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Before and After

October 2009 087

Before Ellie died, I took my son to his baseball hitting lesson. We really liked the instructor. I was just being friendly and asked him “How many kids do you have?” He informed me that he had two sons, but one had committed suicide several years before. I remember being shocked and at a complete loss as to what to do or say. I think I probably looked very uncomfortable, and I was. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I probably changed the subject, and I would bet that I didn’t offer up very much in the way of comfort.

Before Ellie died, I was afraid of death, pain, suffering. I didn’t want to experience any of those things for myself and it was scary to see in other people. I didn’t know what to say, how to feel, what to do, and the easiest thing was to avoid thinking about it. Sadly, I had never been to a funeral before Ellie’s.

Before Ellie died, I didn’t appreciate taking Ellie to the costume jewelry store or playing with her dolls. I enjoyed our bedtime routine of reading and snuggling, but I always wanted to leave before she wanted me to. I had things to do. What was so important?

Well, things change. After losing six-year-old Ellie, I have learned a few things.

I give people the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they care, even if it doesn’t seem like it. The fact is that unless you’ve experienced a deep loss, it is hard to empathize and understand. I try to help people with their reactions. I try to make it easy for them if I can. I know that I needed some help and guidance over all my prior years.

I saw the baseball instructor at a game a few months ago. I jumped up and walked up to him. I told him about the conversation we had many years ago and I apologized for my insensitivity and lack of understanding. Although the circumstances of our children’s deaths were different, we were both fathers without our babies. We shared a hug and a few tears and it was a memorable moment.

Now I always go to the funeral. I have been to many in the past five years, and volunteered to help out as needed. It is so important to support the grieving families by just being there for them.

One day I was leaving the grocery store walking past the girl scout cookies, little girls, and a dad. I was late and did not intend to purchase any cookies, but the father said “How about some cookies?” I said, “no thank you.” He said, “you must not have a little girl at home, you’re lucky!” The tears quickly flowed as I continued walking. It was a difficult moment, but I soon realized that could have been me with Ellie, a father who wasn’t exactly excited about selling girl scout cookies. We are all on a journey and life has a way of teaching us.

I take the time to be with my family and friends — to savor the moments. I am thankful for each day with my loved ones and try to bring a smile and some joy to the world. I’ve learned that kindness, compassion, and service to others brings deep meaning and purpose. Loving God and loving people through all of the circumstances of life is a good plan.

I was at golf lesson with my son the other day, and his instructor was talking to me. Then he asked the inevitable question in a friendly way, “How many kids do you have?” And so it goes…

Todd Nigro (Ellie’s Dad)

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Jeanie’s Incredible Story

It was a wonderful day when I married my college sweetheart. He was everything I wanted in a husband; handsome, athletic, good sense of humor, committed Christian, etc. He was a school teacher and tennis coach, who loved to make others laugh, and so people were drawn to him and his magnetic personality. We became Youth Group leaders at our local church and spent lots of time with high school students. Eventually we started a family and God blessed us with 2 little girls.


My first husband Rick and the girls

May 27, 1989, started out as any another Saturday when we awoke and had breakfast with our girls. Megan was 3 and Kristin was just 9 months old. My husband, Rick, grabbed a piece of strawberry pie before heading out the door. He and one of the students from our Youth Group were going to do some painting on the church exterior. It wasn’t long until a storm was brewing on the horizon and I knew Rick would be on his way home. Suddenly there was a knock at the door and as I opened it, I was surprised to see a police officer standing there who said he had some unfortunate news to share. He proceeded to tell me there was an accident at the church, something about aluminum ladders getting too close to power lines and that two people were electrocuted. One of the people was identified by my minister as Rick, and the other was the student from our youth group. I was in shock as I heard the news along with my two children. The funeral was held at the local church and people lined up out the door and down the street to greet our family. I know God sustained me that day as I greeted hundreds of dear friends, including my husband’s 4th grade students. My heart was broken and I wondered about the God I loved who allowed such a thing to happen. My daughters were very young, so Megan did not understand for some time that Daddy was not coming home. She would ask me every day where Daddy was and when he would be home. Although I explained that he was safely in heaven with Jesus and was not coming back, she could not comprehend it, and it broke my heart to repeat it to her every day. Her Daddy was her best friend and it was difficult to watch her grieve as she accepted the reality of her loss.


Rick Alan Lucas
November 23, 1952 – May 27, 1989

The next year was extremely difficult, but raising two little girls gave me reason to go on with life. I enrolled Megan in pre-school so she would be distracted from her grief as she played with the other children. I started seeing a Christian Counselor who helped me sort through some of the challenges I was now facing. My family and church friends were extremely supportive and helped me through the darkest of days. Soon after the one-year anniversary of my husband’s death, I put together a scrap book of the memories I had of him for my children to keep as a remembrance. As I completed the final pages of the scrap book, it felt as though a chapter in my life was coming to an end. I distinctly remember the realization that I had a decision to make as to whether to stay in this valley of grief or begin to move forward, and live the balance of my life as the gift that it truly is. And so I asked God to help me figure out what this new life would be like, and for Him to go before me.

Several years passed and I met and dated a fine young man named Bill. He was a strong person with a soft heart, and seemed to love playing with the girls, who just adored him. We soon fell in love, got married, and Bill legally adopted the girls as his own. We soon had another daughter, Brooke, who brought much joy to our lives. She was easy-going and the older girls loved playing with her. Life was good once again.


