We found love in widowhood, but our former spouses will always be part of our lives

·6-min read
Sarah French-Thornley and her husband Chris on their wedding day
Sarah French-Thornley and her husband Chris on their wedding day

Sarah French-Thornley and her husband Chris share a rare bond. They were brought together as a couple by the most painful reality: both had lost a spouse.

"I was a widow when we met," says Sarah, "And Chris was a widower. I could never have imagined either becoming a widow at a young age, let alone meeting someone who shared that experience."

Chris agrees: "The fact that we have both had the devastating experience of losing our partner to cancer gives us a strong understanding and bond with each other. Dave and Tracy are talked about every day and they will always be an important part of our lives which is important to us and to our daughters.”

Like many others, the couple were both moved by the death of actor Helen McCrory last month, and in particular her husband Damian Lewis’s tribute to her, in which he spoke so freely of his loss.

Sarah, 58, an office manager, who lives with Chris in Manchester, says she had a lump in her throat. "It brought back so much of my own experience: I lost my first husband Dave in February 2009, when he was 47 and I was 45."

It was McCrory's dark humour which had hit home, she says, especially when Lewis explained she had insisted he find a new love.

“I want daddy to have girlfriends…" McCrory reportedly said, "But you know, Damian, try at least to get through the funeral without snogging someone.'"

That line resonated with Sarah. “When Dave knew he was dying, we had lots of conversations about the future,” says Sarah. “He was adamant I should get a "boyfriend" after he had died and went on about it so much that I said, “It’s none of your bloody business what I do when you’re gone!”

But after Dave died, Sarah found she couldn’t imagine finding someone else. “We had met at Warwick University," she explains, "and were married for 23 years. Dave was my best friend and soulmate and we had an amazing relationship.

"I couldn't imagine a future without him so I felt shattered when he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2006. Our daughter Emma was 12, and although his treatment seemed successful, in late 2007 the cancer came back.

"Dave was given 12 to 18 months to live and when he died I was devastated.”

But time passed, and 18 months later Sarah was asked on a date, which surprised her by being fun. “That relationship didn’t work out so I tried internet dating and hated it,” she says.

“I decided Dave had set the bar too high for the rest of his species and I was happy by myself now. However, I also sent out a jokey message to the universe by making a list of 24 attributes I’d like in a perfect man.”

These included enjoying live music, hiking and the ability to read a map. Sarah also joined a support organisation for widows and widowers called WAY (Widowed and Young) - and enjoyed the empathy and friendships made. She didn't expect anything more from the group.

But then fate intervened. “Through WAY," she explains, "I connected with Chris, a procurement manager from Manchester who really made me laugh.

"He was five years younger than me and I began to look forward to our online chats. It was obvious we understood each other: Chris told me he had lost his wife Tracy after being together for 30 years."

After months of being virtual friends, Chris asked Sarah for a date. "It was completely out of the blue," she says. “I lived in York and he lived in Manchester so we met half-way for dinner and clicked, instantly.”

Chris agrees his experience of losing his spouse young was similar to Sarah's - though with one major regret: that he had not talked about the future.

“Tracy had had breast cancer," says Chris, "And got the all clear in March 2012. But that August, her back became painful and nothing her doctor prescribed helped. One night she was in such agony that she said “I want to die”, so the following morning I took her to A&E, where she was checked over with x-rays and scans for seven hours. A young doctor said, “I’m very sorry - your condition has returned.”

It was the next day before we realised this meant she was terminally ill. We were told Tracy had one to two years to live. Her spine was crumbling and she had to have surgery to shore it up, but when she needed a second op we were told it wasn’t possible.

"I researched everywhere and found a surgeon at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Middlesex, 200 miles from our home in Manchester, who said he could operate, so she was there for six weeks. That second operation gave her at least nine months' extra time with us.”

Life became a rollercoaster for Chris and Tracy. Their elder daughter Beth brought her wedding forward so her mum could be there, and everyone had a wonderful day.

“We believed she’d be the one to beat the prognosis,” says Chris. “She wanted to talk about the future but I couldn’t - I was totally focused on the present.

"I made sure she took her 72 daily tablets at the right time and took her to every appointment, but there was no 'me' after she’d gone, so far as I could see. I know she spoke to her sisters, to Beth and our younger daughter Meg about the future, but I regret not talking with her myself about what would happen after she’d gone.”

Tracy died in July 2014 and Chris says he was a mess until his daughters helped him to pull himself together and move forward. He joined WAY to meet others in a similar situation and found this really supportive.

"Sarah and I began messaging each other as friends initially," he says, and after a few months decided to meet up, and with that offer of a date, their relationship began to develop.

“Tracy’s motto was ‘seize the day'," says Chris, "and I know she would have given her blessing to me meeting Sarah. But in the first year we were together I felt so guilty, because I hadn’t given Tracy the chance to be part of that by talking about it.”

Perhaps it was the couple's shared understanding of how happy marriages worked that made them confident to commit to each other: Sarah and Chris married in Easter 2019, after knowing each other for four years, surrounded by the people closest to them, who’d looked after them during their bereavements.

“It was very emotional,” says Sarah. Chris agrees. “Can I add that I ticked 23 out of 24 on her universe wish-list? And Sarah's helping me with my map reading.”

While living happily in the present, the couple are never worried about mentioning their former spouses. "Dave and Tracy are important parts of our lives," says Sarah, "And always will be. They are part of our bond."

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