Jessica Haslem-Bantoft is a full-time mum of three who, while still only 29, has been widowed twice. She lives in Preston, Lancashire, with her sons Toby, eight, George, five, and Barnaby, three. Here she shares the pain of losing first Jason, aged 24, when she was pregnant with their youngest child, and then, earlier this year, second husband Tom, 32.
“I’ve been told numerous times that I look too young to be a widow, however, widowhood doesn’t discriminate on the grounds of age, as I know all too well, having lost two husbands.
I was 25 and 11 weeks pregnant with Barnaby when the dreaded knock on the door came on the night of August 28, 2014.
Jason, my first husband, who I’d known since we were teenagers and married 17 months previously, was working late in his job as a catering engineer, fitting cookers in a primary school.
But, by 9pm, I feared something terrible must have happened because he’d not been responding to my calls and hadn’t rung to say ‘goodnight’ to our sons before bedtime, a ritual he never missed.
I’d been breastfeeding George, who was 21 months old, when I heard the door and, seeing two police officers on our driveway, the panic rose. I said: “It’s about Jason isn’t it?”
When they replied ‘yes’ I shut the door and went upstairs to put our son in his cot – I didn’t want him waking in my arms and seeing me distressed.
Back downstairs I asked: “Did he die?” and they responded with the words that were to shatter our young family: “We’re afraid he did”.
Jason had been electrocuted by an oven he was installing in preparation for a scheme entitling all infant school children to free school meals.
Hyperventilating as the dreadful news sunk in, all I could say was “But I’m pregnant”.
They called my dad and a friend who came to stay with me and the next few days are a total blur.
Although George was too young to understand, telling Toby, who was due to start school 11 days later, was heartbreaking.
I tried to spare him the details but he became confused, thinking that, at the funeral, daddy would be going up in the sky in a space rocket.
I did my best to keep our daily routine as normal as possible – my children had lost their daddy and needed to know they could still depend on their mummy, so I couldn’t fall apart.
Although I had little appetite, I also had to keep eating and look after myself for the sake of our unborn baby.
However, it was many weeks before I could bring myself to wash the dirty clothes which had belonged to Jason, sitting in our linen basket, painfully aware that would be the very last thing I’d ever do for my husband.
Barnaby’s birth the following March was bittersweet. I felt sad that Jason wasn’t there to meet him but his arrival brought such joy into our home that it helped heal some of the hurt.
Life as a single mum of three did, however, present challenges and one of them was keeping on top of the garden at our three-bedroom semi.
So, in July 2016, I employed a gardener, a handsome man named Tom who, after learning that I was a widow, invited me on a date.
Although still only 31, he told me that he had beaten lymphoma, twice. We got on brilliantly, sharing the sort of dark sense of dark humour that comes with surviving trauma, but I was initially terrified of falling for him, in case the cancer returned.
But he quickly won me over – reassuring me that he only had a five per cent chance of another recurrence – and was great with my sons.
Then, at the beginning of January last year (2017), the thing we’d both feared happened: Tom’s cancer returned.
Still the doctors were optimistic, and a course of chemotherapy successfully killed the tumours.
The next stage of treatment, in May last year, was a stem cell transplant, designed to create new healthy blood cells to replace the cancerous ones.
We thought we were out of the woods and were planning to move in together, and eventually marry, when, towards the end of last year, Tom became very unwell.
On Boxing Day, having spent Christmas with us, Tom finally agreed to being admitted to hospital where we discovered that he had graft-versus-host-disease, a serious condition in which the cells from the transplant were attacking his own blood cells.
On January 6, doctors broke the devastating news that Tom only had a couple of days left to live.
He shed a few tears, saying: “But I’m only 32”, before putting on a brave face for his family and me.
Heartbroken, but trying to keep his spirits up, I joked: “You’d do anything to get out of marrying me”.
Tom asked a nurse if we still had time to tie the knot and that evening, as I sat by his hospital bed, a registrar pronounced us husband and wife.
I wore a dungaree dress and Tom was in a hospital gown and, ever the comedian, he said: “Well, at least one of us is wearing a white dress”.
Heartbreakingly, I held his hand as he took his last breath in the early hours of January 8.
People say that time heals but they’re wrong: I’m still as sad about Jason’s death four years on as I am about Tom’s five months ago.
The last few months have been very hard and, having been widowed twice, I’m undergoing therapy to help me deal with anxieties about losing other people I love.
Would I marry again? The thought is terrifying, but I’m a romantic and still live in hope of meeting someone I can grow old with.”
For more information and to connect with others, visit www.widowedandyoung.org.uk