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Eight years ago, today, our lives were changed forever.  We readied our children for school without realizing these would be our last precious minutes together.

Yet here they are with us, safe and sound.

They live on in our hearts, our actions, and our mission.

They live on in the community we’ve created in their honor, the work accomplished in their names, and our collective determination to ensure that every school and every child is safe and sound.

As we remember today, we look to tomorrow with hope-filled hearts. We are inspired by our children, strengthened in our resolve, and grateful for each of you.

We invite you to remember today and work with us to build a safer tomorrow.

Please join us.


Michele Gay and Alissa Parker are the Co-Founder of Safe and Sound Schools

One of my Sandy Hook neighbors coined the phrase with her daughter on what would have been our daughter Josephine’s 8th birthday. Her daughter’s little fingers etched the proclamation in the fresh snowfall sparkling on the windshield.

And so we do, year after year. Today is the day we celebrate Joey’s 15th birthday. We invite friends, neighbors, and supporters to join us in remembering the light of our little girl, still shining brightly in all that we do in her name. Acts of kindness, smiles for strangers, support of families with Autism, ensuring safe and sound schools, protecting children and youth.

Many of us share in purple celebration today, for the little girl who loved all things “pur-pur” (as she would say it). This year, when so many are in need of support and a reason to celebrate, we invite you to join us.

Whether you don your purple, light a candle, pray for peace, or share an (air) hug, you celebrate the life and legacy of a little girl who changed lives. Without words. Without fame or fortune. With outstretched arms, an open heart, and a smile that to this day warms our souls, heals our hearts, and fuels our mission.

Today we celebrate Joey. Together we continue her work in this world.

Share your celebration with us on social media by using the hashtag #CelebrateJoey.


Michele Gay, Mother of Josephine Gay, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Safe and Sound Schools

Over seven years ago – shortly after Emilie’s death – I had a sleepless night that would forever change my life. That evening, Michele Gay and I had been discussing the tragedy at Sandy Hook and how we desperately wanted other school communities to learn from our experience. That one idea – after years of countless hours and hard work –became what is now Safe and Sound Schools. From the beginning Michele and I both felt like we were called to do this work and knew there would be many uncertainties about where that road would take us. Now looking back at what we have been able to accomplish, I am so incredibly proud of our work both as an organization and as individuals. This journey has not only changed me professionally – but also spiritually, helping me along my personal journey through grief and into healing.

As I stand here today a different person, a stronger person, I feel a familiar pull. That pull that once called me to school safety is now pulling me in an entirely new direction. At first, I strongly resisted that feeling. Safe and Sound Schools has become my second family and I LOVE the work we do! How could I ever step away?

But the pull continued. Over time, through a lot of reflection, and many long talks, I have been able to open my heart and my eyes to see a new journey ahead. As I move forward on this new path, I will step away from an active role within Safe and Sound Schools. Change is always hard—especially on this scale! And if I am being honest, I am both nervous and excited about this new direction. I will be spending more time with my family and continuing to work on my own personal healing.

With Michele leading the way, I am confident that our mission and our organization are in great hands. She has done an incredible job over the years as our Executive Director and will continue to do amazing work. For over eight years she has been my partner, my confidant, my friend, and above all else, my sister. Our daughters brought us together and that connection has bonded us forever. I love her and our Safe and Sound family dearly.

Safe and Sound was our gift to Emilie and Joey and I am proud of the legacy we have created to honor both of their lives. And though I will step away from my role on the team, I will never be far! You will still see me cheering from the sidelines, occasionally popping in, and watching this important work continue to change school communities across the nation.


Alissa Parker is the Co-Founder of Safe and Sound Schools, a school safety advocate, and author of An Unseen Angel: A Mother’s Story of Faith, Hope, and Healing After Sandy Hook.

Listen to the latest episode of The Sound Off, Moving Forward: Alissa Parker’s Next Chapter.

What are you doing this year for the anniversary?  Where will you be?  Is “anniversary” even the right word? These questions begin to rise up like bubbles with increasing frequency as we approach December 14th on the calendar, the day our children were killed alongside their classmates and teachers in the tragedy at Sandy Hook School.

