I met my husband four months after his wife died, I worried it was too soon but I knew I'd regret walking away

WHEN Anna Cripps-Clark, a 47 year old Head of School from Berkshire, met someone new a year after she was widowed, both families had to learn to deal with love blossoming amid grief.

Posing for a wedding photo with my new husband Lee, our four children beside us, I felt such gratitude.

When I became a widow four years ago, I never imagined I’d find love again, let alone gain twin stepdaughters, Lauren and Sophie, 11, to create a happy, blended family alongside my two sons Daniel, 14, and Sam, 11.

My first husband Steve died aged 48, in March 2018, two years after he was diagnosed with skin cancer. We’d met online in 2006 and married in 2008. He was such a caring, loving man. Becoming a dad meant the world to him, and he was happiest at home, just the four of us, cuddled up watching a movie or playing football in the garden.

It was a huge shock when he was diagnosed in January 2016 after a mole on his back became crusty and sore, but his prognosis was excellent. However, a year after having it cut out, the cancer returned and, despite six months of targeted drug therapy, it spread. In the final months and weeks of Steve’s life, he began to suffer seizures and lose mobility. Seeing the disease rip through his body was traumatic. 

Before Steve died, he told me he didn’t want me to be alone for the rest of my life. I didn’t believe I’d ever want another man, though. I was with him when he died in hospital, and realising I was now a widow with two children to raise alone was the darkest moment of my life.

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For the first year after his death, a relationship was the farthest thing from my mind. Daniel was 10 and Sam was seven, and they needed a lot of support. Every night they would cry in my arms, and I’d reassure them we would get through this. 

I was also coping with my own sadness, working full-time and trying to create a “new normal” for us.

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In April 2019, I met Lee, 42, an IT consultant, at a local event for widowed people. Four months before that, his wife Alex, mother to his twin daughters, had died aged 40, from a brain tumour.

It began as a friendship, messaging on social media and talking by phone, bonding over our shared experiences. Lee made me laugh, and I liked how much he loved his family. When we met up for dinner a few weeks later, there was definitely a spark. It took me by total surprise, but I knew we had a strong connection and that evening we kissed. 

I felt at peace that Steve would be happy, as he’d encouraged me to find someone else, but I was concerned Lee wanted to start a new relationship so soon after Alex had died. He explained she’d been very sick for five years, and it felt like he’d lost her and grieved for her long before she died. 

Logistically, it was hard to find time to meet alone, so we decided to bring our families together, telling the children we were just friends to begin with. We knew we had to tread carefully.

I felt nervous before our first joint outing – a picnic in May 2019. If our families didn’t gel, how could we ever have a serious relationship? To my relief, it went well and we had several more family “dates”, go-karting, bowling and going for walks together.

After a couple of months we each spoke to our children separately, telling them we were going to be boyfriend and girlfriend. Lauren and Sophie were delighted. They had very few memories of their mum before she got sick, which meant they were more accepting of change. But for my boys it was much harder. Me being with Lee was a painful reminder that their daddy – who had read them stories every night and gave the best cuddles – was gone, and Daniel in particular was upset.

'I felt incredibly guilty'

I felt incredibly guilty, especially after all they had been through, but I’d fallen in love with Lee and feared if I walked away, I’d live to regret it. What if this was my chance to find happiness? I knew that in a few years, the boys would grow up and have lives of their own. 

Lee also has a big, close family and I wanted that support network for my boys, not to mention step-siblings and a stepdad. We all had so much to gain.I told the boys that I understood how they felt, and I talked about my feelings too, so they understood better why I wanted to be with Lee, which helped them.

We all carried on spending time together and bonds began to form. Lee and Sam had a shared love of cars, while Daniel enjoyed playing computer games with Lee. Sam and the girls were all the same age and got on brilliantly, while the girls and I enjoyed singing karaoke.

In March 2020, when the pandemic hit, Lee and I made the decision to do lockdown together and he and the girls moved into my home in Woodley, Berkshire. It was a big decision – we’d only been together 11 months – but we didn’t want to be separated.

There were some squabbles between the kids and Lee and me, as everyone was getting used to living together in such an intense way, while also working and homeschooling. But we got to know one another in the way you only can when living together. We had fun despite what was going on in the world and, for me, that’s when I really became a stepmother. 

Little things like cooking the girls my signature chicken fajitas, or reading them a bedtime story, made me feel happy. They’d missed being “mothered” in that way. I was very open with them about not wanting to replace their mummy, and both Lee and I encouraged all the children to talk about their other parents.

I always felt so lucky to be a mother and it’s a privilege to be a stepmother.

It was a steep learning curve trying to give four children enough time and attention, when they all had different needs and were grieving. I didn’t want the boys to feel jealous, or for Sophie and Lauren to feel pushed out by my bond with my sons.

We also needed time for Lee and me to be a couple. We had to learn to co-parent with different opinions on how to raise and discipline children. But over time, we found a middle ground.

Lee proposed in November 2020, going down on one knee in a restaurant. I was completely stunned, but said yes without hesitation. I knew some people would think it was too soon, because society is so judgemental of the widowed, but this was right for us and our children.

In October, we all moved into a five-bedroom house we bought nearby. We wanted a fresh start – something that was ours – though we have photos of Steve and Alex on display and we talk about them a lot.

I’ve never felt threatened by Lee’s love for Alex, and he feels the same about my feelings for Steve. We understand you can love the spouse you lost and still love one another, and we encourage the children to love all four of their parents.

Last month, we married at a registry office with our children smiling proudly as we made our vows. We’ve all been on such a journey growing to accept this new family unit and I’m proud of us all. 

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I always felt so lucky to be a mother and it’s a privilege to be a stepmother. I can never replace Alex – and I don’t want to – but I hope she’s happy with how I’m raising her girls. I know in Lee I’ve found a wonderful stepdad for my boys, and Steve would approve. Out of the darkest time, something wonderful has grown. 

Anna and Lee have both been supported by Widowed And Young (WAY). For more information, visit Widowedandyoung.org.uk.

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