She lost her daughter in the Newtown school shooting and struggled to cope with her grief, but giving control to God helped her begin the healing process.
- Posted on Nov 24, 2017
This year, I woke up with a knot in my stomach.
It had been three months since I’d watched Emilie, my six-year-old daughter, board the yellow school bus that would take her to first grade at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Three months since my phone had rung with a message that there’d been a school shooting in Newtown.
Three months since an ashen-faced governor of Connecticut had walked into a classroom crowded with terrified parents and told us our worst fears had come true.
Emilie had been a shining light in our family—a precociously empathetic child, keenly aware of other people’s feelings. She’d doted on her younger sisters, Madeline and Samantha. She would draw pictures for me and my husband, Robbie, always with sweet messages, especially when we needed cheering up. The first word she’d ever said was “happy.”
She was murdered by a troubled young man, who had walked into her school and fatally shot 20 children and six adult staff with two semiautomatic pistols and a semiautomatic rifle before taking his own life.
The three months since Emilie died had tested my heart, mind, soul and marriage. Robbie and I had struggled with anger and overwhelming loss. Working with a counselor, we had managed to remain emotional anchors for each other. We had done our best to keep life going for Madeline and Samantha. Our family had not fallen apart.
Yet the void that Emilie left behind remained. It was as much an abyss as a void for me.
I knew Emilie was with God. I knew she was safe in her Heavenly Father’s arms. But those were words in my head. In my heart was a void, as if Emilie had simply vanished from existence. Churning around the edges of that void, that abyss, was pure loathing for her killer.
I hated that loathing, and I hated that void. I felt helpless about both.
For three months, I prayed for those feelings to be healed. God had given me various answers to those prayers. But I didn’t understand any of them. And the answers didn’t make the feelings go away.
The first answer—and I admit, this made me jealous—came not to me but to Robbie.
Less than a month after Emilie died, Robbie emerged from tucking in her little sisters one night with a look of awe on his face.
“You’ll never guess the conversation I just had with Madeline,” he said. He told me that Madeline had asked if we’d ever see Emilie again.
“Where do you think she is?” Robbie said.
“Heaven,” said Madeline.
“That’s right,” Robbie said. “So the best way to see her again is to love God and make good choices.”
Then Madeline said something surprising: “But what about the boy who shot her?”
Robbie searched for words. “How do you feel about that boy?” he said.
“I think he was a good boy but he made some really bad choices,” she replied.
“And how do you think God feels about him?” Robbie asked her. “I think he loves him but he is not happy with the choices he made,” Madeline said.
Robbie and I sat in the living room as he recounted this conversation. He began to cry. “Alissa,” he said, “I could feel Emilie there! I could feel her with Madeline and me.”
I stared at him in shock. That sense of Emilie’s presence was exactly what I wanted! Some sign from God to fill the void. Why had it happened for Madeline and Robbie but not for me?
I racked my brain for something I could do to receive a similar gift. Then it came to me. I needed to pray as intensely and transparently as Madeline had prayed in her childlike directness. The best place to do that would be at the Mormon Temple in New York City. In Mormonism, the temple is a sacred place that’s reserved for weddings, baptisms and intense prayer and meditation, especially during times of trouble. The closest temple to our house was in New York.
A few days later, Robbie and I drove down to the city. We sat in the room set aside for prayer, and I began praying harder than I ever had before. Take away this void, God. Let me know Emilie is not gone.
I listened intently, certain that I was at last doing what I needed to do to get through to God. And then an answer came. You need to talk to the shooter’s father.
What? That wasn’t what I was praying about! I tried to bring my focus back to Emilie. The words persisted. At last I gave up, disappointed. On the car ride home, I told Robbie what had happened. He looked bewildered too. But the words were so clear, we felt we had to act on them.
We reached out to Peter Lanza through intermediaries. To our surprise, he responded immediately. I was a nervous wreck driving to the Connecticut office building where we agreed to meet.
That nervousness evaporated as soon as I saw Peter. He was as much of a wreck as I was. His hands shook. His face was flushed.
