Linked In Grief: Pair Of Powell Mothers Each Lose 2 Children In Crashes Nearly A Year Apart

It’s unimaginable what happened to two mothers in Park County. Both named Brenda, both from the Powell area, both lost two offspring in car crashes on U.S. Highway 14 almost a year to the day apart.

Jake Nichols

March 20, 202311 min read

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It’s unimaginable what happened to two mothers in Park County. 

Both named Brenda, both from the Powell area, both lost two offspring in car crashes on U.S. Highway 14 almost a year to the day apart. 

Two mothers’ lives forever changed and bonded by tragedy. 

Brenda Hackenberg’s kids were killed in a head-on collision Feb. 16, 2022. 

Peiton, 17, and Phoenix, 15, were on their way to school in Lovell when the vehicle Peiton was driving skidded on ice into the oncoming lane.

Sixteen miles and 373 days removed from the Hackenberg family nightmare, tragedy struck again. 

This time it was Brenda Nelson’s two girls – Shannah, 22, and Wendy, 20 – who died when their Chevrolet Silverado spun out of control on an icy bridge deck and collided with a semitrailer near Heart Mountain.

So Much Hurt For So Small A Community

Most in Wyoming can likely make a close connection to someone they know who has died on a state highway. It’s part and parcel of traveling great distances in the Cowboy State, often referred to as a small town with really long streets. 

In the northern Big Horn Basin, community hunkers even tighter. Everyone knows everyone in Powell, Lovell, Cody and the outlying areas of Ralston and Byron. At churches, supermarkets and hardware stores, daily meetings and greetings usually involve a slow-paced catching up that is the brand of small-town Western life.

People here form close bonds. They lean on one another and their faith. They have to.

“As a pastor of a small community like this, I never thought within one year I would be doing two funeral services,” said Pastor Tim Morrow, who conducted both memorial services at New Life Church in Powell. “Two tragedies so similar in nature within a year. Two siblings lost in both accidents.

“It’s unthinkable, really. And it deeply affected the entire community.”

Brenda Hackenberg, left, and Brenda Nelson (Courtesy Photos)

Reliving A Nightmare

The morning of Feb. 16, 2022, Brenda Hackenberg had just arrived at Lovell Elementary School, where she teaches, when someone there said to her, “Did you see that big wreck on the highway? It was a red car. I don’t want to freak you out, but it looked kind of like Peiton’s.”

Hackenberg felt short of breath. She checked her daughter’s Life360, a location-sharing device the whole family used. It had stopped. She called Peiton’s cellphone. No answer.

“I told someone at work, ‘I think I have to go,’” Hackenberg remembers saying. “I got to the scene. There were first responders everywhere. Even though I knew many of them personally, none of them would come over to talk to me.

“I could see all of them were working hard on trying to free the occupants of the other car. No one was over at Peiton’s red car. I knew then my kids were gone.”

Brenda Nelson remembers the call from her son-in-law John, married to Shannah, hours after the crash that claimed Shannah and Wendy on Feb. 24.

“He could tell I hadn’t heard,” recalls Nelson. “He said, ‘I have to tell you something,’ and broke the news just as the cops arrived at my door to tell me.”

Leaning On Him

For the Brendas, the losses leave gaping wounds, an emptiness that will never be replaced. Not in this life. 

But both are women of strong faith. Both said the only reason they have peace today is knowing their children are in a better place.

“I know where they are. I wouldn’t want them back here for my sake. They are in heaven with Jesus,” Nelson said. 

Hackenberg agrees. Her kids were Christians, she knows. And while it is difficult for believers and nonbelievers to fathom at times, God’s ways are higher; he sees and know things we cannot, she says. She misses Peiton and Phoenix, but knows they have only just gone ahead.

“We will see these girls again. As Christians, the only good we can find in this and the only thing we can hold on to at times like this is to rest assured they are with Christ,” Pastor Morrow said. “Our hope is in Jesus Christ. Our hope is eternal. And both of these ladies are women of incredible faith.”

Shannah and Wendy Nelson (Courtesy Photo)

Leaning On Home

For the Hackenbergs, the outpouring began almost immediately. Within days, groups numbering in the thousands started mobilizing efforts on social media offering condolences, sustenance and money. 

“It was huge, the support from the community,” Hackenberg said. “People came alongside, came together; organized the service that Saturday when I could not. I was paralyzed, numb.”

Nelson’s family moved to the area from Minnesota three years ago. She quickly became rooted in the Powell community, opening up Rest Awhile Café, a popular restaurant and bakery. 

When word spread of her loss, a community barely out of its grief-stricken state for the Hackenbergs rallied again. 

“Day after day, we received cards from people, many we don’t even know. Some included money. It was overwhelming and heartwarming,” Nelson says.

What do you say to a parent who has suffered such a loss? How can anyone provide comfort during the kind of sorrow that no one should ever have to bear?

