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'I want to help as many people as I can': 15 years after her daughter’s death, Arizona mom writes book to help others through their grief

Nancy Jarrell O’Donnell lost her daughter, Lacey, in a 2006 car accident. Now she’s sharing her story and tools to cope with grief in a book to help others.
Credit: Nancy Jarrell O'Donnell

ARIZONA, USA — Editor’s note: The author of this article was in the same graduating class as Lacey Jarrell.

July 6, 2006, was a Thursday. For Nancy Jarrell O’Donnell it was like any other Thursday. She got up, got ready for work and started her day at Sierra Tucson where she treated patients with mental and behavioral health issues.

Because Nancy left for work between 7 and 7:30 a.m., it was too early for her to see or speak to her daughter, Lacey Jarrell. Lacey was on summer break and probably wouldn’t be up for a few more hours. But they had a system where Lacey would contact Nancy in the late morning or early afternoon to let her mom know what she was up to for the day.

Lacey was energetic, joyful, funny, smart. She liked to draw, she liked stars and she liked the color green. She was 16 and about to turn 17 in August. She was going to start her senior year of high school at St. Gregory College Preparatory. The world was hers to conquer.

Credit: Nancy Jarrell O'Donnell

However, it was in those few hours from when Nancy left her home to when she was supposed to hear from her daughter that Nancy's whole world was shattered.

Lacey was in a single-car accident and was ejected from her car while driving on River Road. A witness said they saw the car roll five times before it landed on her. Her mom was able to identify her by three green stars she was known to draw on her ankle with magic marker.

“And with that, the whole world changed for me. I remember feeling like someone had yanked some sort of vital internal organ out of my body and then it was on the floor in the room. I knew I couldn't live without that organ, but somehow, I was still alive,” said Nancy.

For weeks after, Nancy would drive up and down River Road trying to recreate the circumstances of the accident. She didn’t care how reckless or crazy it seemed, she just wanted to understand what lead to her only daughter’s cruel and unexpected death.

Credit: Nancy Jarrell O'Donnell

Also, in the aftermath of the accident, Nancy made a commitment to herself to keep a journal until the one-year anniversary of Lacey’s death.

“I would write every morning from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. and not worry about grammar, what I said, anything, just free streaming. At the one-year anniversary I stopped and then I couldn't look at anything I'd written for probably four and a half years,” said Nancy.

Her journaling would contribute to an unconscious decision she had made at the time to write a book. It would be a book that would help bereaved parents written by a bereaved parent, something she had searched for but couldn’t find.

Now, nearly 15 years after Lacey’s passing, Nancy’s book, The Loss of Lacey: A Mother’s Story of Facing her Greatest Fear and Coping with Devastating Grief, has been published.

The book incorporates parts of Nancy’s journal and poems written by Lacey. It also includes research about the impact of traumatic grief on the brain and the tools that helped Nancy cope with her grief. But it’s not just for someone who has lost a child anymore.

“That became my focus because my goal, initially, was if I can help one person then I've met my goal. But it got bigger, I want to help as many people as I can. I know there's a lot of traumatic grief out there and it's not just bereaved parents,” said Nancy.

One of the most helpful ways to cope with grief, according to Nancy, is to recognize that we all get to choose our thoughts. She also suggests focusing on gratitude for the things you do have, trying to get out of one's self by helping others and accepting the love other people have to offer.

“Many of us will not [accept love]. We'll choose to isolate and be in our misery. I understand that. I had to fight with myself to not just go to bed for a year,” said Nancy.

Credit: Nancy Jarrell O'Donnell

Not only does Lacey’s legacy live on through her mother’s book, but through a foundation Nancy established. One year to the day after Lacey’s death Nancy received accreditation for the foundation Green Star Art.

“The mission [of the foundation] became to heighten awareness of artistic youth, ages 13 to 21, and by doing so providing them emotional, educational and social growth support to help them to have a more fulfilling life in the future,” said Nancy.

After a brief hiatus, the foundation has been reactivated and Nancy is focused on building it back up. She also has a private psychotherapy practice in Tucson treating people with addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and mood disorders.

In the future, she hopes to treat more bereaved parents and others who have experienced traumatic grief.

Nancy says that for years after Lacey’s death she wasn’t always thinking about the future or even aware of the present. Her goal was to just get through the day, and it’s a strategy that could work for others experiencing traumatic grief.

“I can remember consciously dividing my day into six hours at a time. For some reason that worked for me. I would just know what I'm going to do for the next six hours. And then when the end of the six hours arrived, I started again,” Nancy said.

It wasn’t until her older son, Will Jarrell, had a son that her perspective changed. 

“I know that I was living in July 6, 2006 into 2019. And what I credit taking me out of that was the birth of my grandson that year. I went, ‘Oh, my God. Where have I been? What? It's not 2006 anymore!’ Here's a new life and I need to be here for that.”

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