My second husband Bill and the girls

On May 1, 2003, tragedy struck again. Bill was at a routine doctor visit when the doctor discovered a large mass in Bill’s chest and abdomen. After several tests Bill was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, stage 4B. When we heard the diagnosis I cried for 2 days. Bill was trying to be brave, but I could see the fear in his eyes of his unknown future. I struggled with my faith and asked God if I had not grieved properly the first time, that I had to possibly endure my second husband’s death? But I decided to trust Him even in this, and I felt God’s peace and comfort in unexplainable ways as we traveled on this journey. As we met with the oncologist, there seemed to be a glimmer of hope that his body would respond to chemotherapy treatments. We were filled with anticipation as the tumor started shrinking and things were starting to look hopeful. But soon the treatments stopped working and Bill became a candidate for a bone marrow transplant. His sister’s blood was a match and she generously went through the process of donating her cells for Bill. As he received them we were all excited at the possibility of her cells fighting off the dreadful disease that had been ravaging Bill’s body. But as time progressed, Bill’s body did not respond as anticipated and the doctor advised that there was no further treatment available for Bill except to continue with chemotherapy for now. Over the next year, I observed Bill valiantly fighting for his life as the cancer slowly destroyed his body. On September 19, 2005, the cancer claimed his physical body and he went to be with Jesus. Once again family and friends rallied around and offered support. God provided some special friends who ministered to me in a way that only God could provide. I knew what grief was and perhaps it made me dread it even more, as I once again experienced the ripping apart of the “two that had become one.” There was some relief in the knowledge that Bill was no longer suffering, but in the presence of his heavenly father. However, I was angry at cancer and what it had done to the sweet man who I shared my life with, and how it left my children fatherless once again in their critical years.


Jeanie and Bill
Billy Gene Horton
June 15, 1961 – September 19, 2005

As time passed, I felt God’s comfort in a way that the world could not comprehend. My mother passed away just one month before Bill, and then my father followed 2 years later. I was feeling alone as I watched the people I loved the most pass on. God’s care was evident in the way He took care of finances by providing sufficient life insurance to provide for the girls and me. However, as the stock market crashed in 2008 and I watched half of my finances disappear, I truly felt abandoned by any earthly stability I had ever felt. God had my full attention at this point and I cried out for His help. He heard my cry and sustained me and provided for my family in a way that only He could. He sent encouragers to help me along the way. I was involved in a ladies’ Bible Study in my neighborhood and these 10 women, who gathered together with me to study God’s Word on a weekly basis, prayed for me as I struggled with my loneliness, and became my best friends. They were truly like Jesus to me as they wrapped their arms around me and loved on me like only Jesus could do.

As I look back on these difficult times, I am ever grateful for God’s comfort, peace and eventually bringing joy back into my life. In my darkest days of loneliness, He showed Himself to me as The Great Comforter. He held me close to His heart and brought healing to mine. He showed Himself as The Great Provider in meeting all the physical needs of my family. As Job says in Job 42:5, “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” I have truly experienced God in a way that I did not know before my losses and for that I will ever be grateful.

Most recently I have the opportunity to participate in the leadership of a group at my church called GriefShare. This group is composed of people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. We meet weekly to learn about grief; what to expect and how to handle difficult circumstances relating to grief. It has been a wonderful experience for me to walk along side others in grief and encourage them on their journey.

And last, but not least, God has blessed me with another husband. We were introduced by someone who said he “felt compelled” to introduce us. I see Dave as a gift from my Heavenly Father, the One who comforts me in all my trouble. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” (II Corinthians 1:3, 4)

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Living Ellie’s Way


We all have a path that brings us to this moment. I’d like to share my story, the ups and downs, what God has done in my life, and a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Growing Up

I was born in Japan, a military brat. I was named Todd Murdock Nigro. I’ve always wondered where “Murdock” came from. I’ve never heard a good explanation. But, I think it’s pretty cool now. My wife says it’s “distinguished”, I’m not sure what that means, but I’ll take it as a compliment.

Sadly, my parent’s marriage did not work out. My mother did her best to raise three children. We didn’t have much and my mother worked most of the time, so I was pretty much on my own from a very young age. I grew up mostly in Utah in a non-religious family in a predominately Mormon environment. I learned that it was okay to not fit in, because we didn’t.

My relationship with my mother was always difficult. She would always want to talk, yell, or lecture us whenever we were with her. I get it now. She had no one but us. My older sister and little brother would gladly let me do all the talking and so I did. I felt the brunt of my mother’s instability. She had come from a very difficult home. Both of her parents were alcoholics and she was the youngest of three. I can only imagine the lack of love, abuse, and chaos she endured. I only wanted to be loved, to have my mom be my mom. This was not what she wanted nor could she be the mom I wanted her to be.

My Uncle and Father

We had an awesome uncle that bought us ski equipment and would take us skiing every weekend. He brought (7) kids by himself ranging in age from 5 to 15. The older I get, the more amazed and thankful I am for what he did.

I remember seeing my dad once per year, usually he would come to visit to go skiing. We’d take him to the highest black diamond runs we could find for the sheer entertainment value. He usually crashed quite a bit, but he kept up with us. We always had fun times with him.

One time he came to visit, I was eager to play catch with him. I had been working on my pitching and wanted to show him how good I was. My mother could not afford for me to play little league so I used to go to the field and pitch to anyone that would play with me. Things just kept coming up, and I couldn’t show him what I could do. I was devastated. I wanted my dad to be impressed by me, his son. For the first 20 years of my life, I really didn’t know my father.

Making Things Happen

I learned that I needed to make things happen in this world. If I wanted to get out of poverty, it was up to me to find a way. If I was to be loved, I had to make myself lovable and remarkable so I could be loved. This belief was reinforced as I worked hard and some incredible things happened. I was always searching for the meaning of life and initially it was to escape from poverty.

I figured I needed to do well in school to get ahead in life. School was easy for me, but I also worked hard when I needed to. All the kids called me “4.0”, usually in a derogatory way. I wasn’t happy unless I beat everyone on a test and finished it first too. Looking back, I was a nerd and accepted my role figuring that it would pay off one day. I wound up being the valedictorian of my high school class.

Becoming a Pilot

I received a mechanical engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. The only thing I remember from my college years was that is was COLD in upstate New York.

I was about to enter the workforce as an engineer, but decided that I’d rather fly airplanes. My father was very kind to help me follow my dream and loaned me the money to get all of my flying ratings. After learning to fly, the economy was tough so I decided to try to join the Air Force and be a pilot. I walked into the mall and the recruiter said, “Everyone that comes in here wants to be a pilot. We haven’t taken anyone off the street for more than 10 years. Right now they are taking away pilot slots from the Academy guys.” I left him my information and went to work as an engineer.

