The death of a young husband or wife due to illness is always heartbreaking. People build relationships with each other assuming they will be together until old age. Spouses who are left behind often can’t imagine going out and falling in love again—but some people find the strength to move on.
In March 2015, Paul Kalanithi wrote “When Breath Becomes Air” about his lung cancer diagnosis, which became a best-selling memoir after his death, while in February 2017, Nina Riggs’ “The Brightest Hour” about her experience with incurable breast cancer was released after she passed.
Before Nina’s death, Paul’s wife Lucy Kalanithi had contacted her after reading a New York Times column she had written, and they became friends. Lucy later kept in touch with Nina’s agent and wrote a endorsement for “The Brightest Hour,” according to The Washington Post.
When Nina knew that her life’s journey was nearing its end, she recommended that her husband John Duberstein reach out to Lucy for help with the grieving process, due to Lucy’s experience with the death of her husband Paul.
Nina’s last act of love was to help her husband move on.
Two days before Nina passed, Lucy sent her an email saying, “I’m beaming you love from my whole being,” from, “your forever fan, lucy.”
Nina was too weak to respond, so John decided to write back instead.
“Thank you for being such a strong supporter and friend to her,” he wrote. “She’s talked about you a ton these past few weeks, and her sense of you being a person with great insight and empathy. She’s clearly on the mark there.”
After Nina passed, John was distraught, unable to sleep, and struggled with writing a eulogy. He found himself emailing Lucy again and again, and she would respond quickly, with the wisdom she had learned in her two years of grief.
“I had so many questions,” he said. “I was bursting with this intense need to get things squared.”
Slowly, John began to move forward, with guidance from Lucy. Days, weeks, and months went by, and she was always there to help him. “I felt like your guardian,” she told John and he confirmed that she was.
Their emails turned from questions and advice—to falling in love.
The emails that had started out as comforting messages had upgraded into lengthy discussions of complex thoughts and feelings.
“We talked a lot about the minefield of managing to fall in love and actively grieve at the same time,” Lucy told The Washington Post.
They both knew their love was beginning to bloom, but they did not meet each other in person, nor did they speak over the phone.
Finally, during a business trip, Lucy flew from her home in California to North Carolina and found herself just an hour away from John. They decided to meet, and the chemistry was overwhelming.
“We held each other a long time,” Lucy said.
The couple decided to take the next step.
At first, the couple decided to keep their love a secret, except from their children. John told his two children, 10-year-old Freddy and 8-year-old Benny, about the new relationship, and Lucy informed her 3-year-old daughter Cady.
Their relationship officially went public when they agreed to a dual publicity tour in June for “When Breath Becomes Air” and “The Bright Hour.” They were both a little scared, but happy to spend time together at the events.
While John and Lucy appreciate the joy they have recently found in each other, they still miss their former spouses and grieve what they have lost.
“I planned to spend my entire life with Nina. I was 100 percent happy doing that,” John said. “Having a second relationship is a tragedy.”
Lucy said all relationships are a risk. “If you are lucky enough, you will be devastated when they die. Willingly entering that feels gutsy, but what else could you choose?”
John and Lucy both still wear their wedding rings and treasure photos and other mementos of their late wife and husband in their homes. They both know their relationship will never replace their memories, but they are willing and open to what beautiful things life still has in store for them.