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Father finds solace in daughter's death by supporting a stranger's girl

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published March 14, 2016

One of the competitors in the Run for Maddy 5K in November stopped by to meet Maddy's family after the race and tell them something.

The run was a fundraiser for Maddy Brindl, a fifth-grader at Homestead Elementary who didn't have health insurance when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a year earlier and was still fighting it with chemotherapy, as her mother, Jennifer, told me.

The runner was J.T. Lindholm. His 2-year-old daughter Avery had died just two months earlier of brain cancer. He didn't want to bother Jennifer and the rest of Maddy's family, but he wanted to let them know that he understood.

At that point, Lindholm was still trying to figure out how to survive his grief.

J.T. teaches teens in a substance abuse recovery program in Eagle River. His wife, Adrienne, works for the National Park Service. Avery's nickname was "Little A."

Getting done with work in the afternoon, J.T. would pick up Avery from day care every day and take her to the parks hidden around Eagle River, in the mountainside heather or at a riverside campground in Chugach State Park. They would play outdoors until dinner. Avery loved to pick and eat blueberries.

Lindholm is a competitive outdoorsman, an avid mountain runner, kayaker and backcountry skier. From the backdoor of the family's home on the South Fork of the Eagle River, he and his wife ski on a steep mountainside, far from any other houses.

Part of becoming a father is about giving up being the center of your own world. Lindholm realized he had to give up competing at the level that had brought repeat wins of a 50-mile trail race. But he still had Avery on hand to cheer when he finished the Eagle River Triathlon.

In middle age, after Avery's birth, the couple had already decided to adopt their second child.

Avery was a bright girl, doted upon and able to say the alphabet before age 2. But she started losing those abilities, missing letters in the alphabet. J.T. and Adrienne knew something was wrong.

In April, the issues had become persistent enough that Avery had an MRI. The next day, she was on a medical jet to San Diego for brain surgery.

With a crisis surrounding them, the family found community support in every way — watching the house, helping in San Diego and even raising money. Although they had good health insurance and hadn't asked for funds, someone set up a website that soon brought in $40,000 of donations.

"Part of my own process through living with this grief was realizing early on that we got so much support through this whole process from friends and family and people we barely knew, neighbors we had seen in passing on the road or on the trails, and friends of friends who had some connection to loss of child," Lindholm said.

"And I feel like that's a little bit about being in Alaska too. I feel like that's part of this place. I feel like Alaskans in general, we sort of rise to the challenge of helping each other out."

It turned out they did need the money, because after the brain surgery and a series of complications, Avery spent 38 days in an intensive care unit in San Diego.

Finally, they got out for 10 days, but when they went back for another scan, the cancer was much worse. Treatment was hopeless and a doctor gave Avery a maximum of three months to live.

That was when the $40,000 helped. They were away from work, living in a vacation rental for more than four months, and money flowed out. But the family's needs were covered until, with Avery still alive and three months past, they decided to come home.

The money had meant time.

"We had time to think about things," Lindholm said. "We were able to make sure we told our daughter that we loved her incessantly, and hug and kiss her and love her. But also think about what is her memorial service going to look like? What does grief look like? What do parents do who go through the death of a child?"

Avery died Sept. 21. On Nov. 14, having heard about the fundraiser for Maddy Brindl, Lindholm ran the 5K and introduced himself to her family.

"He's so sweet," said Maddy's mother, Jennifer Brindl. "We actually remember him being at the run for Maddy, and his story humbled us, because we found out he had lost his child and he came out to help us."

But really, Maddy helped Lindholm. Because, for the first time, J.T. saw a path through his grief.

He realized that the terrible thing that had happened to Avery also revealed a world of kindness. And he wanted to reverse his role, to be a supporter rather than just receiving support.

He has worn the rubber wristband from Maddy's race almost every day since.

Lindholm decided to put on a triathlon that will benefit, each year, a different child with cancer. He gathered up an army of volunteers to put on the event at the Matanuska Lakes State Recreation Area.

He called around to find a child who could be a recipient of the funds.

The mom he reached thanked him. She had quit her job as a noon duty attendant at Homestead Elementary to be with her ill daughter. Her husband, an electrician, had started his own business to have more time. And they have three other children.

The child was in hospice and they would need money for a funeral.

Lindholm asked the girl's name. It was Maddy, the same girl whose name was on his wristband.

"The tears just started pouring out of me," he said. "There was the instant recognition that Maddy had been there for me at the beginning of my grief journey, and there she is again."

The first "little a triathlon" is scheduled for June 25. Maddy's family will receive all the proceeds.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email Send submissions shorter than 200 words to

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