About a year later, I received a call from a very excited recruiter. He told me that there would be a selection board for pilot slots for Officer Training School. I put together a package and was very fortunate to be selected that year. My new meaning in life was to be the best pilot I could be.

During pilot training I met Kristen, who was in flight nurse training. We were married within a year and started our family a few years later — we just celebrated our 20th anniversary this year! So, now I wanted to be a great husband and father — that became my new motivation in life.


Todd and Kristen

I flew the F-15E Strike Eagle (two-seat fighter-bomber) for 8 years, living out a childhood dream which started with Top Gun and watching the F-16’s flying above my high school every day.

You don’t get to pick your callsign in a fighter squadron. I’d had many different nicknames through my Air Force training. At Officer Training School, they called me “Wonderboy.” I looked a bit young, I guess. Then, I was “Alpha” which was kind of boring. I was hoping for something cool like “Nitro.” But, things worked out differently. One of the instructors always spelled everyone’s name backwards and put it on the flight card. Well, my last name, NIGRO, spelled backwards is O-R-G-I-N. “Orgin.” They thought that was kind of funny and that’s what I wound up with. Not the coolest callsign, but better than “4.0”, I was moving up in the world.


Todd in the F-15E

I can’t talk and chew gum at the same time. I’m also quite a klutz – things break when I touch them! My wife is surprised that I survived my time in the Air Force, and I am too!

My career spanned the time between the Iraq wars, but I spent about eight months enforcing the no fly zone in Iraq. I wound up being an instructor pilot for the last four years of my service and got out in 2002. We moved to Peachtree City, GA, with our two young boys and I joined my father’s business. We work together checking large construction projects for mistakes before they are built.

Completing Our Family

A few years later, with two young boys we were visiting my wife’s family at Thanksgiving. Many of Kristen’s friends were pregnant, and we had been talking about having another child for months. The subject came up with Kristen’s mother whom we called “Ma”. She gave us this advice: “You might always regret NOT having another child, but you will NEVER regret having another child.” We thought about that and it seemed so true. Our decision was made! Our family was incomplete and Kristen especially wanted a daughter.

By the summer, Kristen was pregnant and it was so exciting. My boys, Tyler and Jake were also interested in their new sibling and asked lots of questions.

We picked the name Ellie for our precious daughter. She couldn’t wait to join us and was born about seven weeks early. Ellie’s birth was uneventful until she was supposed to cry. I remember seeing the nurses take Ellie to the warmer and the tension rose as she didn’t seem responsive. I quickly became so scared. Ellie was purple and didn’t look very healthy and she wasn’t crying. All of a sudden, she sprang to life. Within a few minutes, everything appeared to be normal. She was breathing on her own and her color improved rapidly. Our little Ellie had arrived!

She weighed only 4 ½ pounds and was so small. She needed to stay in the neonatal intensive care unit for one week. We drove up to see her every day and spent the entire day with her. They didn’t allow us to stay overnight. Ellie was growing and doing much better each day. One day we brought Tyler and Jake up to see her. The boys weren’t allowed in the NICU, so I brought Ellie over to the window where the boys smiled and made faces at Ellie. They were so excited to have a baby sister.

I will never forget the day Ellie came home. We couldn’t wait to bring her home to join the family. She was so full of life and brought us so much joy from the very beginning.

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Ellie, Jake, and Tyler

Our Kids

I want to share with you how fantastic our three kids are.

Our oldest son Tyler (age 17) is a sweet, sensitive, and compassionate child. He is an accomplished musician and athlete, but more than anything, he was an incredible big brother to his little sister Ellie. When Ellie was little, he looked after her, played with her, and loved her with all of his heart. I’ve never seen a young boy as patient and loving to a baby.

Our middle child is Jake (age 15). He has a charming personality and will make friends with anyone. He has a heart of gold and is so much fun to be around. He also loved to play with Ellie.

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Jake, Ellie, and Tyler

Finally, Ellie (age 6) was my sweet little daddy’s girl. She and I just “got” each other. She thought I was funny and wanted to be like me. I’ll never forget our talks in bed about her dreams and her struggles. She gave the warmest welcome home every time I came through the door. We shared a love for encouraging others. Here’s a little story that I’ll finish later.

Ellie was always watching people. One day, she noticed that I was leaving encouraging sticky notes around the house for Mommy. She informed me “Daddy, where is my note?” She was irresistible! I began to write her notes and leave them where she would find them. I always wrote her one because it made her so happy (even if Mommy didn’t get one sometimes).

Ellie learned and wanted to give back. She began to write notes and cards to everyone. She took it to a whole new level! Her nice words are on all the neighbors’ refrigerators and were delivered to her swim team coaches. She always had time to write a nice note.

In early January 2012, when Ellie was six, I came home for lunch. Just before I left, I was walking out of the garage to my car and I saw Ellie run across the driveway as fast as she could. She darted around the back of the house. I walked up to the car and saw a sticky note on the window. It touched my heart and I put it over the tachometer.

Ellie Brushing Her Teeth!
This short video captures Ellie’s sweet spirit. Thanks for the laugh, sweet little Ellie!

A Terrible Day

It all began as a normal Friday. I woke up and got ready for work. Ellie inspired me to write her a note of love. The night before she said, “Dad, I wish you would write me a note, I haven’t seen one in awhile.” I left the note in the usual place on the wall where I knew she would find it and left for work.

I came home for lunch. I walked in the door and greeted Ellie sitting at the table. She smiled at me as she always did and I looked over her shoulder at the work she was doing. My wife left for the store to grab a few things.

I grabbed a snack from the refrigerator and asked Ellie, “So how is your day going?” She beamed, “Thanks for the note!” She jumped up and showed me where she had been hiding the notes she received under the kitchen bar counter. She liked having secret hiding places for important things and it seemed she treasured these notes. I came up with an idea at work that I wanted to start, so I went up into the office and began to work at the computer. I was sitting there for about 5 minutes. I had no idea my world was about to change.

