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Writer, Artist Reflect on Loss and Healing

A friend and the mother of El Cerrito High alum Alex Chappell, who was killed by a drunken driver, collaborated on a newly published book to share what they experienced in the wake of the loss.

It’s difficult to imagine wringing something positive from the abrupt loss of your only child, or from being gravely injured and losing a close friend in a vehicle crash. But it’s something Jeannine Chappell and David Brehmer are determined to do. 

The two had met only once before April 14, 2011. On that evening, Jeannine’s 26-year-old son Alexander, who attended El Cerrito High, was driving on Interstate 880 near the I-80 connector with Brehmer in the passenger seat. They were headed back to the Richmond Annex after band practice. A drunken driver abruptly crossed several lanes, striking Alex’s truck from behind and causing it to roll several times. The collision killed Alex and left Brehmer with serious internal injuries and two broken legs.  After extensive rehabilitation, Brehmer is walking but still experiences pain and continues physical therapy.

On Jan. 13, Jeannine and Brehmer will hold a release event for a book they created together, This Has Happened: Words and Images After the Crash. Creating the materials for the book has been therapeutic for them, and they hope it will be a means of sharing with others positive lessons they have drawn from their experiences.

Following the crash, Brehmer wrote as a way to get the images and thoughts out of his head on sleepless nights. His poems recall the raw emotions and images of the crash, his convalescence, his loss, his struggle to make sense of what happened.  His wife, Nissa, and friends suggested he collect his writing and share it with others.

Eventually, he learned that Jeannine was using art as a way of dealing with her grief. Her images tell their own intense story, of the journey from the awe of new parenthood to the horror of the sudden loss of an only child. Jeannine’s husband, Sean Chappell, suggested David and Jeannine collaborate.

They sought financial support for their project through Kickstarter, setting a goal of $6,500 and originally intending to print only a small number of books. With the support of friends and acquaintances of the two families and even strangers, the project surpassed its goal, bringing in almost $9,000.  Neither had published a book before, but with considerable help from Nissa Brehmer the project was completed and a shipment of 1,000 copies delivered from the printer.

On the cover is a drawing Jeannine did of David shirtless, leaning on a walker, gaunt from his ordeal, with a large scar slashed the length of much of his body. It is based on a photograph taken by Nissa.  Between its covers, the pairing of David Brehmer’s words and Jeannine Chappell’s images creates a powerful emotional experience.

“The main thing I hope for from the book, is it has the potential to create a connection with anyone who has been through a similar experience,” explained David. He also hopes those who haven’t had such experiences will gain perspective on what it is like to experience a sudden loss, and for people to understand the far-reaching consequences of their decisions.

Jeannine hopes the book gets across the power art can have in healing.  “I want to get the message to people that it’s important to get out what is inside,” she said.

“Its been wonderful getting to know David and Nissa,” added Jeannine. “I consider it a gift from Alex. To have them in my life and my husband’s life has made an enormous difference to us.”

The book will be available at the release event, Sunday, Jan. 13, from 2 to 4 pm at Ashkenaz, 1317 San Pablo Ave. (at Gilman) in Berkeley. Brehmer will read from the book, some of Jeannine Chappell’s images from the book will be on display, and there will be food and music. The book is also available from the This Has Happened website .

For more information, see the book’s website and Facebook page.

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