Amy Osborne for The Washington Post via Getty Images
January 09, 2018 04:34 PM

When terminal illnesses took their spouses, a pair of widowers found love in each other.

Before he passed away from lung cancer in March 2015, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi began writing what would become the best selling 2016 memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, about his final years living with the diagnosis. Writer Nina Riggs wrote the heart-wrenching memoir, The Bright Hour, about her life as a mother with incurable breast cancer, which was published shortly after her death in February 2017. Both books resonated with readers upon their release, and the authors were praised for their writing and the depths of their intimacy. By the time The Brightest Hour was released, a friendship, which would then turn into a romance, was starting to form between Kalanithi and Riggs’s spouses, Lucy Kalanithi and John Duberstein.

As the widows recount in The Washington Post, before her death, Riggs suggested her husband, John, a 41-year-old lawyer from North Carolina, contact Lucy to seek advice on how to recover after the death of a spouse. Lucy, who was about two years out from Kalanithi’s passing at the time, emailed Riggs a sweet note days before her death. “I’m beaming you love from my whole being,” the message read. “Your forever fan, Lucy.”

John Duberstein and Lucy Kalanithi in San Mateo, California
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John read Lucy’s note to his wife and wrote back, thanking her for being such a strong supporter. After Riggs’s death, he continued to message Lucy for guidance on grieving, including how to write a eulogy.

“I had so many questions,” John told the Washington Post. “I was bursting with this intense need to get things squared.”

Lucy did her best to help John, pulled by a strong “desire to support their family.” But over time, those emails morphed into dozens and dozens of threads on a variety of subjects, and the feelings between them grew as they bonded.

“We talked a lot about the minefield of managing to fall in love and actively grieve at the same time,” Lucy, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Stanford, said.

Though their love was blossoming, the two didn’t meet each other in person until Lucy flew from her home in San Mateo, California, to North Carolina on a business trip, placing her just an hour’s trip away from John.

John Duberstein and Lucy Kalanithi in San Mateo, California
Amy Osborne for The Washington Post via Getty Images

“I knew I had to see her,” John told The Post.

When they finally met in person, they both said they felt the chemistry between them.

“We held each other a long time,” Lucy said.

After their relationship took that important step, the couple kept things to themselves until they told friends and family last summer. Then, they came out publicly when they were approached to do a dual publicity tour by the publisher of their spouses’ memoirs.

Both John and Lucy, having gone through the pain of losing a spouse, keep reminders of their loved ones in their homes, and on themselves—photos of their missing loved ones align their hallways and kitchens, and both John and Lucy still wear their wedding rings. Though they find comfort and love with one another, they admit that being in a new relationship wasn’t part of their plan.

“I planned to spend my entire life with Nina. I was 100 percent happy doing that,” John said.

Lucy felt the same way.

“Having a second relationship is a tragedy,” she told The Post. “If you are lucky enough, you will be devastated when they die. Willingly entering that feels gutsy, but what else could you choose?”

Nina Riggs's "The Brightest Hour" and Paul Kalanithi's "When Breath Becomes Air"
Amy Osborne for The Washington Post via Getty Images

While the two have grown as a couple, they have taken steps to join their families together as well, having Lucy’s 3-year-old daughter, Cady, spend time with John’s kids, 10-year-old Freddy and 8-year-old Benny. The two families visited Kalanithi’s grave on New Year’s Eve. With their bond intact, the couple has even toyed with the idea of writing a sequel to their spouses’ books. They even thought of a name: When Breath Becomes the Bright Hour.

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