“He was and will forever be the strongest man I have ever known,” Abby Ballin tells PEOPLE. “A fighter till the end. I’m just so happy he doesn’t have to fight anymore.
“He is free.”
According to Ballin, Matthew died of natural causes and was surrounded by friends and family.
Ballin is the creative director and co-founder of the LilySarahGrace Fund, an organization Matthew set up to support “teachers in underfunded public elementary schools to reach all learners through the arts,” according to their official Twitter page. Matthew started the fund in honor of the three daughters he shared with ex-wife Madonna Badger. Nine-year-old Lily and 7-year-old twins Sarah and Grace had dyslexia and used art as a creative outlet and learning tool.
The girls were with their maternal grandparents at the Stamford, Conn., home of Madonna, when they were killed in the devastating fire. Madonna and her then-boyfriend Michael Borcina, who was renovating the home at the time, were the only survivors. Matthew and Ballin were together when they received the horrific news.
“Every time I close my eyes I see him dancing his wild, chaotic, glee-filled dance and I know he is with the girls,” Ballin says of Matthew, who was 51 when he died. “They are all dancing…swirling in the love that all who mourn are sending to them.”
Ballin says anniversaries were particularly hard on Matthew, who dedicated his life to honoring his girls.
“On December 21, 2016, almost five years to the day of the last time we saw the girls, Matt texted me from Maine, ‘Dark day? The darkest of the year. Tomorrow the sun will begin to take back the night…until, one day, the day will come when?’ ” she says. “I keep coming back to these words.
“He was speaking of winter solstice, but we both knew he was speaking of so much more.”
She adds, “Matt spoke in poetry…it’s also how he lived. He was a true artist, although you would never hear him say that. If there is one wish I would have had for him on this earth it would have been for him to have seen himself through the eyes of everyone who’s lives he touched…there were so many.”
“He is at peace…and for that I can smile,” says Ballin.
In a Facebook tribute post, Madonna wrote: “He was a wonderful man with a generous heart. He was an amazing dad to his girls, Lily, Sarah and Grace. His death was sudden and peaceful. He is with his children and his parents and his brother, Mark.”
In a statement released to PEOPLE, LilySarahGrace Fund Executive Director Robert Cambria, says: “LSG is incredibly saddened to learn of the passing of our co-founder, Matthew Badger. Spurred by the vision he and co-founder Abby Ballin had, we have reached countless numbers of children in working to ensure that all students have access to learning experiences enriched by the arts and creativity. While Matthew’s passion and dedication to make a difference in the lives of all children will be sorely missed by everyone at LSG, it will remain a constant source of inspiration. We are honored and committed to carrying on his legacy.
In 2012, Matthew told PEOPLE the effects of his loss would “never go away.”
“If I don’t cry every day, the waves are bigger. If I cry every day, it is less dramatic,” he said at the time.
He initially filed a suit against Borcina, the city of Stamford and four other contractors who worked on the house, claiming that shoddy construction work turned the home into a firetrap. He ended up settling the cases against all of the contractors for a sum of over $7 million, the Hartford Courant reported in August 2016.
The city, however, has not yet settled, and the Courant said the case is scheduled to go before a jury in April.
Ballin says Matthew — who dedicated his life to theLilySarahGrace Fund — will be remembered as a loving human being.
“I am forever grateful for our love,” she says. “I am the woman I am today because of it and him…and love thankfully never dies.”