Josie Lloyd-Wilson became a widow just eight weeks into her first pregnancy. So the heart-wrenching decision to have her husband’s second child wasn’t easy. But, she tells Eimear O’Hagan, it’s brought much-needed light into the darkness of grief.
With just weeks to go until her second baby is due, Josie Lloyd-Wilson is nesting. By her bed is a new crib; tiny sleepsuits are folded neatly in a drawer and her hospital bag is waiting by the door. When the day arrives, it will be Josie’s parents, Julia and Ronald, driving her to the hospital. They will be with her throughout labour and by her side when her baby is born.
Already a single mother to two-year-old Laurence, Josie is once again preparing to give birth without her children’s father Robbie. Not out of choice, but unimaginable tragedy, as Robbie died in December 2016, leaving Josie a widow when she was only eight weeks into her first pregnancy.
This unborn baby – a girl – was conceived through IVF and frozen as an embryo before Robbie passed away. When she is born next month, it will be almost three years since her father died. ‘One of the first things I packed in my hospital bag was a CD of Robbie singing, which I’ll play in the delivery room so his voice is the first thing the baby hears when she’s born,’ says Josie, 33. ‘I did the same with Laurence and, just for a moment, it felt as though Robbie was there with us.’
Far from balking at the prospect of caring for two young children single-handed, Josie says she’s grateful to be in this position. ‘I’ve never regretted my decision to have Robbie’s children, even though I knew I’d be raising them alone. In fact, becoming a mother is what has saved me. Without Laurence and this little girl, I wouldn’t be here because there would have been nothing to live for.’
In October 2014, Josie and Robbie’s whirlwind romance turned into a living nightmare – with their wedding just nine days away, Robbie was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer. ‘It was a huge shock,’ says Josie, a professional musician from Redhill, Surrey. ‘He’d been very tired, but had put it down to working all day in his marketing job and then renovating our new house in the evenings. But after suffering two bleeds, he was referred for an MRI and a colonoscopy.
‘When we were told he had bowel cancer, neither of us could take it in. He was only 32 and we were about to get married – this just didn’t happen to people like us.’ The bad news didn’t stop there: Robbie was told that his cancer had spread to his liver and lungs and that only two per cent of people with the same mutation as him survived for two years.
Robbie and Josie met online in 2011, after being introduced on Facebook by a mutual friend, but didn’t have their first date until February 2013.
‘Robbie came to see me sing at a candlelit church concert. I felt so nervous performing that night, scanning the crowd for his face which I only knew from photos,’ remembers Josie. ‘What if our online connection didn’t translate into a real-life spark? But when we finally met afterwards and he drove me home, something clicked. It felt natural – there was no awkwardness. He was as kind and charismatic in person as I’d hoped.’
Engaged a year later, the couple set the date for their wedding – 25 October 2014 – oblivious to the devastating news that would precede it. Josie says it was never an option to cancel the wedding. ‘More than ever I wanted to be his wife,’ she says. ‘I was in such deep shock, it really didn’t resonate with me that I could soon be widowed. Robbie and I were in denial – he was convinced he could beat the cancer and we’d carry on with the life we’d planned.’
Nine days after Robbie’s diagnosis, the couple married in front of 70 family and friends. ‘It may sound strange, but it was genuinely such a happy, beautiful day,’ says Josie. ‘We changed the vow, “Till death us do part” to “for all eternity”, because neither of us wanted that word as part of the day. As far as we were concerned, that wasn’t going to happen. If we were naive, then I’m glad. It means I can look back at that day and feel only joy.’
Their honeymoon to Iceland was cancelled and, within days of the wedding, Robbie began having 30 rounds of chemotherapy, as well as an operation to remove his liver and bowel. ‘We’d always planned to have a family but we knew he’d be left infertile from the treatment,’ says Josie. ‘So before he started chemotherapy, Robbie’s sperm was frozen and we agreed that when he was better, we’d have IVF. We were still so sure he could beat it.’
In early 2016, the couple were given the news they’d desperately been hoping for. ‘Robbie’s oncologist told us the treatment was working and the tumours were shrinking. “We’re winning” is the phrase he used,’ Josie remembers. ‘Feeling optimistic, we decided that this was the right time to start IVF.’
After hormone injections, egg collection and discovering they had three frozen embryos ready for implantation, the couple were dealt another devastating blow. A scan in September 2016 revealed the cancer had spread rampantly through Robbie’s body – he had three to six months to live. ‘That was one of the few times I saw Robbie break down. He’d always been so brave – any tears shed over the previous two years had always been for me, never for himself. But that news crushed him.’
For many couples, this would have marked the end of their plans to have a child, but Josie and Robbie decided to keep going. ‘He began taking expensive herbal supplements while waiting to see if he could join a new clinical trial,’ says Josie. ‘I believe in his heart he knew he was dying, but he just couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge it and was eager to carry on with the IVF.’
