'They see hope': Moving tribute to lost mom goes viral

The young Ohio widower simply wanted to make sure the memory of his wife would never fade for their daughter. He never expected his poignant, heart-wrenching tribute would touch so many people all over the world.

A series of images Ben Nunery originally posed for with his wife on their wedding were recently recreated with his 3-year-old daughter. The photos, and the story that recounted their journey, went viral after TODAY.com posted them on Dec. 16.

“They see hope in these photos, and that’s really what I want from this,” Nunery told TODAY. “We lose our loved ones, and they go away and it’s painful and it hurts, but the love doesn’t go away. It never goes away.”

In 2011, Nunery lost his 31-year-old schoolteacher wife to a rare form of lung cancer. The couple’s child, Olivia, was only a year old at the time.

In November, Nunery prepared to move out of the Cincinnati home he and his wife bought just before their wedding day. Before leaving, Ben wanted to honor the happy times the family shared in the house. So he asked his sister-in-law and Ali's sister, Melanie Pace, to take photos of him and Olivia in the exact places he posed with his wife years earlier.

  • Slideshow Photos

    Moving without mom

    Ben Nunery and his daughter Olivia recreate family moments as they say a bittersweet goodbye to an old house filled with memories.

  • Moving without mom

    of

    Mom's memory lives on in sweet dad, daughter photos -

    When Ben Nunery and his wife Ali got married in 2009, they had just closed on their new house, so they took the opportunity to take their wedding photos in the empty home.

    Just four and a half years later, after Ali's tragic death from cancer at at the age of 31 in 2011, Ben and his young daughter Olivia got ready to move to a new house, but they wanted to say goodbye to the old one. So they recreated these special photos from Ben and Ali's wedding day, as a way to remember the happy times.

    Loft3 Photography / Loft3 Photography
  • Moving without mom

    of

    Now and then -

    The images were recreated by Ali's sister Melanie, who had photographed the couple on their wedding day. On the left, Melanie's photo of Ben and his wife Ali in 2009. On the right, Ben and his daughter Olivia, in the same doorway, in Dec. 2013.

    Loft3 Photography / Loft3 Photography
  • Moving without mom

    of

    Father daughter dance -

    Olivia and her dad, Ben.

    Loft3 Photography / Loft3 Photography
  • Moving without mom

    of

    Like mother, like daughter -

    As they went through the house, Olivia stopped to play with the curling iron that had been her mother's. Above, a similar photo of her mom Ali getting ready on her wedding day.

    Loft3 Photography / Loft3 Photography
  • Moving without mom

    of

    Stairs -

    On the left, Ben stands in their empty house in 2009 as his wife Ali comes down the stairs. On the right, he and daughter Olivia play on the same stairs in 2013.

    Loft3 Photography / Loft3 Photography
  • Moving without mom

    of

    Love story -

    Ben wrote about the experience, saying: "Many people have asked me how I felt while doing that photo session. What I want them to know is that this isn't a story about grief and loss and hurt. Yes, I've gone through those emotions and still do but that's not what I want people to see in these photos. This is a story about love."

    Loft3 Photography / Loft3 Photography
  • Moving without mom

    of

    Memories -

    "The memories of Ali don't live in that house," Ben wrote of his late wife, Olivia's mother. "They live with us, in our hearts."

    Loft3 Photography / Loft3 Photography
  • Moving without mom

    of

    Dance partners -

    Ben and Ali, left, on their wedding day in 2009, and Ben and his daughter Olivia, right, in 2013. "I wanted to be able to show Olivia the place where her mother and I started our lives together and dreamed of raising children," he wrote.

    Loft3 Photography / Loft3 Photography
  • Moving without mom

    of

    'My Dada' -

    Ali's sister Melanie snapped this photo of her brother-in-law and his daughter dancing in the house.