Then it happened. I heard a gun shot. I jumped up and ran right into Ellie standing at the top of the stairs. She said “I’ve been shot.” I picked her up and carried her downstairs. I called 9-1-1. The next 20 minutes was a blur of chaos as our house was filled with emergency medical personnel. We had to remain outside and that’s when my wife returned.

Someone came out and said they were getting ready to move her to the hospital and that we should make our way there. As we drove, I was afraid, but I convinced myself that modern medicine could surely fix our sweet little Ellie.

We arrived and were ushered into a private waiting room. There was a knock at the door, and a doctor walked in. The doctor sat down in front of us and with compassionate eyes and voice said, “I’m sorry, Ellie is dead.” I was dazed and felt so helpless. How could this have happened? It had been less than an hour and my life was completely out of control.

Time stood still. After ten minutes or so, a nurse knocked on the door and said they had prepared Ellie for us to see her. We wanted to see our sweetie. It was so scary. I had never been to a funeral in my life. I had never lost a person close to me. I was a 42-year-old man facing death for the first time in my life and it was MY DAUGHTER. I held my wife’s hand as we stumbled into the back room. The curtain was pulled and pushed aside and there she was.

After some time, my wife wanted to call her family and left the room and I found myself alone with Ellie. I moved in close and kissed her and held her sweet little hand and just lost it. This was the ultimate low point in my life.

Then, right when I needed it, I noticed a hand on my back. It felt so soothing and comforting. It wasn’t too hard or too soft. It was exactly what I needed to get through my pain in that moment. After I had regained some composure, I looked to my side and there was a gentleman with a stubbly beard next to me. He didn’t say anything, but his hand said it all. It was on my back and it meant the world to me. I said “you sure do have a tough job,” and he just replied that it was difficult at times and he let me be in the moment with my daughter. I felt the hand of God through that nurse’s hand. I was comforted and not alone in my moments of deep anguish.

After leaving the hospital in shock and arriving at home, we had a family meeting. I did my best to rally everyone. We could get through this. We had to stick together and make sure that we didn’t let this accident destroy us. I made sure that the boys knew this was an accident and no one was blaming anyone. We all seemed to be somewhat stable for a bit when we got home. Of course, everything was about to get much worse.

I didn’t sleep that night. It was the longest night of my life. I just wanted the sun to come up again. Our family, friends, neighbors, and community rallied around us with support for which we are eternally grateful. Our church went way beyond anything we ever could have expected, loving us incredibly even though we were irregular attenders. We made it through the visitation and memorial service.

So what did happen? One of my sons was shooting at some squirrels with a pellet gun out of an upstairs window. This was not an approved practice. He got distracted and put the gun down, pumped and loaded. My other son picked up the gun, not knowing it was loaded. Ellie was accidentally shot in the chest.

Newspaper Story

A day after Ellie’s memorial I woke up with a phone call from my father. He asked me not to read the paper. I agreed to honor that request, but fear struck me very hard.

Now, up until this point I had felt like I was doing a reasonable job of keeping things together and supporting my wife and kids. But, at the same time, I was dealing with that terrible voice in my head. “How could you let this happen?”, “You are a failure”, etc. This same voice had told me for most of my life that “You are not good enough”, “No one will ever love you”.

Being in the military, I believe in the concept of the Pilot in Command. The ultimate responsibility for our family rests with me. I am the leader and needed to keep us safe. I had failed miserably.

It was later in the day, and I was alone at the computer. I became curious and went to the newspaper’s website. This article became the turning point in my life.

It didn’t say it in so many words, but it was clear that all the blame was on me. It implied that I let my daughter be killed in an environment that was so dangerous. For me, knowing that I am responsible for my home, this all fell on my shoulders and drove a stake through my heart and my guilt. I was weak already, but this was a blow that my mind could not withstand. Despite the insensitive, false statements and lack of fact finding that was strewn through the article, it couldn’t be fixed. I had no strength and just wanted to give up.

I usually sought comfort and support from Kristen and I was totally out of control mentally. I just wanted to be alone. I walked downstairs and closed all doors behind me. I went into the bedroom and locked the door. I went into the bathroom and closed the door. I went into the little room with the toilet and closed the door. I curled up into a ball and hid behind the door and just sobbed. I was so afraid that anyone would find me and I didn’t know what I was going to say. I was thinking how to just leave this unbearable situation. I knew that Kristen would eventually come. But, how could I let her know what I knew – it would surely bring her the same pain I was experiencing. I wasn’t sure she could deal with this, and I couldn’t deal with it either. I had lost all hope. For the first time in my life, I could not solve my problem and had no idea what to do.

I don’t even know how long I was there in the deepest low of my life. After a time, Kristen did come and helped me off the floor and just kept asking what was wrong. It was the hardest thing for me to build up the courage to tell her. She had the strength to listen and tell me that I was such a loving and caring father. She encouraged me and let me know how much she loved me. I just sat on the floor and she went to get me some water and tried to regroup herself. I knew that Kristen had tried her best but she couldn’t save me from myself or from this situation. We were both just trying to survive at this point.

It had been a long search over the years. I was around so many churches and learned so much about God and Jesus. Many people seemed to have peace and live lives in such a loving way. Ellie used to pray the sweetest prayers for me and our family. I wanted to be a part of it, but I just didn’t understand it and didn’t know how to open my heart. But, I knew now that it was the only way. I needed God’s love and His forgiveness. I was so tired of trying so hard to be a good person, and knowing that I could never be good enough. I didn’t want to be in control anymore.

I felt God’s hand reach down to me and fill my heart with His love. I told Him I was sorry, thanked Jesus for dying for me, forgiving me, and giving me the gift of eternal life. I gave my life to Jesus! I called my pastor, father, brother, and a friend and had them come to my house. I declared my faith to them and we prayed.

New Life

Things changed and I want to let you know what God has done in our lives!

