shattered, forever changed. An armed attacker broke into my daughter’s school. He took my daughter’s life and the lives of many other children and educators that day.
Like so many others in our little community, I was instantly devastated. The actions of one man had changed my life forever. I had no idea how to move forward or make sense of anything anymore. Yet, two days later, I would speak for the first time to a person who would again change my life forever, Michele Gay, Josephine’s mother.
Our daughters, sweet friends in this life, lovers of all things girly and fancy, had left this world for the next–together. Michele understood my pain and sorrow–and my desire to make meaning of it, to use this pain for a purpose. Together we made a choice. We chose to be inspired by our daughters. We would let them lead the way.
We focused on the world they shared together, the place where they made friends, shared laughter and learned together –school. This place was so special to our children and our families. It was the heart of our community. In honor
of our girls, we decided to help others protect this special place in their own communities. We made it our mission to ensure that every school is the safe, warm, welcoming place that every child deserves.
Together we created Safe and Sound Schools. With the help of an ever-growing, nationwide community of dedicated parents, educators, law enforcement, community members, and safety, emergency & mental health professionals, we have been able to create something to make our daughters proud. Something that over the last four years has helped the communities close to us and all over the country. Together we have created a change that is working, inspiring others to work hard and work together for the safety of schools. We are honored to share the inspiration and spirit of our daughters to help other communities, and honored again and again to see this inspiration bring positive change to so many school communities.
On this fourth anniversary of our tragic loss, we choose again–to remember our daughters and their friends & beloved educators for the positive forces they were and continue to be. We marvel at the inspiring work of so many, work that makes our children and our schools safer.
There is much work to do, but we will never stop or give up. We invite you to join us in remembering our daughters and carrying on their legacy. A legacy of helping others, connecting with people, working hard, and doing better–together.
We thank you for your support of our families and our mission for Safe and Sound Schools.
– Alissa Parker
On the morning of December 14, 2012, I received a phone call that changed my life forever. It was an automated phone call from the Newtown School District informing me that there had been a shooting at one of the schools. Shocked, I listened to the message waiting for information. There is a shooting? How did this happen? What do I do? What is happening with my daughter Emilie? What does her school even do in an event like this? But the message didn’t address any of these questions.
After the short recording ended, I stood there confused. I wondered what to do next. I was standing in a children’s store, Christmas shopping with my youngest daughter. I got into my car and started driving towards the school. I called my husband to see what he could find out. He said the shooting had been at the elementary school and he heard on the news that parents were not supposed to go to the school yet to pick up their kids. Desperate to do something, I went to the preschool to pick up my daughter Madeline. There I was told by other parents that it was okay to go and get our children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I quickly loaded my daughters into the car and headed to the elementary school. The road was so backed up with cars and emergency vehicles. It felt like forever before I reached the school.
The driveway to Sandy Hook Elementary School was long and curved, the school not visible from the main road. The volunteer firehouse was situated at the corner of the main road and the school driveway. Approaching this corner, I took in the chaos. Children, educators, parents and first responders were all running around every which way. I imagined how scared Emilie must be around all that chaos and I couldn’t wait to find her. Cars were piled up everywhere and some cars were even parked on neighboring people’s lawns. As I ran down the road with my youngest daughters towards the school, I was told three different directions to find Emilie. By the time I reached the firehouse, I was confused, emotional and frustrated. What is going on? What am I supposed to do? Unable to find Emilie or her teacher, I was directed to the back of the firehouse. I was told to wait there.
I had imagined this room to be filled with joy as parents and children found each other and embraced with big hugs. Instead, the room filled up with parents like me. We waited and waited. Police officers and representatives from the school district were all there, but they looked just as confused as we did. I wanted to know what had happened. I wanted to know where Emilie was. But every time I asked for information, I was told nothing. What I didn’t know was that our beloved principal was gone. Without her, no one knew what to do. There was no orderly release of children to parents. Neighbors and family members were taking home other children, adding to the confusion and panic of parents arriving, unable to locate their child.
Only a week before the shooting at Sandy Hook, there had been an evacuation drill. It included an announcement, classroom lines walking calmly from the school and lining up at the firehouse, side by side. Controlled. What Sandy Hook had practiced wasn’t anything like the scene I saw that day. So many things never imagined happened that day. Part of our mission at Safe and Sound Schools is to help share our experience to help other schools around the country learn to be prepared. Schools that we have worked with across the country are now making change with us. They are preparing themselves for the unimaginable. What if their principal is unavailable? Who is the backup? Do teachers and students know where to go? Do the parents know the plan? By educating schools to ask these and many other questions, we are making an impact upon the preparedness and confidence of school communities nationwide.
