Five months after Sandy Hook, Emilie's sweetness lives on
Emilie Parker was always a planner.
As far back as September, she began devising the theme of her seventh birthday party. It was going to be all about Harry Potter.
That birthday never happened for Emilie. She and 25 her classmates and teachers were gunned down Dec. 14 in a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
But when Emilie's birthday came on Mother's Day, May 12, her parents, Ogden natives Robbie and Alissa Parker, took their two youngest daughters to Universal Studios' Harry Potter world in Orlando, Fla.
The family members had fun, but they had to work at it.
"We're not sad all the time, but it used to be a lot easier for us to be happy all the time," Robbie said Friday. "Now you have to put forth an effort to kind of get over that."
Added Alissa: "We still miss her all the time. That doesn't ever seem to go away."
The Parkers continue to live in Connecticut since losing their eldest daughter in a shooting that shocked the nation. Robbie works as a physician assistant at Danbury Hospital, and Emilie's sister Madeline will start kindergarten at Sandy Hook in the fall, a decision the couple said was difficult.
They still experience their loss as deeply personal. But, as they grieve, they find comfort in seeing the ways in which Emilie's short life left behind a kinder, more beautiful world.
In the depths of their pain, the Parkers, visiting Utah this week, say they were mostly shielded from the exposure surrounding the Sandy Hook tragedy. Even now, the magnitude is something they hear about, but don't really understand.
Understanding the impact on their own lives is hard enough.
"What happened to us was immensely personal," Alissa said. "To be honest, to go further than that is very difficult for us."
But they see evidence of the breadth and depth of Emilie's influence.
Strangers stop them in stores and tell them what Emilie's life of art, friendship and love meant to them. Emilie, who loved to draw and wanted to own her own art gallery someday, has inspired would-be and established artists, Alissa said. In her honor, the Parkers have set up a charity, the Emilie Parker Art Connection, to support community and school art programs.
"I'm very proud," Robbie said, "that the life she lived created meaning and touched somebody else's life."
After Emilie's funeral she was buried next to her grandfather in Ogden the Parkers went back home to Connecticut, facing the task of living their lives with the hole Emilie's death left.
Emilie's younger sisters, 5-year-old Madeline and 4-year-old Samantha, found their own ways to deal with the loss. Just because they're young, Robbie said, doesn't mean they're incapable of feeling the same deep emotions.
"When Alissa and I talk, I can say, 'I'm angry today,' or, 'I'm feeling depressed,' or, 'I'm feeling numb,' and we can have that level of understanding," he said. "It's not like they're feeling a childlike version of grief. It hurts just as bad for them as it does for us."
For Alissa, it can be hard watching her daughters go through that pain "because you can't take it away."
"You can't correct it for them, and you can't make it easier for them. The harsh reality is that they have to learn to go through it."
But the Parkers say they don't always have to go through it alone. Even now, Emilie finds ways, they say, to help her family feel her influence.
Just days before she died, Emilie had gathered up old toys to give away to a thrift store in time for Christmas. It was Emilie's idea, Alissa said, and she negotiated with her reluctant sisters to put together a nice bundle.
One by one, she'd pull out a toy, show it to its owner and say, "You don't really need this," or, "Wouldn't it be neat to give this to somebody who would want it?"
For weeks after Emilie's funeral, that bag sat untouched in one of her sister's rooms a reminder of an incomplete act of kindness.
Finally, Alissa decided that she and her daughters would finish the task for her.
There was a special feeling when they delivered the toys that day the rare kind that Robbie said seems to signal Emilie's presence.
"It's as if your soul is actually changed in a way," he said, "and it brings a sense of almost recognition."
"She presents herself in unique situations, unexpected moments," Alissa said. "And they're very valued."
The Parker Five
In the weeks after Emilie's death, Alissa Parker started a blog the Parker Five to discuss her thoughts, feelings and experiences. What started out as a personal project has evolved into a source of comfort for readers she doesn't even know.
"I really just try to make it authentic for me, and to be a process for me," Alissa said. "If it helps people ... that's great and I appreciate that, but the focus for me is to have that outlet."
Safe and Sound
Robbie and Alissa Parker are preparing for a new school year by joining with other Sandy Hook parents to advocate for stronger school safety.
Their program, called Safe and Sound safeandsoundschools.org aims to educate parents and community members about making schools more secure, promoting a holistic approach to building security that creates layers of protection between children and potential intruders.
Sandy Hook, like most schools in the country, had a security barrier on its outside entry doors, but once that was breached Dec. 14, there was little the school could do to protect the children further, according to the Parkers.
"Sandy Hook had one line of defense, and everyone felt comfortable with that," Alissa said. "Everyone felt like that was enough."
The Parkers don't blame the school for what happened to their daughter, but they learned that, post-Sandy Hook, reality has changed for parents.
"Nobody's really taken it to the next step of asking that question, 'what if,' " Robbie said. "I think a lot of people are not ready to do that yet, but we need to make sure that we empower them to ask those tough questions."
Meaningful solutions will likely cost money, but initial steps such as reviewing emergency plans with police and fire personnel are free and a good start, they said. Eventually, Safe and Sound hopes to offer grants that would help them improve safety measures, the Parkers said, but meaningful change will likely start with parents who start a dialogue with schools.
"It's your responsibility as a parent to do that," Alissa said. "Whether you realized it before, I think Sandy Hook helps you realize it now."