Probably the most significant thing that occurred was that both of my boys accepted Christ and we were all baptized within a month. Kristen has been a Christian since childhood, but her faith has been strengthened through our tragedy as well.

God started teaching me.

Two Amazing Lessons

It had been three long weeks of very difficult days and nights since Ellie died. Somehow we found the strength to bring our sons to a swim meet in Atlanta. It was a long day. We were all tired after the hour long drive back home. Ma, Kristen’s mother, had stayed behind to watch our dog Maverick, and the two new puppies, Slider and Goose (did I mention we are Top Gun fans?)

When we arrived, Ma informed us that Maverick had bit her hand while she was trying to bring him in. He was barking at a neighbor and she tried to retrieve him. He apparently turned and took a large bite in her hand, puncturing her skin in several places. There was a long trail of blood through the garage and down the driveway.

My initial reaction was one of anger and responsibility. I was mad and felt that the responsible thing to do was to find a new home for him or take him to the pound. As I began to verbalize my plan, Kristen quickly resisted. She was upset too, but Maverick was Ellie’s dog and she wasn’t ready to write him off. The situation escalated rapidly and I had learned that trying to discuss anything further would likely just make things worse. So, I exited to our bathroom and decided to regroup. I called my brother and vented. I was frustrated and didn’t know what to do. Kristen and I were not communicating with each other and it was getting worse. I just tried to figure out what to do at this point discussing it with my brother.

After the phone call which lasted about an hour, I came out and discovered that Kristen was gone. The car was not in the garage and no one knew when she left or where she had gone. She had never done this before. She was somewhat unstable and this was very scary. I didn’t know what to do. I decided to go inside and check on Ma’s hand. I went to the store to pick up some medical supplies. It started raining as I arrived home and parked at the end of my driveway. Kristen still was not home. She had been gone for several hours.

While parked in the driveway, I looked in my side mirror and saw a light that was moving around and getting closer. I wasn’t sure what it was. I got a bit nervous and the light came closer and closer. Then, a large man came up to my window and shined his flashlight into my window. I rolled down my window and looked up in horror at a policeman standing in the rain.

I lost it. I didn’t want this man to talk, because I didn’t want to hear him say, “I’m sorry, sir, your wife is dead.” I began to just wail and cry, yelling “no, no!” This could not be happening. I had just lost my daughter, I didn’t want to lose my wife too. This was just too much for me and I cried and cried. I must have seemed like a madman as I just cried and carried on for what seemed like forever.

Finally, I calmed down and the policeman finally spoke. He said “Sir, I found your wife, she was parked near the lake. I approached her and she was obviously upset and crying. After identifying her, I was aware of your situation with your daughter. I told her that she needed to move on, and it was probably best if she went home. She pulled away and I decided to follow her. Unfortunately, I was called away on another problem and lost her. I came by here to see if she made it home.”

I got out of the car and we walked into the empty garage. The police officer took out his notepad and began to ask me questions. I was still a wreck but had caught my breath. I kept thinking that I was so glad that my wife was not dead, but she still could be. No one knew where she was and I was so scared. After talking with the police officer for ten minutes, he told me that they would keep an eye out for Kristen, and to call if she came home.

I went inside and realized that I had survived something incredible. I gave Ma the medicine and our doctor friend came over to look at her hand. While we were doing that Kristen arrived and she slipped into the bedroom and went to sleep. I didn’t know what to do, so I just got the boys to bed. I crawled into bed and made it through most of the night.

In the morning, I was a mess. What do I do now? I had experienced an incredible emotional trial. I just prayed to God to help me find a way to deal with this. As Kristen awoke, I asked her if she wanted to go to church. It was Sunday, and she agreed. We didn’t say a word to each other as we got ready to go. We drove to church in silence and walked into church.

The music was playing but I was not listening. The tears just streamed down my cheeks and I prayed. I missed the first half of the sermon as I kept in my prayer. Then, I felt several ideas enter my mind and I wrote them on the offering card.

The first idea involves unconditional love. This is a bit complicated. God convicted me in that moment. I hadn’t loved Kristen unconditionally. I didn’t know how and I didn’t understand it in the context of my relationships with anyone, perhaps with the exception of my children.

I believe we get to see unconditional love in its purest form at one particular instant in time. When my children were born and I looked into those beautiful eyes, my heart overflowed with love. These babies could not take care of themselves. They did not ask for anything or give anything. Yet, my love poured out into them, expecting absolutely nothing in return. The love was a true unconditional gift. That’s the kind of love that God, our Father, has for all of us, His children. I am to love God the same way. I am to love people the same way. In marriage, I am to love my wife the same way.

The other idea that I learned was to live without fear. In my mind, my wife had died. I felt the pain and the anguish of that reality for five minutes. I had processed it and I knew that I could survive it. God showed me that there is nothing to be afraid of. I would have gladly sacrificed myself for Ellie and for my wife. God was right there with me providing comfort in the midst of great trials. When keeping an eternal perspective, life is so short, and there is nothing to be afraid of.

We still have Maverick. It turns out he has some lower back issues that cause him pain when you try to pick him up. We didn’t know that then and he has been a great dog since.


Maverick and Ellie

My Wife

I’d like to let you know how God has worked in my wife’s life. In my experience, everyone grieves differently. With that said, I think that a dad can’t understand the grief of a mother. Mother’s carry, deliver, and nurse their babies. Dad’s support the mom through all of that, but there is a world of difference! In my case, I was at work for most of the day, while my wife took care of Ellie and the boys. We grieved differently and experienced completely different losses. I lost my sweet little daddy’s girl, and she lost her daughter whom she spent all day, every day with. She lost a life that grew inside of her, something a dad just can’t understand. She lost her identity as a homeschool mom. I can’t even imagine her pain.

About 18 months after Ellie passed, Kristen decided to get a job and worked at a cafe. Soon after, she decided to reactivate her nursing license and enrolled in a Nurse Refresher Course.

