Coping after cancer
Updated: Sep 4
Having a fiancé die way before their time is one thing, but leaving behind two young children makes it all the harder.
Craig Hughes, 57, and Alice were together for 11 years before Alice sadly died in 2005.
They found out about the cancer in 2003, just as his youngest was two years old. Initially, they were quite hopeful, Alice had gotten a mastectomy and the oncology appointments were promising.
“We were told she was 90% clear, it was just a little way to go, and then all of a sudden she went metastasis, so then it was a question of when and not if anymore.”
Despite being engaged and having a terminal cancer diagnosis, they did not rush a wedding, Alice was always of the opinion that they loved each other and that was enough, and Craig agreed.
Soon came the question of how they were going to tell their two young children about the inevitable. To make it easier to digest, Craig used Pac-Man as an explanation. He said that Pac-Man was the cancer and the dots in the game allowed their mum to live but Pac-Man was going to win this round, and unfortunately, their mum was not going to survive.
After Alice died in 2005, it was tough. Going from co-parenting to being a single parent was challenging for Craig but rewarding at the same time.
“The first thing I realised after was how much she brought to the relationship when it came to the girls. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes I still feel guilty about this, but it was also really good, the experience I’ve had I wouldn’t change it but obviously I’d want Alice there too.”
As they knew she was going to die, it helped them prepare in many ways for their children.
“It helped us have really honest conversations and it helped me understand what she wanted for her children and I try to achieve that as a mark of respect for who she was. If she had just died on the spot there are some things I know now that I wouldn’t have.”
Craig’s children think he has done a great job, his eldest, Hazel, 22, said:
“I think when we were younger it must have been so horrifically difficult for him, watching the love of his life, the mother of his children, pass away. He had to hide his emotions and deal with them on his own.
“My dad has been amazing over the past 15 years; it’s only recently that we have spoken more openly about my mum’s death. He has been both of our rocks and our only support over the years. It is almost like having two parents; he is there as a mother and a father to both of us.”
Not having a bitter break up meant that the separation came with its own set of pros and cons.
“In some ways it’s a clean break, it’s no-one’s fault but for quite some time I felt guilty if I met someone. You know that you left them and that they left you loving each other on no bad terms, and there’s a bit of peace in relation to that.”
Through the grief, it changed Craig’s attitude to the world and to himself. He was more determined than ever to be around to see his children grow up and went on a health kick to fulfil his promise.
This was a good decision as research from the Canadian Community Health Survey revealed that as a single father, Craig is three times more likely to die than a single mother or someone who is co-parenting.
“I gave up smoking, I don’t drink anymore, not that I was a heavy drinker, but I changed my lifestyle. I knew that I had to be around for my children and it’s still my main aim in life to see them independent, settled down and happy before I leave the world.”
Losing Alice taught him a lot about himself and what is important in life.
“She taught me that I could be in love with someone. She was very caring and compassionate. She worked abroad in orphanages. She taught me that image wasn’t important, what is important is being loved, cared for, being wanted, appreciated and valued, and everything else is a bonus.”
It is just coming up to Alice’s 15-year anniversary and that has given Craig a lot of time to reflect on his loss.
“You get used to the separation, but I still miss her and wish she was around. It’s difficult at times when I think about everything she’s missed. You move on in terms of what you want to do in life, but within your heart, you still hold a special place.”
He has had 15 years to fall in love with somebody else but admits he has never found anyone who comes close to Alice.
“I would say Alice’s been the only true love of my life. I’ve met a lady before, but I don’t think I’ve really been in love with her, in many ways I’ve not really let go, have I?”
Craig’s learned to accept the past and move forward in his life and is glad of the time that he and Alice got to spend together.
“In time, you learn what happened was an experience that you wished never happened, but you take all the fond memories and just carry it with you for the rest of your life... but I kind of believe that at some point in the future we’ll see each other again.”