What do you do when all three of your daughters are killed in horrific car crash and the driver evidently at fault happens to be your sister-in-law?
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In the case of Jackie Hance and her husband, Warren, you have another child.
Nearly two years after her children died in a head-on collision that killed a total of eight people on the Taconic Parkway in Westchester County, N.Y., Hance is speaking out for the first time about her paralyzing grief and her current pregnancy with a first-person article in Ladies’ Home Journal. The writer who collaborated with her on the story, Janice Kaplan, was in the studio to speak with TODAY’s Matt Lauer on Wednesday.
The couple’s decision to have another child was set into motion because a friend of a friend knew a fertility doctor in Manhattan who was familiar with how Hance lost her three daughters: Emma, 8, Alyson, 7, and Katie, 5. Following Katie’s birth, Hance had her tubes tied, so she decided to undergo in vitro fertilization after being contacted by the doctor.
The couple’s child is due this fall.
Message in a dream
“I’d had a dream that I was standing in heaven and I could see Emma, Alyson and Katie through these big gates,’’ Hance writes in Ladies’ Home Journal. “God would not let me inside the gates. He said that I had been given a gift from that doctor and I had to use his gift before I could be with my babies. So, almost in a daze, I told the doctor I wanted to try to get pregnant, never expecting it to work.
“I got pregnant the very first time.’’
While the couple awaits their new baby, Jackie admits in the article that she is cautiously optimistic.
“I want to be excited, but I know how random life can be, and how unfair,’’ she writes. “However much we try to protect our children, the worst can happen.’’
Hance had two rounds of drug injections and egg retrieval, and the resulting embryos were frozen. She admits that even though she was undergoing the procedures, the thought of conceiving a child still seemed distant. Many of her friends had suggested to her that she and her husband have another child to give themselves a future, but it took time for that to sink in.Video: Family of crash victims speaks out (on this page)
“Even though I’d gone through the process, I wasn’t in a place where I could seriously think about having another child,’’ Hance says in an article cowritten with Janice Kaplan. “I’d taken my friends’ advice and followed through on the doctor’s generous offer as if in a trance. It was just something to do, a way to keep my mind occupied.’’
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It was the couple’s attempt to move forward with their lives after an event that has fractured the relationships of the survivors. On July 26, 2009, Hance’s sister-in-law, Diane Schuler, drove the wrong way down the Taconic Parkway for about two miles before her minivan collided with an SUV, killing herself, her daughter, Hance’s three daughters, and the three men in the other car – Michael Bastardi, 81, his son, Guy, 49, and friend Daniel Longo, 74. The only survivor was Schuler’s son, Bryan, who is now 7.Story: Family of wrong-way driver’s victims fires back
Toxicology reports from the accident revealed Schuler had a blood-alcohol level of .19, more than twice the legal limit of .08 in New York. Traces of THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana, were also in her system, and a vodka bottle was found in the wreckage.
The person Jackie has once considered “the most responsible person I knew’’ was now the one implicated in the death of her three children.Video: Wrong-way crash victims’ family speaks out (on this page)
“How does a person go from being like a sister to me — adored by my girls and cherished by my husband — to being the one who ruined our lives?” Hance asks in the story. “How could this person I trusted completely have done something so unthinkable that I couldn't — and still can't — wrap my head around it?”
While her marriage to Warren has stayed strong when many others might have collapsed under the strain, she writes that her relationship with Schuler’s family is just about nonexistent. “The split in our extended family makes it even harder,’’ she writes. “Warren and I have remained private until now, but Diane's husband, Danny, went public to defend her reputation and to search for another explanation for what happened to her.Video: Mom ‘dazed with grief’ over 3 daughters killed in crash (on this page)
A documentary debuting on HBO July 25 takes its title from the final phone call from 8-year-old Emma to Jackie before the accident, in which Emma said, “There’s something wrong with Aunt Diane.’’
“As I write this, I know that a television special made with [Danny Schuler’s] permission is about to air on HBO,” Hance writes in Ladies’ Home Journal. “I can't imagine what it will say. I hope there are answers to all our questions, but I don't know if I'll even be able to watch it.
“The fact that they used my daughter Emma's last words as a title only makes it that much more painful.”
‘Dazed with grief’
The relationship and the memory of Schuler are topics that the couple wrestles with constantly.
“When I see the misery in Warren's eyes, I know what he's thinking,’’ Hance writes. “It was his sister who did this, his sister who destroyed our lives. I can't blame him for her actions. And since Diane's not here, I can't take out my anger, my confusion, or my heartache on her. There's no one left to hate. And anyway, we both loved her very much.’’
Hance also admits that moving forward without her girls has been an arduous task.
“When something this terrible happens, your brain simply can't process it — or at least mine couldn't,’’ she writes. “For weeks after the accident I'd wake up thinking it was that Sunday again and that the girls were heading home. And every day my husband or one of my friends would have to tell me the awful news all over again.
“I was so dazed with grief that I'd wander out of my room or out of the house at all hours. I don't know what I was doing — searching for the girls? My friends and family would gently steer me back where I belonged.’’
The girls’ bedrooms remain untouched and the couple still celebrates their birthdays.
“Parenting is not something you can ever let go of, even if your children are gone,’’ Hance writes. “Warren and I still celebrate the girls' birthdays, just as we always did. Family, friends, presents, cake — the only things missing are Emma, Alyson, and Katie. We write messages to the guest of honor on balloons and release them into the air, hoping they get to her in heaven.’’
In deciding to make her first public comments about the accident and its aftermath two years later, Hance is hoping that others may benefit from hearing about the couple’s story of perseverance in the face of tragedy, according to the Ladies’ Home Journal writer who collaborated with her on the piece.
“I think when something this horrible happens, you look for that one strand of good,’’ Janice Kaplan told Lauer. “And for Jackie, that one strand of good may be helping other people who are in a tough situation go on.’’
The overwhelming outpouring of support has led the couple to set up the Hance Family Foundation in memory of their daughters. The foundation raises money for various community programs in Floral Park, N.Y.
Jackie yearns regularly to be together again with her daughters, but right now is focused on the future and her new baby.
“Every day all I want is to be reunited with my girls again in heaven,’’ she writes. “But Emma, Alyson, and Katie have other plans for me right now.’’
To read Jackie Hance’s Ladies’ Home Journal story, click here.
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