Before telling her boys that their daddy had gone to heaven, Shayna Stoney turned to her own father.
"I mouthed the words, 'I can't do it,' " she recalls. "He told me, 'Take your time.' "
That simple act of reassurance gave Stoney strength on July 2, the day her husband, Sean, who suffered from high blood pressure, dropped dead of a heart attack in their Delanco living room. He was 28.
The sort of fellow everyone liked ("The perfect son-in-law," Shayna's dad, William Balaam, says, his eyes filling up), Sean was a volunteer in youth-sports activities in the Burlington County township.
And this cozy community at the confluence of the Rancocas Creek and Delaware River has embraced the beautiful family he left behind. He and Shayna, high school sweethearts, had five sons.
Sean was laid off a year ago from a forklift-operator job he loved, and he and Shayna had to negotiate a payment plan after they fell behind on their mortgage. And Sean had no life insurance.
Ever since the terrible morning he passed away, however, his widow, a bank employee who earns $27,000 a year, has discovered how decent, compassionate, and generous even total strangers can be.
"It's just been unbelievable," says Shayna, 27, who has the sort of warmth that immediately puts you at ease.
"So many people have been willing to help. People I don't even know!"
Jim and Carolyn Tracy and their friends Frank and Vera Taylor, who all attend Dobbins United Methodist Church in Delanco, set up a bank account for the family.
"People had heard what had happened, and they wanted to help," says Jim, who's 63 and retired, "but it wasn't organized."
More than 100 people have contributed to the fund so far - for now, the organizers aren't saying how much. They want to give Shayna time to figure out what's best.
"I believe we have a gracious God," Carolyn says. "We can still show how much compassion and love we have for each other."
Frank Taylor, 71 and also retired, says he was deeply touched when he visited Shayna and her children: Shamir, 8; Sean Jr., 6; Shane, 4; Sion, 2; and Seff, now a month old.
The baby boy, who was premature, was in the intensive care unit at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center when his father died.
"You look at those kids," Taylor says, "and you know they've got a tough road ahead."
Adds Vera, "People just want to know what they can do to help. . . . I think Delanco is a great town."
"It has a lot of heart," Carolyn says.
Indeed. The Delanco Youth Sports Association, for which Sean Stoney coached T-ball, is accepting contributions through its website, dysasports.org. Mayor Marlene Jass, teachers and administrators from the boys' schools, and total strangers have called or stopped by to offer support.
"Sean was a great guy," says Lou Ventresca, 41, a father of two and a board member of the sports association. "He was always on the field whenever you needed him. And he was a super dad."
The older boys often say they miss their father, Shayna says, as the baby coos and his brothers run in and out of the TV room at her parents' Mansfield Township home.
Shayna spends a lot of time there. The boys are crazy about her mom, Sarah. And Shamir doesn't like to be at the house where his father died.
"I'm not sure what we're going to do yet," Shayna says.
Prayer helps. Her father is the pastor at New Beginnings, a nondenominational Christian church in Trenton. And the outpouring from friends, neighbors, and others continues to be a source of gratitude.
"I definitely want to give a special thanks to the community, and everyone who has helped us," Shayna says. "I never expected it. It brings tears to my eyes."
Meanwhile, she is pursuing the plans she and Sean made to provide the boys with musical training. There are musicians on both sides of the family.
"So I've signed them up for lessons. They're in the second week," Shayna says. "Shamir is taking voice, Sean is doing piano, and Shane, guitar.
"Daddy would love that."
To view video of Shayna Stoney and her family: www.philly.com/sean