The Christmas season — a time of giving and joy, of twinkling lights and family celebrations — is still hard for Alissa Parker, five years after her daughter Emilie, then 6, was killed along with 25 others in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
“The truth is, every year when I open up those box of decorations and ornaments, it is really tough,” Parker tells PEOPLE in an interview to mark the anniversary of the shooting that cracked open the community of Newtown, Connecticut.
Each holiday she is surrounded by memories of the Dec. 14, 2012, attack — as well as of new Christmas traditions that her family focuses on, keeping Emilie in their hearts.
“This was what the moment frozen in time was like and these were the things that were out. I have to train myself to balance that with the fond memories and the new memories we are creating,” Parker says. “I don’t feel like I should try to forget the hard ones, but I do want to make sure I balance that by focusing on good things.”
In their countdown to Christmas each year, Emilie would keep track of the family’s Advent calendar.
“We have these little boxes that have a piece of the Nativity scene and every day you open [one] up, and Emilie had written the numbers down on the pieces of paper that we used to wrap the boxes,” Parker says.
“It stopped the day she died. I still have it exactly the way it is.”
Emilie’s stocking is hung again this holiday season — it’s where her younger sisters, 3 and 4 years old when she died, and her parents leave their letters for her in heaven.
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“Every year, the girls write a letter to Emilie about their year and we write a letter to Emilie about her year and we put it in her stocking, and the idea is that Santa will take it and deliver it to Emilie,” her mom says. “The idea is to take a moment to reflect: How has my year been and what would I tell you?”
“It’s pretty emotional for me. It’s pretty tough,” she says. “But I find it pretty therapeutic to let that out and so I keep them and I created this book that I keep the letters in.”
On Christmas morning, Parker says, inside Emilie’s stocking “is always a gift that Emilie would want you to enjoy.”
“One year we put art supplies in there for the girls and another year we put in picture flip books of the day they were born. … One year we put in a necklace with a picture of them with Emilie,” Parker says. “We try and keep that tradition alive where it’s a way to make her a part of the event.”
Parker’s family moved to the Pacific Northwest following the Newtown shooting, a change that “really normalized [us] again and it made us blend in a little more.”
“That has been a large contributor to our being able to process things and being here again has lifted our spirits, because I don’t have all the triggers that I did when I was living there,” she says.
At the same time, the family doesn’t work to keep their thoughts away from the child they lost.
“We are very faith-driven, and we try to be organic about the way we approach Emilie and her story so that when questions come up or memories come up, we welcome them and don’t run away from them,” Parker says. “But at the same time we try to be conscious about balancing it with our kids and what they are experiencing right now and making sure all of it is very natural and organic.
“For us that has worked,” she continues. “I didn’t want her name to feel taboo.”
Quickly bonded in her grief to another Sandy Hook mom, Michele Gay, whose daughter Josephine was also killed, Parker cofounded the nonprofit Safe and Sound Schools as well as the Emilie Art Connection, which, she says, “allows us to remember Emilie in a fun way that captures her personality.”
Of her work with Gay on SaSS, which provides “highly specific” information and security preparation tips to communities nationwide, Parker says, “We focus on the positive and the beautiful things. It’s not that we ignore the hard things, but it’s just not in our nature and I think Safe and Sound Schools is a reflection of that.
“Our tactics are not to use fear or to scare you into school safety but to inspire you and give you tools and make you feel empowered to do it.”
“We are a unifying force,” Parker says, “just like our girls were.”