We do our best to steel ourselves, think creatively, and plan mindfully; but as we draw near each year there’s just no getting around it.  This date looms heavy on the horizon and waits like an immovable boulder in the middle of the road.

My dear friend JoAnn whose beautiful daughter, Charlotte was killed in the tragedy recently wrote with bare honesty about her season of grief each year.  I was relieved to read that I am not the only one who finds herself – well, not herself, in the months surrounding this date.  Just a month ago, I found myself completely tongue-tied at one point in a talk I must have given a thousand times.  I wondered if something was wrong with my brain, if I should see a doctor.  I had been feeling fuzzy, exhausted, and more forgetful lately.

An honest conversation with another mother of loss revealed the truth.  I had been busy busying myself as I often do, hoping to escape what I cannot.

“It’s just a date on the calendar,” I tell myself.  We miss our children, their classmates, and teachers every day.  We miss the lives we had. We’ll never forget.  So why the need–or the expectation– for remembrance rituals?

My family celebrates Josephine’s birthday only a few days before the “anniversary” date. However bittersweet, it’s a gift to us, to many that loved her, and many that have come to know her after her death.  Old friends and family members reach out with posts and texts, and new friends & neighbors, families of loss, first responders, and supporters with kind nods and gestures too, many wearing purple. How Joey loved her purple.

Our Newtown neighbors, stalwart support for us that day and in the aftermath, still decorate the street with purple balloons every year on her birthday.  Our former babysitter releases balloons as we did together in our backyard seven years ago.  Last year our new neighbors lit their lampposts with purple bulbs in beautifully simple solidarity. Rituals.

As I write, I realize the answer to my own question about why we feel compelled to mark these days. My faith teaches me that my daughter is safe and happy, growing up in heaven.  I find immeasurable peace in this knowledge.  But here on earth, we “do something” together to support each other. We’re not made to do this alone.

While every day is a day of remembrance for us, this year our families will remember the lives of our daughters, Josephine and Emilie, with laughter and tears, shared stories, treasured memories, and our own forms of remembrance.

This year I find myself looking at December 14th as a day to remember others–those that supported us that day, and in the following weeks, months, and years. Every prayer, every note, every kindness sent to help us heal. We remember.

Last week I was decorating for the holidays late one night and caught a glimpse of purple outside.  I looked out the window to see the street lined with purple lamp lights once more…and it took my breath away.

I got the message.  We remember.

Thank you.

Michele Gay is Co-founder & Executive Director of Safe and Sound Schools.  A former teacher turned school safety advocate, following the loss of her daughter in the Sandy Hook School tragedy, Michele speaks and travels to communities across the country on a mission: every school safe and sound.

My heart is heavy. After learning about these recent suicides, I feel like I’m not doing enough. I’m sharing my story, but maybe I’m not sharing it with the people who need my help the most.  If you haven’t been impacted by a shooting, it’s natural to wonder, how did this happen? Why didn’t they seek mental health resources? The answer is not so simple.

As a physically uninjured survivor from the Virginia Tech shooting, I’m often told that I’m lucky. “Lucky” totally resonates with me. I feel lucky that I walked out of Norris Hall on April 16, 2007 unharmed. But it is important to recognize that “lucky” doesn’t correspond to an easy recovery journey.

It feels very selfish to ask for mental health resources when others were killed or wounded. But the truth is, physically uninjured survivors need help. Often, we as physically uninjured survivors, are in denial that we need resources or recognition. We have trouble raising our hands and advocating for ourselves. After trauma, it is so difficult to see clearly.

The psychological impact from mass shootings is difficult to measure. It can’t be measured quantifiably, like the number of gun shots fired. The psychological impact from mass shootings is close to impossible to see. We can’t see mental health the same way we see physical wounds and injuries. Mental health is something we feel.

For many shooting survivors, the feeling of safety in public is stripped the instant the gun shots are fired. It usually takes years to rebuild. In the interim, it is replaced with terror, sadness, loneliness and self-doubt. Survivors have to figure out how to deal with these feelings while regaining a sense of safety. We have to deal with anniversaries that evoke intense emotion and bring back traumatic memories from the tragedy. The thought of “moving forward” can be overwhelming and feel impossible.

