Two years ago, Jackie Hance lost everything when all three of her daughters died in a gruesome wrong-way car crash on New York's Taconic Parkway. But today, she is pregnant again after undergoing in vitro fertilization in a twist of fate that she says came from a dream about her beloved daughters.
Hance, 40, of Floral Park, N.Y., announced her pregnancy just as HBO is ready to air its own documentary, "Something's Wrong With Aunt Diane," on the drunk-driving accident.
The girls were killed on their way home from a camping trip in upstate New York when their aunt, Diane Schuler, 36, drove 70 mph down the wrong side of the parkway for two miles before slamming her SUV head-on into another vehicle.
Toxicology reports showed that Schuler's blood alcohol level was twice the limit -- the equivalent of 10 shots of vodka -- and she was high on marijuana.
Just minutes before the deadly crash, Hance's daughter, Emma, had called her mother to say, "Something's wrong with Aunt Diane."
Hance's girls, Emma, 8; Alyson, 7; and Katie, 5, as well as Schuler and her 2-year-old daughter Erin died instantly. Three men in the other vehicle also died, a total of eight people. The only survivor was Schuler's son Bryan, 5.
"Parenting is not something you can ever let go of, even if your children are gone," Hance wrote in the Ladies Home Journal this week.
Hance is expecting her baby in September. But psychologists say having a baby too soon after the death of a child is no panacea for grief.
Hance writes that her friends persuaded her to have another child as a way of coping with the "torture" that she has felt since her girls died, unable even to cook because it reminds her of her daughters' excitement at mealtime.
"After the accident so many people suggested that Warren and I consider having another child. They said having a baby was what the girls would want and it would give us a future," she writes.
Experts say the term "replacement child" is a cruel one, suggesting that a parent wipes out the agonizing grief of the death of one child with the birth of another.
Just last year, actors John Travolta, 57, and his wife Kelly Preston, 48, had a baby boy, Benjamin, after the loss of their 16-year-old son Jett in 2009 after he had a seizure at their vacation villa in the Bahamas.
So, too, did former presidential candidate John Edwards and his then-wife Elizabeth after the death of their son Wade in a North Carolina car crash. The had two children, Emma, now 13, and Jack, 11.
When a child dies, many parents have a "natural urge" to have another, according to Katherine Shear, professor of psychiatry and social work at Columbia University who specializes in complicated grief.
"A lot of parents do wish to have another child to come to terms with the loss," she said. "After they've accepted the loss, it's a very natural part of life and can be a very healing thing to do."
"When they do this, it's usually with a little bit of sadness and trepidation even when they know it's the right thing for them, and I don't think we should judge them," she said. "When they make that decision, it's a hard one to make and we should primarily support them."
Replacement Child Can Compound Grief
Other psychologists say that having another child so quickly after such a tragic loss can compound the devastation, leaving the grief process unresolved. The pain felt by bereaving parents is one of the most intense of all sorrows and the most complicated.
"In Western culture, all feelings of hope and meaning and expectations are projected on to the child," said Therese Rando, a Rhode Island psychologist who wrote, "How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies"
Overcoming that grief can be difficult, especially if parents remember times they were angry with the child.
"When we lose a child, we feel our expectations are violated," said Rando.
"It's like losing a lung, it's so central," she said. "There is more guilt, more anger and more shattered pain, and other people in society are terrified of you because if it can happen to your child, it can happen to mine."
As the child's protector, we have "basically failed at the task" if a child dies, according to Rando. "We are assaulted. There is a sense of powerlessness and inability to carry out our role as parents."
Having another child after the "work of grieving" is over, can be a good idea, but not to replace the loss.
"The new pregnancy should not be an attempt to deal with the sadness," she said. "They will see this new little person as a distinct member of their family."
Hance said that she had her tubes tied after having her third child, but decided to do IVF after a doctor offered the procedure after hearing her story.
She said her daughters came to her in a dream: "I was standing in heaven and I could see Emma, Alyson, and Katie through these big gates. 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."
Dr. Richard Paulson, director USC Fertility in Los Angeles, said that having another child can sometimes fulfill the dreams of a complete family.
"It's not a replacement child, it's a reconstituted family," said "Because that person is gone, you don't replace that person," he said.
Paulson said he had worked with many patients seeking another pregnancy after the death of a child.
"People variously go through the grieving process and try to figure things out," he said. "It's fair to wait a reasonable amount of time, at least a year, and as the grief passes and you learn to live with the fact the person is gone, you can start looking forward."
Complicating Hance's grief is the fact that the woman who is responsible for her daughters' deaths is her sister-in-law, a woman she considered "the most responsible person I knew."
She said the accident has torn their family apart. Hance has been unable to even speak to her nephew Bryan, who was the last person to see the girls alive.
"I want to reach out and hug him and at the same time try to shake answers out of him, answers he doesn't have," she writes. "So for now, I stay away."
The Hances refused to participate in the making of the documentary by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus, which portrays Schuler as a "super mom" who rarely drank.
Schuler's husband, Daniel, cooperated with documentary producers and has contended all along -- despite lawsuits from the families of the adult crash victims -- that his wife may have had a stroke or other medical complicating factor to cause the accident.
Hance still struggles with allowing her children to go on the camping trip with their relatives.
"People always ask how I feel about Diane," writes Hance. "You can't imagine how complex that question is. 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?"