    Loft3 Photography / Loft3 Photography
  • Moving without mom

    of

    Window -

    Ben and his wife Ali, left, on their wedding day. He recreated the shot with his daughter, Olivia, in his wife's memory. "Benjamin, you look like a baby!" wrote his photographer sister-in-law, Melanie, on her blog.

    Loft3 Photography / Loft3 Photography
  • Moving without mom

    of

    Hand in hand -

    Ben and his daughter, with the glass angel Olivia calls "Mommy." "They talk to her and play with her every day," Melanie writes.

    Loft3 Photography / Loft3 Photography
  • Moving without mom

    of

    Feather -

    Ali's sister Melanie, who took these photos, says she regularly gets "messages/signs" from her late sister, and that feathers often fall out of nowhere. So she was deeply moved when she went to take this photograph in Olivia's room and the little girl bent down and picked up something: a white feather. "Oh hey sis!" Melanie wrote. "Glad you could make an appearance in this sesh."

    Loft3 Photography / Loft3 Photography
  • Moving without mom

    of

    Sitting still -

    "She was fidgeting the whole time," Melanie writes of Olivia during the photo shoot, "and you can't really tell in still frames but you can in the shot on the right." Of her husband, who came with her to photograph the father daugther pair and captured this shot, she said: "Adam nailed it."

    Loft3 Photography / Loft3 Photography
  • Moving without mom

    of

    Playing the ukelele -

    Ben learned how to play the wedding song he and Ali danced to - Stevie Wonder's "I Believe (When I Fall in Love it Will Be Forever") on this ukelele, a gift from a friend. "One night in the hospital he used his skills to serenade Ali," her sister remembers. Here, he demos his musical talents for his daughter.

    Loft3 Photography / Loft3 Photography
  • Moving without mom

    of

    Making new memories -

    "We said goodbye to Ali two years ago, but her presence has remained undeniable in the house," Ben wrote of his wife. After taking the series of photographs around their empty house, the father daughter duo said goodbye to it and headed into their new life in a new home.

    "Our lives will continue down a curvy and uncertain path, but Olivia and I will be able to look at these photos and know that for a short time there was a place where I was the luckiest man in the world, even if just for a little while."

    Loft3 Photography / Loft3 Photography

Pace, a professional photographer, posted the photos on her blog. The images quickly became the top story on TODAY.com in December, as well as one of the website's most popular stories of the year.

On TODAY's Facebook page, more than 300,000 people have liked, commented or shared the moving tribute.

"This made me want to cry. So beautiful and sad and happy all at the same time," Facebook user Sara Evans wrote.

"Your daughter will one day see these photos and thank you," wrote Debi Brown.

The story was retold repeatedly by other media outlets within the last several days, prompting Twitter users to post links, often with a warning to grab some tissues before reading.

emotion+alert:+do+not+click+on+this+link+if+you+have+kids.+certainly+not+if+you+have+a+daughter+http://t.co/si1EKP19xe

—+string-sleighs+(@stringsays)+December+17,+2013+


Young+widower+reenacts+his+wedding+photos+with+his+3+y.o+daughter.+Grab+some+tissues+before+you+scroll+down+though.+http://t.co/IAbCRbl8pd

—+Sandy+(@sandygrains)+December+17,+2013+

ICYMI:+Widower+Recreates+Wedding+Photos+With+His+Young+Daughter,+Rips+Your+Guts+Right+Out+http://t.co/t2BEnUjb2f

—+Joanna+Robinson+(@quityourjrob)+December+18,+2013+

Taking the pictures was incredibly emotional for Nunery’s sister. Pace, who said she felt her sister’s presence while shooting the photos last month, said she understands why the images went viral.

“I think that so many people just want to see people living gracefully after a devastating loss,” she said. “I’m showing people that you can go on, and Ben can heal, and we all can heal together.”

While strangers may view the photographs as a bridge from a bittersweet past to a hopeful future, Pace said in the end, they are intended for Olivia.

"One of Ali's biggest concerns was Olivia forgetting her and not remembering her,” she said.

0:00
 
0:00
Your video begins in
0:00
TOP