It is common for survivors to create hierarchies of pain in their minds. Individuals who lost family members at the top, followed by physically injured survivors. We put ourselves, physically uninjured survivors, at the bottom. We start to think we don’t need resources, because others are experiencing more pain than we are. We start to think we should just suck it up and move on.

But what we need is quite the opposite. We need to feel validated that something traumatic happened to us. We need therapy dogs to pet and shoulders to cry on. We need good listeners. We need each other – fellow survivors.  We need our families and friends. It requires a village to get through recovery after a traumatic event. But so often, we don’t have that village. Most people will return to their daily routines and try to forget the horrific events of the past. But we as survivors, we will never forget.

By now, there are thousands of survivors of mass shootings, parents who lost loved ones, and law enforcement officers and medics who responded to these tragic events. These people may think for a long time that they weren’t impacted by the event. But while they may have escaped physical wounds, the mental wounds run deep. They may walk wounded for months, sometimes years, before realizing the impact the shooting had on them.

The most recent and public losses of survivors in Parkland and Sandy Hook remind us all that this road is long and it takes strong support and connectedness to survive the mental injuries of tragedy and loss. Our hearts and prayers are with these victims and their families today and always.


Author

Lisa Hamp, Virginia Tech survivor and Safe and Sound speaker

December 14, 2018

I still remember Emilie pacing back and forth through the endless, pink Barbie packaging that filled the aisle at Target. She couldn’t quite decide what to buy. She was picking out a gift for her sweet classmate, Josephine (Joey for short), for her seventh birthday party. Joey was autistic and apraxic, which meant she was non-verbal and limited in her ability to communicate. She was also loving, affectionate, and girly, very girly. Just like Emilie.

She was the perfect friend for Emilie, who loved having a captive audience to listen to her endless ideas and stories. Emilie and Joey had become dear friends during their time together in school. Emilie loved to tell me all the things she was learning about Joey and their every little interaction. Like when Joey would excitedly touch the puffy skirts Emilie would wear to school and the joy in her face when she would see Emilie’s Barbie backpack each morning. As Emilie continued pacing up and down the aisle, determined to find the perfect gift for Joey, she finally found it. A ballerina Barbie…tutu and all.

I will always remember the love Emilie and Joey had for not only each other, but for all their classmates, teachers, and friends. They loved their school! After their tragic deaths on December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook School, Michele and I chose to honor their lives. We built a legacy unique to our girls, a legacy devoted to protecting the sacred environment all children need to learn and grow safely – and joyfully! A legacy devoted to safe and sound schools. Every speech we give, every workshop we deliver, every program we create has our girls’ fingerprints all over it.

Emilie and Joey live on in our work, inspiring thousands of parents, students, teachers, administrators, and mental health and safety professions in their efforts to make schools a safe place for all. This year, as we mark the 6th anniversary of the tragedy that took their lives, help us celebrate their light, love, joy, and hope–and their legacy of safe and sound schools.

Joey and Emilie, we love you forever.


Alissa Parker is mother of Emilie Parker, killed in the tragedy at Sandy Hook School on December 14, 2012.  Alissa co-founded Safe and Sound Schools with Michele Gay, mother of Josephine Gay. Alissa is author of An Unseen Angel and a nationally sought after speaker on school safety, hope and healing.

As we look forward to continuing our work and mission in 2018, we’d like to share a look back at our work in the last half of 2017.

We kicked off the month of July with Michele delivering a keynote and afternoon workshops in Philadelphia for the Independent School Safety and Security Summit. Then it was off to the Campus Safety East Conference where co-founder Michele Gay presented alongside Lisa Hamp, Virginia Tech survivor and Safe and Sound contributor. Following this conference, Michele headed to Massachusetts to present to the Massachusetts Association of Superintendents in Cape Cod, reconnecting with many of our Massachusetts school communities and meeting many more. On the same day, speaker Frank DeAngelis presented on leadership lessons in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

The end of the month took Michele back to the the National Heritage Academies’ School Safety Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As the end of the month approached, Michele and Safe and Sound Speaker Lisa Hamp joined NASRO and attended the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. where Michele was honored to read the names of fallen school officers at the National Law Enforcement Memorial. It was a truly beautiful ceremony with many of our SRO friends from across the country in attendance. July travels concluded in California where Michele Gay, Kristina Anderson of the Koshka Foundation, and Safe and Sound board member Bob Martin spoke and networked with school safety leaders on the west coast.