Kristen now works at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America serving cancer patients as a nurse. She helps others with grief and sadness in ways that were different than hers, but with the same empathy that comes with pain.


Tyler, Kristen, and Jake

How am I doing?

Life has become exciting again. I wake up wondering what God has planned for me. I know that life is not easy, but I don’t expect it to be. I am motivated and energized to share my heart and love to the world. I try to love God and love people in all that I do.

I’m not even recognizable from the previous me, but that’s not all bad. The old me was ruined and broken faster than I thought possible. My world had shattered. Little did I know, but Ellie had planted a seed in me that would save my life and birth a new me. Ellie loved Jesus, prayed with me and for me, and shined God’s love into my life. Her joy for life and faith is a constant inspiration and will never be forgotten.

I miss Ellie. I wish she was here and we could enjoy each other. I remember her every day. But, I would not want to be the old me. I’ve found a richer life that I had never known. I’ve found a profound sense of purpose and compassion. I know that I’ll see her again in Heaven because that is promised to all who give their lives to Christ. I live in the moment of every day, enjoying the people and blessings in my life more than ever before.

Heart of Compassion

God has given me a heart for the grieving. Kristen used to be a hospice nurse many years ago before we had kids. I always wondered how she could do that kind of work, it seemed so hard. Now I facilitate a GriefShare group and seek to bring comfort to those who have lost a loved one. It’s an incredible experience to watch a small group of people transform over the course of thirteen weeks. The first week is full of tears and brokenness and by the end of the course, friendships have formed through laughter and walking together, not alone, through the valley of grief.

One of my favorite scriptures is:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
– 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

We founded a ministry called Ellie’s Way that provides comfort to thousands of people who are suffering the loss of a loved one. We do that through our website, care packages, and online groups.


Sending Ellie’s Way Care Packages

We receive many messages of thanks, but this one is my favorite because it illustrates a story of pain and joy from a bereaved mother named Kelly who received one of our care packages. The package contained a memorial necklace that had her daughter’s picture on it.

“As my daughter checked the mail today. I heard her yell, ‘Mommy, somebody got a package!’ Here at my house, we love packages! So we sat down and opened it, and each piece I pulled out was a blessing. I am struggling especially this week. When I unwrapped the necklace and I saw her face, her beautiful little face, I felt it… I don’t think that I have felt that feeling in so long, it was like I saw her again. I was excited, it was that excited feeling you get when you haven’t seen someone in awhile. The feeling where you have missed them so much and you are so extremely elated to see them. Just for a second I had that feeling. Thank you! You gave that to me even if it was just a second. That second was fabulous. I can’t tell you how you have impacted me. Ellie has a wonderful family. She is so lucky. So is my daughter to have a heaven friend like Ellie. From my soul, thank you so much. You have changed a part of me forever. All my love.” – Kelly

Letter to Me

Here’s an exercise that has helped me keep focused on what’s important no matter what life brings me.

I imagine myself in twenty years. I’m an old man who is diagnosed with cancer. I’m told that I have six months to live at most and there is nothing the doctors can do. Despite this bad news, my current health is good. I have no limitations – except the knowledge of what is growing inside of me and that I’m dying.

What would I tell myself to do with the “good” time I have left?

Fast forward six months. I’m a frail old man in bed, writhing in pain from a cancer that just won’t stop. I’m not sure how many more hours or days I have left. There is not much good news regarding my health and I’m limited to a bed. Despite this situation, I have people taking care of me as best they can.

What would I tell myself to do with the “good” time I have left?

Rewind to today. I’m a middle aged man. I’m assuming that I have more than twenty years to live, but as our six-year-old daughter’s death has shown, I could die tomorrow. Who knows? Despite this bad news, my current health is good. I have no limitations – except the knowledge that I am going to die someday.

What would I tell myself to do with the “good” time I have left?

Here’s a Letter to Me

Dear Me (old and now),

Life is a gift. Your children, family, friends, neighbors, and strangers are all gifts to be savored. Although some days may be full of hardship and sadness, each breath, heartbeat, and thought illustrates this beautiful gift of life.

Don’t forget the times that you felt most alive. Those were times when love was abounding – when your love was flowing to the world. In the time you have left, keep finding outlets to love and to serve.

Remember the power of right now. Each moment is a blessing to be enjoyed. Look for beauty in people and the world. Be present. Remain hopeful. Share life.

Follow the example of Jesus Christ. Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Let God fill you with love, compassion, joy, and peace.

Love Always,

Nigro Family Pictures, Stars Mill 074

Nigro Family

My Sons

Many people ask me, how are your sons? I prayed without ceasing that God will find a way to use this terrible tragedy for His glory. God has worked a miracle.

My older son, Tyler, is getting ready for college. He has done very well in high school and is interested in studying music and business.

I was talking with Jake over a round of golf, and I asked him what he thought about sharing our story. He told me to just share what happened. “That’s what I do, Dad!” He has many friends and is excelling at school and everything he does. He told me that he feels like he has a wonderful family and has had a great childhood. He’s shared that other kids seem to have much bigger problems. When his friends complain about their parents, siblings, or whatever, he tells them “Do you think it really is that bad?” I’m so thankful for my son who is a fine young man. His story is just beginning, I don’t know what God has planned, but it will be interesting to see.

Here’s a story about how something small and seemingly insignificant can become a treasure.

I was finally getting around to cleaning up my desk, and I found a piece of paper. It was a “To Do List” that I wrote presumably in early January 2012, just before Ellie passed away. The items on the list relate to buying Ellie’s cello, setting up the kids swim meet, and getting the address to pay Nathan (Ellie’s cello teacher).

Ellie must have seen the list, and she added an important item at the end.


I just wanted to finish the story about Ellie’s last sticky note. The sticky note in my car is something that I treasure, an unbelievable gift from an incredible daughter.


My Father

Seeing Ellie’s gift to me got me thinking more about my dad. I had lived most of my life without him. He invited me to come work for him during a summer when I was in college. I enjoyed getting to know him and our relationship has grown ever since. For the past 12 years I have worked with him – just the two of us in an office. It has been a true blessing to know my father.