We sat at a conference table, and I told Peter about how I’d felt moved by God to meet with him. Then suddenly the question I most wanted to ask became obvious: “Why did your son do what he did that day?”
For some reason, I felt prompted to add: “I’m sorry you lost him.”
Peter’s eyes widened at my words. He must have expected me to hurl invective. His hands stopped shaking, and the words poured out of him. He told us how his son had struggled socially at school, especially after Peter and his wife separated when his son was nine and later divorced. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as a teenager, his son gradually cut himself off from Peter and then from the rest of the world.
As Peter talked, I began to realize that the effects of his son’s evil actions spread far beyond my family and the families of other victims. In the aftermath of the shooting, Robbie and I had been showered with gifts and kindnesses from strangers in Newtown and far away.
Peter Lanza was reviled. A horrified world recoiled from him at the moment of his greatest loss and confusion. I felt sorry for him.
“Meeting you is like a glimmer of light through a dark agony,” Peter said before we parted that day. I wondered if it could be a glimmer for me too.
Two months later, lying in bed on that Easter morning, I still wondered. What was the thread connecting these messages from God? What was God trying to tell me? Whatever it was, it hadn’t gotten through. The thought of Easter without Emilie was more than I could bear.
But I had to bear it. Madeline and Samantha were up. I could hear them tiptoeing around in search of Easter baskets. Soon they would want help putting on their new dresses. I forced myself out of bed and summoned up my best coping smile.
Once the girls were dressed and tearing around the house in excitement, I returned to the bedroom to get ready for the service.
“Would you girls like some music to dance to?” I heard Robbie ask. One of Robbie’s favorite hymns, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” started on the stereo, accompanied by giggling and the patter of little feet. At first, I nearly burst into tears, thinking about how much Emilie would have loved being there with her sisters.
Then something moved me to dress quickly and go watch. I opened the door, stepped into the hall, and there were Madeline and Samantha, twirling and laughing to the music. I grinned in spite of myself. All of a sudden, a feeling of warmth and peace descended on me. It filled my body and radiated out to the hall and the rest of the house.
With crystal clarity, I knew in my heart—it was as if I had always known—Emilie had not vanished. Yes, she had died. But she was alive in a new way with God. I could almost feel her right there with us. Every memory I had of her arose in my mind and became solid and real. I breathed in the blessed sense of her.
Tears rolled down my cheeks. Robbie appeared beside me and put his arm around my waist.
Why was this happening? I had no idea. Only at church, later that morning, did I begin to understand. Listening to the wonderful Easter story, I thought again of that insight I’d had meeting with Peter Lanza—that Emilie’s death was part of something larger. Now I knew just how much larger.
Madeline had sensed that larger meaning when she asked Robbie about the man who took Emilie’s life. God had pointed me toward it when he counseled me to meet with Peter.
Death, God wanted me to understand, did not extinguish Emilie’s light. My grief was not the end. When I looked beyond myself, reached out to others, trusted God to make something good from the horror of Emilie’s death—that was my healing.
How could I believe this? Because God had lost a child too.
Long before Emilie died, Jesus died. Then Jesus arose. Out of the darkness and grief of his death came new life.
Emilie was now part of that new life. There was no void where she had been. With God, there is never a void. I did not have to hate the shooter for taking Emilie away. No one could take Emilie from God. Indeed, I could give even the shooter to God. I could give all of it to God. Then I could begin healing.
Those thoughts came to me as glimmers on Easter morning. Over the next several months, they became more real. I stopped hating the shooter and later forgave him in my heart. More important, I understood that ultimately it was God’s job to judge and forgive. As grief and hatred left my heart, there was more room to remember Emilie and treasure what she meant to our family.
Eventually we left Connecticut, moving to a rural area on the West Coast, where Robbie got an excellent job at a hospital and Madeline and Samantha could grow up without the pressure of the shooting’s aftermath.
Five years after the horror of that day, I still miss Emilie intensely. But that only strengthens my resolve to be the best mother I can be for Madeline and Samantha. My grief, still crushing at times, no longer defines me. I am defined by my relationship with a Heavenly Father who embraces—and gives new life to—all of his children.