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After her husband's sudden death, mom starts nonprofit to help other families

“When (tragedies) happen that you have to help other people."
/ Source: TODAY

The Christmas after her husband’s sudden death, Traci Kovacic’s friends decorated her house. Only two months had passed since Mike Kovacic, 32, had collapsed and passed away. While Kovacic wanted to celebrate the holidays for her children, Calvin, 5 months, and Josie, 3, grieving made Christmas that year feel difficult.

“I probably would not have decorated that year because it is just sad and exhausting to think about that, especially around the holidays. But because my friends stepped in that was nice for the kids and it was nice for me to feel some normalcy,” Kovacic, 37, of Wexford, Pennsylvania, told TODAY Parents. “One of the things that I heard when I was (in grief counseling) was that not everybody had such a strong support system like I had.”

After Mike Kovacic died suddenly at 32, friends helped Traci Kovacic with tasks around the house as she grieved. That gave her an idea for a nonprofit to help other grieving families. Courtesy Traci Kovacic

That gave Kavocic an idea: What if she and her friends helped people after the death of a loved one? They started simply — cleaning and landscaping a grieving woman’s yard so she could sell her house after her spouse passed away.

“I called up all my friends and we all went over one day and did a really good overhaul on her (yard) for her,” Kovacic said. “It felt good to be able to share.”

And, helping others felt like a great way to honor Mike. He was always there for his friends and family.

“Mike was the type of person who would do anything for anybody,” she said.

Since Mike Kovacic's death in 2015, wife Traci Kovacic makes him the "biggest part" of her children's lives. Courtesy Traci Kovacic

It's been nearly six years ago since Mike passed away after running a 10-mile race. His sudden and unexpected death still feels baffling.

“His heart went into arrhythmia and he collapsed and died at the finish line,” Kovacic explained. “It’s still incredibly surreal. It was very shocking at the time. It still is crazy. He was only 32 years old. He was in great shape. He worked out all the time. There was nothing that really should have caused that.”

Since Traci Kovacic started Angels by Your Side, her friends have pitched in to help grieving families in the Pittsburgh area with everything from painting a room to running errands. Courtesy Angels by Your Side

After his death, Kovacic struggled and throwing herself into projects that assisted others helped her. Last fall, Kovacic, the parents of one of Mike’s friends, Joseph Guzzetti — who died at 24 — and their extended friend group formed Angels by Your Side, a nonprofit that helps families who lost a loved one. People in Pittsburgh area can fill out a form on the organization’s website and within 48 hours someone responds. If it’s a task they can easily do, such as grocery shopping or household chores, the friends help. But they’re now hoping to find more professionals willing to donate their services or work at a discount.

“What we would love to happen is that we form some partnerships with different companies in our area so they can see as a liaison between the grieving families and the job that needs to be done,” she said. “Then we could contact some different contractors or plumbers or landscapers when someone has a need.”

Mike Kovacic always helped friends and family and even strangers. Wife Traci says his legacy lives on in the nonprofit she founded that helps other families grappling with loss. Courtesy Angels by Your Side

Adding more volunteers and partnering with local businesses will allow Angels by Your Side to grow and help more grieving families.

“When someone reaches out to us, I try and drop everything to be able to help these people because I know if they’re actually reaching out and asking for help,” she said. "That’s not easy to do."

And, Kovacic feels glad that she’s teaching her children that helping others is important — and definitely something their dad would do.

“They really have learned that when (tragedies) happen that you have to help other people,” she said.

While Mike Kovacic's friends have done a lot of the work for Angels by Your Side, wife Traci, hopes to partner with area businesses to provide even more assistance to grieving families. Courtesy Angels by Your Side

Kovacic feels grateful that Mike and Joe’s friends feel as committed to helping others as she is.

“This group of people have also felt the pain of really losing someone, suddenly and young. All these people have come together to go out and help other people,” she said. “It's not just me.”