Although I still find it hard that my mother abandoned her role as a mother a long time ago, I’ve grown very close to my father. Ellie’s death revealed to me the depths of my father’s love for me. Despite his grief, he was able to make up for my inability to work effectively for months after Ellie’s death. At the same time, he patiently supported me and loved me through the most difficult time of my life. He drove me home when I broke down. He has listened to me and given me encouragement. He’s loyal, compassionate, generous, full of integrity, and loves God. He brightens my day with his fun loving spirit and I know how fortunate I am to have such a caring father.

My nickname for him is “The Catcher” because he’s always been there to catch me when I needed him most. It’s been 35 years since I was disappointed by not being able to play catch with him, but I’m thankful to have so much more than impressing my dad, I’ve found his love! Inspired by Ellie, I gave this baseball to my father at a devotional breakfast.


The Wise and Foolish Builders

My life as I knew it was destroyed by a terrible tragedy. I had built my life around idols such as money, family, marriage, security, and achievement. The storms of life happen and test our foundations. Jesus said the following:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” – Matthew 7:24-27

What is your house built on? How will you survive the big storms of life? I have found a richer life through my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He has helped me rebuild on the rock with a solid foundation that will help me through any storm, even a deadly one. Our Father is the ultimate “Catcher”, He is always available, full of love and compassion.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16

Would you like to know Jesus?

I’d like to share a short prayer of salvation. Will you pray this with me?

“Father, I’m so sorry for the sins of my past and I want to turn away from them and toward You. Please forgive me. I believe your son, Jesus Christ, died for my sins and was resurrected from the dead. I invite Jesus into my heart to lead me from this day forward. Thank you for the gift of life and the hope and promise of an eternal heaven with You. I pray that love, compassion, acceptance, and peace will blossom in me as your presence lights my soul. In Christ’s name, I pray. Amen.”

If you prayed this prayer sincerely, you are now a follower of Jesus! We’d love to hear about it and learn more about you. We encourage you to find a local church where you can be baptized and learn more about God through the Bible.

Ellie and Daddy 089

Ellie and Dad

Writing has been very helpful to me as I’ve worked through my valley of grief. Thank you for taking the time to read my story. I hope that there is something here that encourages you on your journey. I’d love to read about your story and what you’ve learned on your path of life. (Leave a Comment below).

In the first year after Ellie’s loss I put together some Thoughts on Grief and Loss. Grief is as unique as a fingerprint. I’ve learned a few things that have worked for me and perhaps a few things will resonate with you.

If you would like to share your story, receive encouragement, ask spiritual questions, learn more about a relationship with Jesus, or request prayer, please visit our Pastor’s Corner.

If you would like to join us at Ellie’s Way and serve the grieving, we’d love to get to know you and see how you might be able to help. Please contact us or fill out our volunteer form.

Feel free to share this with anyone who might benefit.

God Bless,

Todd Nigro
(Ellie’s Dad)

Learn More About Ellie’s Way

Ellie’s Way
Our mission is to comfort the grieving. We do that through our website which has many resources. In addition, we offer several grief gifts including our care package and memorial necklace.

Ellie’s Way Facebook Page
“Like” our Facebook page and you’ll see comforting quotes, articles, and discussion questions.

Ellie’s Way Grief Connections Group
Join our group and you’ll be connected with over 1,500 other people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. We encourage each other daily and hold regular “Share Your Memories” events.

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Ellie’s T-Ball Coach


Ellie’s T-Ball Coach
by Todd Nigro

I was in line at a restaurant. The man behind me looked familiar, but he would not look my way. He was busy ordering and I considered just not engaging in any conversation. But, then there was a delay at the register, and I thought why not just go for it.

I said, “weren’t you a T-ball coach?” He replied, “Yes, years ago”. I asked him about his kids and he informed me about his new twins and other kids. He asked me about my kids, and I told him I had three, two boys and a little girl in heaven. I said, “I think you were her T-ball coach”.

Tears welled up in his eyes and I could see the pain in his face. He told me that of course he remembered Ellie and our family. He was so afraid to say anything. He told me that they cried and cried when she died in January and wanted me to know that they sent a card. I told him “thank you, and that it is okay — this has been hard for everyone”.

I was fine, but this man was crying right there. I felt good that I could ease his burden, and that he remembered Ellie so fondly. I guess people do look the other way. They are afraid and also in lots of pain. The conversation continued and brought back a bunch of great T-ball memories. I left uplifted and motivated to reach out to others that might be in a similar position.


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Dreaming of Ellie


Dreaming of Ellie
by Todd Nigro

I was talking with Kristen one night about how much I missed Ellie’s hugs. She always came running to me when I came home and wrapped her arms around me and just squeezed for a few moments. She knew how to hug me and I absolutely loved it. At night, when I was putting her to sleep, I would snuggle next to her. She always wanted me to read a book to her, followed by some cuddling, and then I would usually try to leave as I usually had something else to do. She would give me the cutest little kisses. They were little pecks, but I could tell she was really trying to express her love with her kiss. It was just precious. One of my tricks to exit each night was to get the stuffed horse, who I always jokingly called “Donkey”, to lie down next to Ellie. It was a big horse and she would always smile and just say “Daaaaad, it’s a horse!” I would wrap the horse’s legs around her and the last leg I would kind of clamp down on her tightly. She loved that. Then, she always wanted me to be nearby in the office while she went to sleep.

One morning the dogs woke us up around 5am and by the time I got dressed to take them out, Kristen was already outside with them. We went back to bed. I fell back asleep and had the most amazing dream.

We were getting out of the van and Ellie had just closed the automatic door. I don’t know why but I thought she was opening it and I kind of sternly said, “Ellie!” Then, I realized that there was nothing wrong and just both looked at each other. I put my arms out and she understood that I was sorry. In that instant, she forgave me for whatever thought I had and just came to me. I knelt down and she gave me the hug that she always did. Then, somehow I lost my balance and fell over backwards. We were hugging and she just fell on top of me. She began to give me her little kisses on my neck and said “Daddy, I love you” over and over between kisses. It was the best dream I’ve ever had. When I woke up, I just cried and cried. Not from sadness so much, but because I had just been a gift that was so precious to me. It reminded me of Ellie’s wonderful gift of forgiveness and love. Thank you God and Ellie, that hug will be with me forever.


