As another community reels from tragedy, terror, and grief, many of us are at a loss of our own: What should we say? What do we do? How can we help?
We too are in shock. We grieve for these families and this community. We want them to know that we care. That what they are suffering is unacceptable to us.
So, many of us send thoughts and prayers–some of us quietly, in front of the news unfolding on TV, as we wake or climb into bed, in our homes or houses of worship. Others take to the airwaves, social media, and vigils to send support in the form of thoughts and prayers.
Is this wrong? Is it presumptuous? Is it “not enough?”
The truth is, it’s not for us to decide. Ours is to offer and wait.
There’s a reason our nation has taken to the time-honored tradition of offering thoughts and prayers in times of suffering and loss. We are a nation of many beliefs and different faiths, but we are all American. We care deeply.
What’s more, the offer of thoughts and prayers is a simple one, a quiet gift that requires absolutely nothing of the recipient. A gesture that says we see you. We care about you. We send our love and support from near and far, in the only way we know how.
Today some people argue that thoughts and prayers are not enough. That now is a time for action. In the weeks and months following the tragedy in my community this was the case for some. For our families, it was not.
We are all different.
Perhaps for some in the community of Aztec, New Mexico, rising up and making change at once will be the way. For others, giving back or finding faith will help. Some will choose a quiet retreat, some will focus on family, and others will return to work right away. People will choose a path of their own. Few will carry on in the same way or in the same time.
For our families “thoughts and prayers” made all the difference.
Our daughters were murdered nearly five years ago, along with 19 of their first grade classmates and 6 of their beloved teachers at Sandy Hook School. The thoughts and prayers of our friends, family, and strangers sustained us like nothing else could.
We took your love in its many forms––your cards and works of art, your poems and songs, your afghans and quilts, gifts, donations, and lovingly baked lasagnas, each making its own kind of difference. Yet it was the steady stream of thought and prayer that buoyed us through the long nights, heart-breaking decisions, and harsh realities that we had no choice but to face.
We felt your love and it made a difference.
The simple offer of thoughts and prayers meant that we needed only to receive, that we could reserve what energy we had to bear the weight of our loss, knowing that many good people stood beside us, waiting for us to determine the way forward from our deeply personal losses.
When the thought of taking another breath or moving another step was overwhelming, this simple gesture meant the world to us. We were not alone.
We cannot know with any certainty how our thoughts and prayers will be received by these families, or this community, or the next; but one thing is certain: Taking the time to think of and pray for them before taking action may better prepare us to listen and follow their lead, to respect their unique wishes, needs, and individual journeys forward.
Though we may never come to know a soul from Aztec, New Mexico, we know the power and beauty of the thoughts and prayers of others, so we openly choose to send ours. We know for some, they will make all the difference.
To the families, friends, and community of Aztec we send our thoughts and prayers.
May God bless you.
Michele Gay and Alissa Parker, Founders of Safe and Sound Schools
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.
We asked Scarlett Lewis, mother of Jesse Lewis and founder of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation to share some reflections with us this month…
February is the month of love. When we think of love, we think about our families, friends, pets, flowers…the things that makes us smile. Love makes us feel good.
What’s more, you can choose love.
The first step is to begin to think about what you think about. Just be aware of the steady stream of thoughts going in and out of your mind. Research shows that in general, we have between 60 and 80,000 thoughts per day. The majority of these thoughts (70%) are angry, not productive and don’t serve us. Up to 90% of our thoughts are repetitive. They are the same thoughts we had yesterday, the day before, the week before, and sometimes even years before! We know that every thought we have impacts us on a cellular level and affects our general well-being. Knowing this, we realize the importance of choosing love!
Although we don’t often think about it, love is a conscious choice. We make this choice, or not, many times during the day. Every time we choose love, we benefit mentally by firing corresponding neurons in our brain, and releasing feel good neurochemicals. We benefit physically as well, by strengthening our immune system, lowering our blood pressure and improving heart health. Emotionally, we experience greater happiness, deeper meaning, and more satisfaction in our lives.
When you have a negative or angry thought, you can actually change it into a loving thought. A lot of times we use negative self talk. “I can’t believe how dumb I am.” “I am unattractive.” “I am unlovable.” Would you say these things to a friend? Of course not. You can change this negative self-talk to, “I will learn from my mistakes.” “My inner beauty is reflected on my outside as well.” and, “I am worthy of love.”
