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A family tragedy -- and what happened next: ‘After the Crash;’ How a Twin Cities mother moved on after three daughters died in a car accident

From left, Krista Mayer was 19, Nikki 17 and Jessica 12 when they died in an automobile crash on Jan. 1, 2004. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Mayer)1 / 2
Debbie Mayer has written a book, "After the Crash," as a way to deal with the death of her three daughters -- Krista, Nikki and Jessica Mayer -- who were killed in a car accident on New Year's Day. 2004. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Mayer)2 / 2

NEW BRIGHTON, Minn. — Debbie Mayer has been reliving the death of her three daughters ever since the media came clamoring to her a day after they died.

The death of the three New Brighton sisters in a car crash on New Year's Day 2004, just days before their brother's wedding, made headlines for more than a week, and the funeral was broadcast.

Then came the pictures. Debbie Mayer dug through piles of photos just to see her daughters' faces again. She decorated her home with their pictures, and every time she uncovered a new photo, it was like a new encounter with one of her daughters, she said.

About a year after their death, Mayer and her husband Joe Mayer began publicly speaking about the experience. In 2007, she produced a CD called Songs of Hope. Most recently, she wrote a book which will be published before the end of the year.

She went through the photos again. She read her entries from stacks of journals. She listened to tapes she'd recorded of her feelings during the time. She called dozens of friends and family members to recount their stories.

"And I went back and I watched every newscast. I listened to the funeral several times. I wanted to really write my emotions out," Mayer said. "I've spent many hours crying writing this book, just sitting in front of the TV and reliving it all. But at the same time, it was in a really strange way a very fulfilling thing writing it out. I really felt awestruck a lot at how God has held me."

Sales for her book will officially open in early December, and Mayer said she hopes to encourage others by depicting her own path through grief and how she's managed to move on.

They are becoming history

Mayer's friends suggested writing the book just a couple weeks after the accident happened. Mayer put the idea aside for the time, but she didn't forget it.

About 10 years later, after more tragedy with the death of her sister, Mayer began to question what God wanted her to do with her story.

"God didn't cause that accident to happen, but he could have prevented it," Mayer said. "But he didn't and he has eternal purposes in that that I don't know on this side of heaven. ... I want (readers) to know how I got through this. I want them to know the reality of a God that cares about our deepest pain and comes to us if we listen. That's my hope."

And so she began writing — and reliving the experience yet again. She dug through her notes from years of engagements and listened to the songs she'd written.

Rediscovering the photos was one of the hardest parts, she said. But her daughters' pictures were going into the book; they were becoming history.

Organizing was a whole different type of challenge.

"I knew in my heart and my mind the things I wanted to write about. I just had to figure out a way to put them in a book in a readable way," Mayer said.

'It brought me back to life'

She divided her book into five sections: the foundation, the accident, navigating her grief, becoming stuck in her grief, and ultimately figuring out how to move on. It begins with a chronological, novel-like depiction of the accident and funeral before showing her phases of grief, trust and understanding.

"There's the sorrow side, and then there's the joy, the awe side of knowing that my daughters are very much alive and that I'm going to see them and that their lives are speaking, they're telling a story," Mayer said. "I've learned that understanding God is limited, but trusting his love is limitless."

Despite doubt and tears during the research, writing, and editing portions, Mayer said she feels a sense of closure from the book.

"It brought me back to life by writing it all out," she said.

Her pain is just as intense as it was 14 years ago, but not as raw, so she used her old journals to depict how she felt at the time.

"I'm very honest about my feelings and the emotions. When I talk about the grief process, I talk about my times of doubting God's goodness and his love and things like that and becoming stuck in my grief, focusing on my losses more than on life, so I really talk about how I got through that.

How to get a copy

Presales opened in late October and within two days Mayer had sold 150 copies. The cover, designed by her son, depicts three bleeding hearts.

Official sales of "After the Crash" will open Dec. 4, both on her website ( and on Amazon.

Though she envisions that religious parents (especially mothers) will enjoy her book most, she said she hopes anyone experiencing a tragedy can be comforted by it.

"Whether it's financial or sickness, a broken relationship or a broken dream or really deep-seated insecurities, you go through grief with all of those things," Mayer said. "You can't really compare grief ... but my hope of this book is to give people hope and the tools, which the biggest part of that is allowing God to help you walk through."