In August, co-founder Alissa Parker attended the 2017 School Administrators Emergency Training Summit in where she presented and visited local leadership. Michele headed back to Massachusetts to present for the Westerly Public School staff and safety leadership.  

Community visits picked back up in September with Michele presenting at the IMF Women’s Security Awareness Training in Washington, D.C. She then traveled to Illinois to speak to Illinois Fire Service Administrative Professionals. Soon after, Safe and Sound speaker Frank DeAngelis traveled west to Sierra Vista High School in California to speak to school staff about his personal story and leadership lessons learned. In the east, Alissa traveled Massachusetts to share her story of faith, hope, and healing. She then traveled to Springfield, Illinois  to attend the Illinois Association of School Administrators Conference to speak on school safety. Meanwhile, Michele headed to Canada to attend the Ottawa Area Safe Schools Network Summit. September community visits concluded with a trip back to Illinois where Michele Gay presented for the Valley View School District School Safety Conference.

Although September was an exciting month due to all the community visits, perhaps one of the biggest highlights of September was the launch of the Safe and Sound Youth Council. In only a few short months, we are proud to report that this program has been delivered to more than 23 states. Our students are stepping up for the safety of their schools and communities. To learn more about the Safe and Sound Youth Council program, click here.

In October, Alissa hit the road again, traveling to Wyoming with Safe and Sound Advisor, Paul Timm, PSP for the Wyoming School Safety Summit. Sandy Hook survivor, Natalie Hammond traveled to Missouri for Safe and Sound to keynote and lead a workshop on school safety team building for the Missouri Center for Education Safety. Her presentations were very well received by all in attendance!  

Later in the month, Alissa traveled to Pennsylvania to present at the Delaware County Safe Schools Summit. Her visit was so successful that we are already planning a follow up workshop in the near future. Soon after, with sponsorship from Status Solutions, Safe and Sound Schools was able to attend the 2017 National Resilience Institute Summit in Chicago where Michele presented a keynote and participated in a panel discussion with national leaders in resilience. A couple days afterwards, Michele presented for the Axis School Safety Symposium in Minnesota with Safe and Sound Advisor and Contributor, Paul Timm, PSP.  Michele then headed to Plymouth to speak at Wyzata High School for a Security Symposium. Alissa completed October travels with a visit to Houston to attend the Crime Stoppers Gala, presenting alongside Bob Woodruff of the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

In November, Safe and Sound Schools participated in several webinars. Michele kicked off November with a webinar in partnership with Raptor Technologies. She discussed the ways in which school leaders can galvanize their local community to improve school safety. In mid November, Michele was joined by Safe and Sound speaker Dr. CJ Huff to present on how schools can harness the power of the community to keep schools safe. This webinar was sponsored by Safe and Sound sponsor Status Solutions and was hosted by Campus Safety Magazine.

In early November, Michele and speaker/advisor Dr. Melissa Reeves presented a full day workshop on Reunification of the School Community for the Colorado Society of School Psychologists in Vail, Colorado. Soon after, Michele traveled to New York to present for the New York State Association of School Nurses, followed by Alissa’s presentation for the ScanSource corporate conference on November 15th.  

Community visits slowed in December, as 2017 marked the five year anniversary of Sandy Hook. Michele and Alissa used this as a time to draw close to their immediate and Sandy Hook families. To learn more about Sandy Hook’s legacy and how some families are choosing to honor their loved ones, read some of the news stories below:

To catch up on blogs you may have missed during the second half of the year, visit our Blog.

Many thanks to our nationwide community of supporters and school communities for joining and supporting us in our work to bring safety to every community, every school, and every child.

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.

Joey GayDecember 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.  

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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.