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Before my wife Rachael died, there were tough conversations to be had. She wanted me to live a full and enjoyable life after she was gone. She was also clear she wanted me to find love again.
The idea of the person with whom you were meant to spend the rest of your life being with someone else is painful to contemplate, not least when you’re seriously ill. But what overrode that pain was Rachael’s desire for me to be happy, whatever form that took. She also wanted our young son to have a mother figure in his life as he grew up without her.
The actor Damian Lewis, 50, whose talented wife Helen McCrory has died at 52 following a secret battle with cancer, may similarly feel he doesn't necessarily want to spend the rest of his life alone. And it seems McCrory was equally understanding. “Her generosity has extended to encouraging us three to live,” Lewis wrote in The Sunday Times at the weekend, referring to himself and their children. “Only a couple of weeks ago she said to us from her bed, ‘I want Daddy to have girlfriends, lots of them, you must all love again, love isn’t possessive’.”
Lewis could have avoided mentioning this, but I’m relieved he decided instead to normalise the issue. Because if there’s one thing I’ve been asked by men in my position more than any other since Rachael died, it’s about dating other women. It’s also one of the most important questions to talk about frankly. It shouldn’t be shrouded in shame or fear or guilt.
I’m grateful Rachael, who died two and a half years ago aged 40, and I were able to speak openly about what remains for many a taboo subject: dating again after losing your spouse. I was 38 when she died of breast cancer, with (I hope) most of my life still ahead of me. I had Freddie, now five, to bring up. But I wasn’t ready to give up on the idea of finding another soulmate.
We still have an old-fashioned attitude to the “rules” surrounding all this. After Rachael died amid a blizzard of publicity, owing to her job as a BBC presenter and her successful cancer podcast, You, Me and the Big C, I secretly Googled: “How long are you supposed to wait to date again after losing your wife?” I was lonely. I missed having someone to share a takeaway with on a Friday night, or to spend a lazy Sunday with. It wasn’t about the big events – I missed having someone to do nothing with.
There is no “correct” answer to when you can find that person again. It’s up to each individual and I never had any sort of timeframe in my head. Like every facet of life after Rachael died, it was a case of taking it as it comes and seeing what happened. I said to myself: “If something was wrong, I would know. If I was doing something too early, if I met someone and was trying to push it before time, I’d soon be well aware.”
In the event, it was about 14 months before I met another woman I wanted to be with. I’d been speaking at a conference in Manchester when Amy came over and introduced herself. She’s a nurse in the North West of England, and the two of us soon hit it off. A couple of weeks later we met up again, and slowly it developed from there.
If I was mindful of not rushing things, she was equally wary. “I don’t think I should meet Freddie for a while,” she said, showing real understanding of our situation. She knew about Rachael’s story, and she got it.
But this doesn’t mean it was easy for her. Dating a widower or widow comes with its own set of challenges, often overlooked when the focus is on the person who’s died and the person they left behind. When the person who’s died was high profile, it’s possibly even harder.
The attention Rachael still receives is wonderful, but for Amy, 38, it can be difficult. Although I removed my wedding ring six months after Rachael’s death and have taken down a few of the pictures of her that used to cover the house, we still have plenty of photos of her on display. They surround Amy every time she enters my home.
She would never tell me to remove them: she knows Rachael will always be a big part of my life and Freddie’s, and this is something that she fully supports, respects and accepts. Freddie completely adores her, but it’s still been tricky for her. She’s admitted she’s felt like she’s living in Rachael’s shadow at times, and I can see why.
In the end, there’s a balance to be struck. I’ll talk about Rachael until the cows come home to anyone who asks; but on the flipside I’ve got a new life now, and need to look forward, not back.
There will always be people who judge, and I have received my share of criticism after speaking publicly about finding love with another. But you can’t wait for permission to be happy again.
My family and friends, and Rachael’s family and friends, fortunately feel the same. I was nervous about telling Rachael’s mother about Amy, but she couldn’t have been happier. The pandemic has so far stopped me introducing Amy to her, but we plan to do this soon.
My own family just want Freddie and me to be happy, while Rachael’s very close friends have been nothing but supportive. It’s only those on the outside who don’t really get it: I’ve had comments online criticising me for ‘moving on so quickly’, which ‘Rachael really wouldn’t have wanted.’
As for me, I’ve never felt any guilt about it – I don’t think Rachael would have wanted me to and it sounds like McCrory would not have wanted Lewis to either. Imagine feeling guilty about wanting to be happy!
Some widows and widowers may decide they don’t want to meet anyone else, and that is absolutely fine. But if you decide 10 weeks or 10 years after losing your spouse that you do want to find love again, that is equally acceptable. Death is a part of life, and those of us left behind have to work out a way to continue a meaningful one.
As told to Rosa Silverman