Help us spread the word and share our resources with other school communities. Explore our website and free resources to see how our team of experts can help your school prepare for safety.
Alissa Parker, Co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools and mother to Emilie Parker
Sometimes as a father of school aged children I feel like I spend a lot of my time on the sidelines. Whether that is cheering them on at a sporting event, nervously watching them in a recital, or complimenting them about a school project I didn’t know was due last Friday.
I often wonder: Do my children know how much I care about them? And, what else can I do to be more involved in their lives? And how can I keep them safe when I am not present?
Of course these questions are natural for fathers. We, like our counterparts, are required to sacrifice so much for the overall benefit of our children. As a parent –a father–there is nothing more important than the well-being and safety of our family.
After my oldest daughter, Emilie, was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school, my wife Alissa and other grieving mothers from Sandy Hook met to support one another. As their relationships grew, so did their focus: ensuring the safety of children in school. The women started Safe and Sound Schools. I am so impressed with what they have accomplished.
Like many of the other fathers, I supported them–from the sidelines. That was until I realized that this is a game I can join. This is a game I need to join.
Our children spend about the same amount of time at school each week as we parents do at work. As fathers, our responsibility to ensure our children’s safety and well-being goes beyond the walls of our own home.
As I have met with teachers, administrators, safety and security experts, I have found a group of people who genuinely care about my children’s safety as much as I do. Together we have recognized problems and found solutions that have benefited thousands of children.
If you want to know how to be more involved in your child’s life, in their safety, explore the Safe and Sound School site to access free resources. Get involved, your children will benefit from your love and hard work…whether they know it or not.
Robbie Parker is husband to Alissa and father of Emilie, Madeline and Samantha. Robbie, is a Neonatal Physician’s Assistant, a contributor to Safe and Sound Schools and co-founder of the Emilie Parker Art Connection, founded in honor of Emilie’s love of art.
On December 14, 2012, I had two children in Newtown schools. My daughter, Charlotte, was one of the 20 children who died at Sandy Hook Elementary and my oldest son, Guy, was in 5th grade at Reed Intermediate School. Three weeks after the shooting, Guy returned to school on January 3rd, and was introduced to the therapy dogs that had already been visiting the school in the previous weeks. In the immediate days following the tragedy, dogs around the country were deployed to Sandy Hook and Newtown and were received openly and with gratitude by the community. The Newtown school district noticed the positive reaction to the dogs and deployed therapy dog teams to many of it’s schools. The intent was to comfort the students and the staff, but the dogs also added a layer of security that one may not anticipate or notice.
The security I speak of is not the type that protects one’s physical safety. I am speaking of the emotional security they can provide. For my son, returning to school was distressing. He felt exposed, vulnerable, and had exit plans for threatening scenarios. Throughout the next months he would spend a great deal of time with the therapy dogs. These dogs gave a great deal more than just love and comfort. The idea that the single job of a therapy dog is to make people “feel better” is a big misconception. No dog was going to make him ”feel better” after his sister just died, but what they did provide was an opportunity to allow my son to feel safe, understood, and loved. With them, he could be vulnerable and let his guard down. He did not have to pretend that he was OK. When in their presence, Guy felt safe enough to feel what he was feeling. The added bonus is that he also believed he was physically safer with a dog nearby and viewed them as protectors.
The impact therapy dogs had on my son was profound. Last September as we approached the third anniversary since Charlotte died at Sandy Hook, Guy became a published author at the age of 13. His book, The Dogs of Newtown, features many of therapy dogs that visited his school and gives tribute to their work. Therapy dogs did not fix Guy, nor cure him of grief for his sister. Nothing can fix something like this, but he has demonstrated how an individual can grow from profound adversity with the right support and love. I am incredibly proud of my son. His experience, along with Charlotte’s love for dogs, inspired my husband and I to create the program Charlotte’s Litter which advocates and supports therapy dogs in educational settings. It is our hope that schools will recognize that therapy dogs can help students feel emotionally safe and supported and aid to developing well rounded students.
– JoAnn Bacon
JoAnn Bacon is mother to Guy and Charlotte Bacon. JoAnn and her husband, Joel, founded the Charlotte’s Litter Therapy Dog Program in memory of their daughter Charlotte. The Bacon family advocates for the use of therapy dogs in education. For more information about their work and books please visit: www.charlotteslitter.org and www.gooddogsgreatlisteners.com.