Gary Smith’s life continues in his family’s.

For the millions who did not lose someone, there was a beginning, precise to the second — the moment when everything changed. But for the 3,000 or so families who lost a lifetime with one person's warmth, one too-loud laugh, one roguish glance, the loss was agonizingly gradual.

Each hour that Gary Smith did not come home put another nail in the belief that he would. When his daughter Kristi Smith woke up on the morning of Sept. 11, she was on vacation in New Jersey. From the beach she saw the smoke rising from Manhattan. She arrived in Mount Vernon that evening, although her father did not work at the Pentagon and rarely had occasion to go there. When she saw her father’s truck in the driveway, she thought he’d come home.

Did the end begin when her father’s brother turned to face her in the hallway and broke the illusion? Was it two days later, when she learned her father’s signature was in an entry log for a wing of the Pentagon that no longer existed? Was it two weeks after that, when dental records confirmed that some part of her father had been found? Was it on Dec. 9, when the family said goodbye at Good Shepherd Catholic Church, or a day later, when the grass of Arlington swallowed the coffin? “It just seemed so unreal,” Kristi Smith recalled, “How could Dad go out to work and not come back?”

It may be possible to trace the Smith family’s escape from limbo in a procession of logbooks, x-rays, casualty assistance officers, candle-lighting ceremonies, television specials and news reports from the war on terror, but as Kristi and Tracy Smith spoke about their father, as Ann Smith spoke about her husband, another timeline, running parallel, emerged.

“You start seeing signs,” said Tracy Smith. Her father was an Elvis fan. He had joked about becoming a docent at the National Archives and guiding visitors through its exhibit on the King. Now he was gone, and his daughter was overwhelmed. “So many people, so many phone calls,” Tracy Smith said. “I just went out to dad’s car because that’s where I could still smell him. It was cold, so I turned on the car, and the radio came on. And it was Elvis. So to me, that was my sign that he was okay.”

“That’s one thing I learned. Very often, in nature, you have signs like that,” said Ann Smith. “You can’t really prove it, but it’s more than coincidental. And it’s so comforting to have those signs.”

“Who cares if it’s real or not,” said Kristi Smith. She described the way a ladybug had weaved its way around her family without rest during the funeral of a co-worker of her father’s who was killed with him at the meeting in the Pentagon.

“I was walking on the bike path on the twelfth,” she continued, “and I was praying to know at least he was okay, and I looked down and there was a leaf lying there with a heart shaped torn out.”

Tracy Smith recalled seeing what she thought was a bald eagle flying past an American flag as she walked down the Mount Vernon Trail. “I was like, ‘Oh my God!’” she said. “Someone had to tell me, ‘That’s an osprey.’ But it was good enough.”

“I JUST LOOK BACK and I don’t know how we got through it,” Ann said. The Smith family’s grief was public. Kristi Smith recalled “the whole stream of hundreds of people. The whole community brought their own grief to our house because they didn’t know what to do with it.” Finally, the family put a book outside, where people could write down the words that were too heavy for the Smiths to carry.

“On the one hand you say, ‘Why does it have to be so public?’” Tracy Smith mused. “On the other hand, I’m glad it is. You receive the hugs from people you don’t know.” In conversation, Ann often described being sustained by friends in Collingwood, Good Shepherd Catholic Church and Washington Mills Elementary, where she had been a teacher’s assistant. The support of her community, as well as the grieving process she went through with other spouses in a 9-11 support group, have inspired her to go to school part time at Hood College, in Frederick, to earn a Master’s Degree in Thanatology, the study of death, dying and grief. “I decided after you get through the shock and the work of grief, that maybe I could help others in situations similar to mine.”

After burying her father, Kristi Smith returned to Vermont where she had been working and living at a farm for people with mental illness. She was seeing a counselor, but depression kept her up at night. She could not escape her patients when she needed to cry. She switched jobs, but eventually decided she needed to be home. “It was a struggle for a long time,” she said, adding that she still goes to therapy twice a week. “I think losing Dad will be the pivotal moment in my life. Nothing will ever be, I hope, that hard,” she added. “I hope that I would never have the feeling of hopelessness, of feeling that it would never get better.”

This May, she graduated with a Masters in Social Work from Catholic University. She hopes to work on play therapy with children. “It was really therapeutic for me last year to work with kids and to learn how to play and to be silly, again,” she said. “I feel as if another attack will happen. And I want to be in a position professionally, that it’s not so re-triggering for me that I can help other people through the experience.”

Traci Smith returned to UVa two weeks after Sept. 11 and graduated on time in 2002, though only with enormous emotional effort. She shared a love of history with her father. “That is a really good connecting piece I felt with him,” she said.

Traci Smith now works in Boston for the city archaeologist. “I was kind of always interested the past,” she explained. “There is a cycle of life that you learn about, and it’s nice for me to learn about people that lived long ago.”

“I think that’s something really special that Mom and Dad taught us, is just be happy. We were lucky enough to have the freedom to choose jobs that may not have enough money you really wish for, but just make us happy.”

THE SMITHS said television shows, newspapers and movie trailers can all trigger surges of memory and grief. Few people have access to pain that resembles what the Smiths have felt, but millions participate in the event which the circumstances of that pain have become. “I don’t like it when people say 9-11,” Kristi Smith said, “I want people to say Sept. 11, because it’s a special day. Because that’s the day dad died.”

Tracy Smith said she cannot imagine going to see “United 93” or “World Trade Center,” movies that were released in the months ahead of the five year anniversary of the event. “I think probably none of us will be able to handle anything close,” she said, “even the previews.”

Her mother pondered the difference in tone between “United 93” and “Superman,” in which a stricken airplane hurtling inexorably towards New York City is caught at the last minute in one man’s hands and lowered gently to the ground. Smith would not condemn the culture’s myths, even when they seemed to be a denial of its most upsetting truths. “It’s good to have heroes,” she said. “Maybe it’s more realistic.”