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Larry the Cable Guy

Ellie-and-MaverickLarry the Cable Guy
by Todd Nigro

About a week after our six-year-old Ellie died, I was outside with Kristen and a friend. Our dog Maverick was barking at a man up the street in a neighbor’s yard. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. We don’t have a fence for Maverick and he slowly wandered up our driveway. He kept barking obnoxiously and moving closer to the man. I had no choice but to try to get Maverick and stop him. As we got close to the man, he began talking to Maverick and to me.

He said how much he liked daschunds and how he had owned several in the past. I kept getting closer and Maverick eventually walked behind me and would let out a random bark every now and then. The man introduced himself “Hi, I’m Larry”. He was digging a trench for the cable. Obviously, he worked outside all day long and he looked like it. In the past, I would have judged his appearance. But, I seemed to have a different view. I saw a man who wanted to share and needed to talk.

I made a point to just listen. He talked more and more. He told a story about a dog that bit his brother. He respected dogs and was careful with them. He pulled up his shirtsleeve and showed me a scar where a dog had bit him. Then, he said, “What if I was a little kid and that dog came after me? I could have been killed!” Of course, Larry had no idea what happened with our little Ellie. But, it seemed like it was time to share her story.

I figured that he had heard about Ellie’s death. It seemed that everyone had. But, he didn’t know I was her father. I asked him “Did you hear about the death of the little girl last week?” He said he had. He looked at me with eyes of shock and sorrow as I said, “she was my daughter”. He dropped to his knees as the wind seemed to be knocked out of him. It struck him so hard, but not in a bad way. We connected in that moment in a way that is hard to describe. His face was full of compassion.

From there, he recovered and we kept talking. He told about how he was a football player and he tried to play in college. It didn’t work out and he came back home as a failure. He didn’t finish school. He got married and had kids, but was separated and living with his mother. He shared his life story in an honest and open way. He described a lot of pain and suffering that he had been through. I just listened to him.

Larry finally said, “You know what, I’m not a cable guy, I’m an artist. I wrote poetry and I do mandala art.” He described it to me because I’d never heard of it. I told him I’d like to see some of it some day. His eyes sparkled and he said, “I have some of it in my truck!” While we walked to the truck, he recited a poem he had written for his deceased father.

O Lord, don’t let me get that low,
because suicide is not the way to go.
I’ve seen it first hand, and it’s not for any man.

What you leave behind is hard to define.
It eats at your heart, and pulls you apart.
In the days I somber, and through the nights I ponder.

And, as time slides by, I’ve begun to realize,
you were not just my pops, you were my pal.
From my heart, I’ve begun to fall apart.

My life has changed, with you gone.
The inner pain is hard to explain.
In my times of need, I don’t know what to believe.

You were my Rock to lean on.
But now, there’s nothing left but a stone.
And me standing beside it – all alone.

Six feet under, gosh, sometimes I wonder.
Do you feel the rain? Do you feel the pain?
What you have left is hard to explain.
But I know it’s full of mortal PAIN.

The poem was beautiful and I had tears in my eyes as we stood beside his truck. He opened the door and pulled out his art. He showed it to me and I examined it closely and told him it was beautiful. He was so excited and had a huge smile on his face.

I told him “I’d like you to meet my family and my daughter Ellie when you’re through up here”. He said he would like that. I told him to come on down to our house. We still had a house full of family and friends. I announced to everyone that my friend Larry would be coming down in a few minutes and to welcome him.

When Larry showed up, he was welcomed with hugs and handshakes. We went up into the office and I wanted to show him the secret videos that Ellie had made last summer. Her personality just sparkles and we all laughed and cried as we watched the five minute video. He saw how wonderful Ellie was. Larry was so caring and empathetic to Kristen and gave her a nice hug.

After writing Larry a nice pink sticky note, I put it inside a DVD copy of her memorial service that I gave him. The note let Larry know how much I wanted him to be my friend and to see him again. He left stunned. He could barely walk up the hill. He sat in the truck for some time before he finally drove away.

I’d made an amazing friend and it felt good. Larry has a heart of gold. He understands how life works and he works at his life. We have stayed in touch and shared many interesting conversations. I thank God for bringing this amazing man into my life.


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Ellie’s Last Sticky Note

Ellie’s Last Sticky Note
by Todd Nigro

Six-year-old Ellie was always watching people. One day, she noticed that I was leaving encouraging sticky notes around the house for Mommy. She informed me “Daddy, where is my note?” She was irresistible! I began to write her notes and leave them where she would find them. I always wrote her one because it made her so happy (even if Mommy didn’t get one sometimes).

Ellie learned and wanted to give back. She began to write notes and cards to everyone. She took it to a whole new level! Her nice words are on all the neighbors’ refrigerators and were delivered to her swim team coaches. She always had time to write a nice note.

One day last year, I came home for lunch. Just before I left, I was walking out of the garage to my car and I saw Ellie run across the driveway as fast as she could. She darted around the back of the house. I walked up to the car and saw her last sticky note to me. It touched my heart and I put it over the tachometer, and that is where it was for the last few days I had with her.

Ellie was killed in a tragic accident. What a wonderful memory for me. I love you too, princess, you are the best daughter ever!



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To Do List

I was finally getting around to cleaning up my desk, and I found a piece of paper. It was a “To Do List” that I wrote presumably in early January 2012, just before Ellie passed away. The items on the list relate to buying Ellie’s cello, setting up the kids swim meet, and getting the address to pay Nathan (Ellie’s cello teacher).

Ellie must have seen the list, and she added an important item at the end.



I feel like she’s still loving me today when I find these treasures.

Ellie and Dad


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