If you find yourself remembering something that made you angry in the past, ask yourself if it is worth negatively impacting your health or even empowering the person who might have made you angry? When we dredge up negatives from the past, our body responds as if it is happening right now. Our hearts beat quicker, our cheeks flush and we feel the same anger coming back. Stop there. Choose love. Take your power back and choose a different thought.
An easy shortcut to choosing love is to think of something you’re grateful for when you’re feeling angry or sad. It’s impossible to have a grateful thought and an angry thought at the same time.
Perhaps the best way to choose love is to do something for someone else. Research shows that doing for others promotes social connection and cultivates relationships. When we do something for someone else it counteracts depression, anger and anxiety. It increases our self-confidence and gives us a sense of purpose. In fact, studies have shown practicing compassion in action increases your lifespan. All the love and energy we give out, comes back to us, and the personal benefits are countless.
This is the perfect month to start choosing a loving thought over an angry thought. That is how the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement began. I found a message my six year old son, Jesse, had written on our kitchen chalkboard shortly before he was murdered in the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He wrote, “Nurturing Healing Love.” I knew if his killer had been able to give–and receive love–that this tragedy would never have taken place.
At Jesse’s funeral, I told the congregation that I believed the whole tragedy started with an angry thought. And an angry thought can be changed. I asked everyone to “think about what they were thinking about,” and choose one loving thought over an angry thought every day.
Some of those in attendance told me that this one simple act has transformed their lives. Choosing to change just one angry thought into a loving thought a day, will help you feel better, will benefit those around you, and through the ripple effect will help make the world a safer, more peaceful and loving place.
Learn more about the life’s work of Scarlett Lewis and the movement that her son Jesse has inspired at jesselewischooselove.org!
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
On December 14, 2012, I came home from a long day at high school only to find my mother crying in front of the TV. It was my senior year. I didn’t need any other stressors in my life. I was in the process of sending college applications and writing essays.
I asked my mother what happened. “Que paso?” She told me that 26 people were shot at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. “Twenty of them were just babies. Little kids,” said my mother as she sobbed and pointed at the TV.
I stood there motionless staring at the television. A million thoughts ran through my mind. How could this happen? Why did it happen? Who would take the lives of innocent children at an elementary school? What steps did the school take to protect to the students? Was I even safe in my own school?
I found myself frustrated and angry. I wanted to do something, but what could I do? I was just a senior in high school.
Four years later, I found myself a Boston University College of Communication student as a PRLab account executive for Safe and Sound Schools. Maybe it was destiny, it was my opportunity to finally do something about school safety.
Using my skills and knowledge of public relations, I worked with my PRLab team, Yunong Song and Xiangyi Zhao, to find creative ways to spread the word about school safety. When we heard about Safe and Sound’s #givingtuesday fundraising campaign, Change for School Safety, we knew that we had to get everyone at COM involved.
We first presented to the entire PRLab agency of a 100 students. As we explained why we as an agency need to get involved, we heard the many stories of students recounting where they were the day of the Sandy Hook tragedy. They told us how they felt unsafe returning to school after it happened and revealed their standing concern for their young siblings, nieces and nephews. PRLab accepted to be a part of the #ChangeforSchoolSafety.
Eager to get a head start, every PRLab student dropped their spare change in our Change for School Safety jar –a jar that students have access to in our meeting room, so they (and their clients) can drop off change anytime.
We didn’t stop there. On November 7, we challenged the AdLab agency to be a part of the Change for School Safety. As we left the presentation, the entire AdLab class yelled at us. “You guys are going down!”
It was a good feeling. It was also good to hear that one of the AdLab students, Emily Hartwell, was going to make her own jar. “I am really happy that PRLab challenged us to participate in Change for School Safety. I am also participating at home by making my own school safety jar for my house.”
As BU students, we want to know our campus and every other campuses throughout the nation is safe. Every child in America deserves to learn in a safe environment. Every parent in America deserves to know that their child is safe at school. We need to rethink school safety. We can’t wait for someone else to make that change. You have to be the change you want to see in this world.
Our team is working hard to get Boston University students involved in the Change for School Safety by talking to people, putting up flyers around campus, and getting people to understand why school safety should not be taken for granted. I just hope that by talking to at least five students a day, we can get other students from other colleges and universities to participate. I hope it encourages them tell five others and so on –family, friends, coworkers, professors, anyone. School safety should be on everyone’s mind. It needs to be a priority.
Will you take the challenge and be a part of the change to make schools safer for all students?
Maria, PRLab student at the Boston University College of Communication