Living Ellie's Way

by Todd Nigro (Ellie's Dad)
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.

I grew up with a mindset of achievement. This was how I could escape poverty and take control. I did extremely well in school and was able to move across the country at seventeen years old to start my life on my own.

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.

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 backward and put it on the flight card. Well, my last name, NIGRO, spelled backward 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 the names I'd been called in high school, I was moving up in the world.

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.

Our Kids

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

Our oldest son Tyler 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. 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.

Finally, Ellie (forever 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.
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.
This sticky note is something that I treasure, an unbelievable gift from an incredible daughter.

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.

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.

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. I facilitated a GriefShare group for three years seeking to bring comfort to those who have lost a loved one. It was 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 were 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.

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
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.

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. 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.

Blessings to You!

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.

God Bless,
Todd Nigro (Ellie's Dad)