In Alissa Parker’s new book, An Unseen Angel, she writes about still feeling the presence of her 6-year-old daughter, Emilie, who was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting - and who is “now growing up in heaven.”
Debuting Tuesday, the book also reveals how Parker began to open her heart to forgiveness after she and her husband arranged to meet the gunman’s father in March 2013.
At first, Parker says she wasn’t interested in hearing about Peter Lanza’s feelings about his son, Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who killed 26 people, including 20 first-graders, at Sandy Hook.
But after she and her husband shared their feelings with him, Peter began to open up about all the pent-up emotions he had about the massacre - one of the worst in U.S. history - and she began to soften.
“What he said allowed me to see that this young man wasn’t always this monster and there was something in his life that happened to change him,” Parker tells PEOPLE.
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More than a year after that meeting, Parker had an epiphany about the shooter that led her to forgive him.
“I remember the day: I was running and thinking about him, and I felt love and compassion for him,” she says.
“I remember being so taken aback by that feeling,” she says. “I had to stop and cry. I never expected to feel those feelings toward him.”
Indeed, as she explains, “Forgiveness was something I wanted to do, but it was something for the future.”
Unexpected Signs of an Unseen Angel’
For Parker, one of the most difficult parts of losing Emilie was thinking about the life she might have lived.
“I saw her getting married,” she says. “I saw her having children. All those milestones we see for our children were now gone.
Wanting to come to terms with not getting to watch her daughter grow up, Parker says, “I made a bargain with God in my prayers: I wanted to understand Emilie’s new life so that I could let go of the one I had imagined for her.”
Parker writes in Unseen Angel about learning to understand Emilie’s new life, and how she and her family have seen manifestations of Emilie’s presence (the “angel” of the title) in their own lives.
She details dealing with the horror, the grief and the anger of losing her daughter - and starting to heal.
“The book is about the journey to understand how angels are around us and how they help us when they are on the other side,” she says.
In a particularly powerful moment, Parker describes when she and her family have felt Emilie’s presence, which was something they never expected.
One of the first signs the family saw of her spirit had to do with butterflies, which Emilie loved.
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“For me, understanding these small miracles of feeling loved ones around you that have passed onto the other side is not so much about the experience itself, but the feeling that is accompanied by it,” Parker says. “These are experiences my family and I had over and over again.”
Putting that feeling into words, though, was difficult.
“That feeling - that familiar feeling [of Emilie’s presence] - is so personal to you and is what separates the moment from any other moment,” Parker says. “One of the difficulties in writing this book was trying to explain how that felt.”
“It was euphoric and beautiful and overwhelming,” she continues, “the purity of it - you didn’t want to let it go.”
Forgiving the Unthinkable
Part of the journey Parker shares in Unseen Angel is how she came to forgive Adam Lanza.
“Finding the connection with Emilie again gave me so many unexpected blessings that allow me to feel forgiveness toward the shooter,” she says.
It was unexpected, but not unwelcome.
“It happened so organically and naturally,” Parker says. “I think it would have hardened and poisoned me forever if it stayed in my heart.”
She adds: “That recognition that I no longer was held down by those harmful feelings anymore was a relief.”
Above all, she says her story is hopeful.
“It’s a universal story about finding the light in all the darkness in the world,” she says. “Finding the light all around us was not always easy to see, but I realized it was there and that I had to let that light back into my life.”