 “I remember people asking me how I’m holding up,” Hackenberg shares. “’How do you think I’m doing?’ I wanted to say. I suck. My kids are dead.”

Nelson adds, “I remember people asking me at the store, ‘How are you today?’ Well, right now I’m OK. Thirty seconds from now maybe I will break down. It changes hour to hour most days.”

Still today, a year removed from her loss, Hackenberg has days when the pain is sharp.

“I miss them so much,” she says. “My heart aches with longing for my little boy. And I love the way [Peiton] would scrunch up her nose, squint her eyes and smile that gorgeous smile.”

Leaning On One Another

How to cope? That’s something these women are still figuring out. How best to offer support? It’s not always straightforward. 

“We all don’t know what to do in these situations. We all try and fail. Nobody knows what to say or the right thing to do. We know that, and it’s alright,” Nelson says. “Maybe make a statement rather than ask a question. ‘I’m praying for you’ is a simple way to show you care.”

“There is no way to ever completely understand all the facets of grief. I discover more every day a year later,” Hackenberg adds.

But the Brendas have each other. How providential is it that each mom is able to offer comfort to the other from a place of complete understanding? 

Hackenberg, a self-professed introvert, was one of the first to reach out to Nelson, providing an authenticity in her sympathy as only a fellow survivor could.

“Asking for prayers for my friend, Brenda, of Rest Awhile Café, as she navigates the loss of two of her daughters in a car accident yesterday,” Hackenberg posted on Facebook Feb. 25, the day after the accident that claimed the lives of the Nelson girls. “She has been so tender and compassionate to me this past year. I don’t even want to remember my nightmare from a year ago, and she is living it.”

 From experience, Hackenberg knew when to lean in and when Nelson needed space to walk it out on her own. 

She spoke scripture. She listened. And every morning since that fateful day, Nelson starts every day with a heart emoji in her inbox, courtesy of Hackenberg, as her way of saying, “I’m still here for you.”

It’s a two-way street, the Brendas say. They lift each other up.

“I get back so much from Brenda because we are both very different people,” Hackenberg says. “I’m introverted and she is more outgoing.”

For instance, Nelson was decisive about where she wanted to lay her girls to rest. 

With help from Shannah’s husband John, the decision was made to bury Shannah and Wendy at Crown Hill Cemetery on a beautiful plot overlooking the basin. John wanted their 2-year-old son Jesse to be able to visit her.

It made Hackenberg think about her life choices, or lack of them. Peiton and Phoenix were cremated and their ashes, along with Hackenberg’s late husband Zach, who died in 2017, are still in the home where Hackenberg lives.

“I think maybe I want them out of the house. I want to focus on their lives and not the symbolisms of their death,” Hackenberg says. 

She is contemplating Crown Hill as well, maybe near the Nelson girls. Zach’s ashes she will spread somewhere in the Big Horn Mountains, where he loved to spend so much of his time.

Brenda Hackenberg with her children Peiton, left, and Phoenix. (Courtesy Photos)

Memories Kept Alive

Peiton and Phoenix are remembered by most as teens who had a knack for making everyone around them feel important. Peiton did it with her kindness and a smile that could light up the darkest of rooms. 

“And Phoenix was just such a goofball he put people immediately at ease with the realization they could be themselves around him,” Hackenberg says.

Nelson remembers Shannah as purpose-driven from the start.

“She always knew where she was going. She was never really a kid,” Nelson says. “She loved cattle and horses. She took her first job at the age of 9 working for a dairy farmer down the road so she could earn money to buy her own horses.”

Wendy very much emulated her big sister. She took after her in a love for horses. Wendy had a passion for photography as well, enhanced by her eye for little details missed by most. She also enjoyed baking with her mom at Rest Awhile Café.

Takeaways: Words To Live By

A benefit for the Nelson family is scheduled for Saturday at the Eagles Lodge in Powell. Likewise, New Life Church is organizing a fundraising campaign for Hackenberg as she needs rehoming. 

Still navigating their way through the grieving process, Hackenberg and Nelson shared what they could for anyone left behind.

“I was never a good housekeeper. I remember people coming over and I would be embarrassed by the mess,” Nelson says. “But I know now it never mattered. I was busy doing things with the kids. Arts and crafts, games, whatever. We were living.

“Spend every minute you can with your family, your loved ones, because if you ever get that call, you don’t want to think you have wasted an opportunity. A chance to be with someone you love before they are gone.”

That’s the thing about grief. It’s invoked by the slightest of triggers. A song, a smell, a place. Just when you think you have it together and are ready to move on, there she is again, there he is again. 

Right where you left them. Where they left you.

“Don’t do it alone. We were not made to do life alone. Don’t shut out others,” Hackenberg advises. “Lean into Jesus. That is the No. 1 thing that has got me through it. Allow others to bring comfort and aid as well. 

“And don’t ever miss an opportunity to hug your people.”

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Jake Nichols

Features Reporter