Alissa Parker is the mother of Emilie Parker, one of the 20 children who died tragically in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. 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. Thank you, Alissa, for sharing your experience with faith, forgiveness, and finding peace.
I was raised with the understanding that forgiveness was required of all men. I thought I knew and understood that principle clearly, since I had faithfully applied it throughout my entire life. But all that changed the day a young man, whom I did not know, murdered my six-year-old daughter Emilie and 19 of her classmates and 6 educators at their school one morning. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary drastically changed my life…and not always in the way people expect.
Also on that day everything I knew about forgiveness changed.
Forgiveness has been a journey for me. In the process God has taught me so much about His love for all His children, and some sacred lessons that have led me to the peace that only forgiveness can bring.
There is No Lasting Peace Without Forgiveness
As a mother, my priority has always been my family. When Emilie died, I shifted my focus to what we would need as a family to get through our grief. I knew healing was our top priority. But in my mind forgiveness was not. The shooter was a monster in my eyes, and I felt comfortable and justified in seeing him that way, and any thoughts of forgiveness that entered my mind were quickly dismissed for another time. I was looking at forgiveness and healing as two separate things, not realizing how connected the two truly are.
After countless prayers, it became clear to me that if I was going to find peace, I had to do more than work through the grief and pain, I had to somehow learn to forgive.
God Will Help Us As We Seek to Forgive
Forgiving one another is a commandment, but that doesn’t mean that God asks us to do it alone or won’t help us on our journey.
One of the most amazing experiences during this time was a woman who was put in my path at church. My friend Terri had lost her son Matthew, who was serving the final months of a proselyting mission for our church, when he was struck by a drunk driver and killed. Terri and her husband had already bought tickets to go and see Matthew and the end of his mission, and instead of canceling their trip they decided they would still go and see all the people who Matthew had been serving. While they were there, they decided to try to visit the man that was responsible for Matthew’s death, but were unable to do so. They were stopped by a journalist who was amazed that they were not there to seek justice for their son’s death. They told the journalist that they had forgiven him and only felt concern and empathy for him.
Terri’s example impacted me greatly, and the fact that we were at the same church when I was dealing with my grief was evidence to me that God loved me and knew what a trial this was for me. Terri comforted me in a way that only someone who had gone through something similar could have, and gave me the hope that I could find that same forgiveness.
Forgiveness is Only Possible Through Jesus Christ
I considered Terri’s experience and wondered if feeling concern and empathy for the young man responsible for my daughter’s death was even possible. I then thought about my daughter Emilie and how she would have responded to the shooter. Emilie in her six short years on earth had taught us so much about Christ-like love. She showed so much compassion for those around her and always seemed to be in tune with their struggles. For the first time, I tried to see the shooter through the eyes of Christ. Having so much anger and bitterness in my heart made this more of a challenge than I had anticipated. I hadn’t realized how hard my heart had truly gotten and that scared me. I knew I had to change, but how?
Though a series of events that led us to meet with the shooter’s father, I came to see Adam Lanza’s life differently. Instead of seeing him as only the monster that fateful day, I came to see him as a child of God. Seeing him through his father’s eyes helped humanize him and made me aware of the struggles he had faced his whole life.
Peace can come to an individual only by an unconditional surrender--surrender to him who is the Prince of peace, who has the power to confer peace."
— Howard W. Hunter
There is so much about the shooter’s life that is still unknown. I will never know why he did what he did and how accountable he is for his actions….but I learned that this doesn’t matter. Our Savior knows all, and has suffered for all. He showed us how to forgive and love in all that he did, and because he has already so lovingly already carried that burden for us, we don’t have to! As soon as I realized this, peace flooded into my heart. That peace is Christ’s gift to all of us, but we have to allow him to help us.
As We Learn to Forgive, God Will Make Us Strong
I have also come to realize through my journey that forgiveness is so much more than a singular occurrence where I declare my forgiveness for someone. Forgiveness is a choice that I must make every single day, and it isn’t always an easy one. Most days I can find that peace, but some days I fail and that’s okay too. I am not perfect and failing is part of the process. But I have learned to trust in Heavenly Father, and that He can lead me to find that forgiveness--which always leads to finding peace.
Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee."
— Isaiah 26:3
Trust in Him. Have faith in the uncomfortable ways He challenges you and know that in the end it will make you stronger. He is the light, and as we cling to Him even and in our darkest days, He will lead us to that lasting peace.
You can connect with Alissa Parker on her blog at theparkerfive.com. She has just released a new book, "An Unseen Angel", all about her journey to forgive and how she's found peace in her grief. You can read more about her book by visiting her website here, and it can be purchased on amazon here, or at Barnes and Noble in the faith section.