‘His doctor spoke to me privately and said, “You do realise you’ll most likely be raising this baby on your own?” but I felt an overwhelming need to have Robbie’s baby. Outwardly, I echoed his determination that he could defy the doctor’s prognosis, but deep down I knew he was dying. I even researched online whether grief and stress could harm an unborn baby. It didn’t change how I felt about having a child, though, so in November 2016 I had an embryo transferred.’
Two weeks later, a test confirmed Josie was pregnant. ‘I have been asked if that was a bittersweet moment – finding out I was pregnant while knowing that Robbie may not live to see this baby being born. But we were so caught up in our excitement and relief, I just clung on to that feeling. I was still desperate for a miracle.’
However, within weeks, Robbie’s health began to deteriorate drastically. ‘Every day he became more and more frail,’ she says. ‘He needed help to get washed and dressed, which he hated because he’d always been so stubbornly independent.
‘He was well enough to come to a six-week scan with me; we held hands as we watched in wonder the little blob with a heartbeat on the screen.
‘He took a video which I still watch a lot, because in the background you can hear him say “wow”. In my heart I knew this would probably be the only time he’d see our child and I think he knew that too. But he selflessly showed no pain or sadness, just absolute awe.
A week later, Robbie was admitted to a hospice as he had become too unwell for Josie to nurse him at home. ‘In the last week of his life, I sat by his bedside, ill with morning sickness, knowing that as the life inside me grew, Robbie’s was slipping away,’ recalls Josie. ‘All my happiness and excitement about being pregnant was clashing head-on with total despair and fear about a life without him. I felt angry. I wanted my husband and our baby – why could I only have one?’
On 13 December 2016, the day before his 35th birthday, Robbie died. ‘He took a last breath, then he was gone,’ says Josie. ‘It was only then I realised he had reached out and placed his hand on my stomach. Knowing his last thought was our baby is something that I find so heartbreaking and special in equal measure.’
In July 2017, seven months after Robbie’s death, his son Laurence was born. Josie says that while every moment of the pregnancy was difficult, it also saved her life. ‘In the weeks after Robbie’s death I felt suicidal and resented the pregnancy. I was so desperate to follow Robbie but knew I couldn’t.
‘It really wasn’t until I found out I was having a boy at 16 weeks that I properly bonded with the pregnancy and those awful feelings passed. To think of him as Robbie’s son and imagine a little boy just like him running around – that was a turning point for me emotionally.
‘There were still many low moments when sadness would engulf me, but knowing a piece of Robbie was growing inside kept me going. It felt as though he was still with me.
‘I did struggle with things such as antenatal classes, which my sister Ellie came with me to. I felt resentful seeing happy, excited couples. Why wasn’t that me? Family and friends were supportive, but it was Robbie I wanted to shop for a pram with; he was the one I wanted to rub my aching back.
‘Ellie and my parents were there at Laurence’s birth, after a 30-hour labour. Holding him after he was born, I could feel Robbie in the room, as if it was just the three of us. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.’
Even before Laurence was born, Josie knew that she wanted a second child. ‘In the final days of Robbie’s life, we discussed me using another embryo, which he was fully supportive of. My first attempt last year failed, so this was my last chance – our final frozen embryo and, although Robbie also had some sperm, I knew I’d never be able to afford any more treatment.
‘A few people asked if I was sure about having a second baby and I could understand their concern – being a single mum to one child hasn’t been easy, never mind two. It’s intense and exhausting – I crave that other person to share all the worries and milestones with. I know it will be even tougher with two and I know that, along with all the joy this baby will bring, there will be a renewed sadness that Robbie isn’t here to share it with me.
‘But it will also be double the happiness and fun, especially seeing Laurence and his sister forge their own relationship. I never wanted him to be an only child and Robbie always said he’d love a son and daughter, so it feels as though it’s meant to be that I’m having a girl.’
Since Robbie’s death, Josie has raised over £10,000 for the charity Kidscan, including releasing a single earlier this year, to help research into better cancer treatments for children. ‘Robbie never understood how children could endure the chemotherapy he had, it was so gruelling,’ says Josie. ‘When our kids are a bit older, I hope to involve them in raising money as a way for them to feel connected to their dad.’
For now, Josie says she’s happy to remain single and focus on raising her family, but does realise that her decision to have Robbie’s children may influence any future relationship.
‘Because of Laurence and his sister, Robbie will not only always be in my past, but my present, too. Through them I’m bonded to him, which is wonderful. I know that might make it harder to meet someone if I ever wanted a new partner, because he’ll have to accept Robbie as a part of my life.
As her due date approaches, Josie says her overwhelming emotions are excitement and gratitude. ‘Robbie and I were only together for three years before he died, but Laurence and this little girl are forever a reminder of him and the love we had. For that, I feel incredibly lucky.’
Widowedandyoung.org.uk offers support and information to those aged 50 and under who have lost a partner. To hear Josie’s charity single which raised funds for kidscan.org.uk go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-gY-cyPWQc&feature=youtu.be