Friends Whose Spouses Died of Cancer Overcome 'Guilt' to Marry and Blend Families of 5 Kids

Kristen and Michael Kirlew fell in love while supporting each other's tragic losses: "There's no timeline that says you have to wait," Kristen tells PEOPLE

It all started with tragedy.

In 2013, Michael Kirlew's wife, Michelle, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at age 41. A high school classmate of Michelle's, Kristen Ricker, reached out to her through Facebook and offered support. Kristen also sent a beautiful bed set to Michelle's Tucson, Arizona home.

"Michelle was friends with everyone and would do anything for anyone," Kristen, 47, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue, on newsstands Friday. "I just wanted her to have a pretty bed to recover in."

Then Kristen's husband, Ryan, an executive at a hedge fund, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2015. As Kristen shared with Michelle her days of juggling care for Ryan and looking after the couple's two young children — Ruby, 14, and Wyatt, 11 — the pair became close friends.

Michelle also offered some advice on how to care for Ryan.

"She would text me from her hospital bed, telling me to pray with him and to hold his hand when he was in ICU," says Kristen. "That's just how she was."

For more on Kristen and Michael's journey of loss and love, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

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Kirlew family. Jason Domingues Photography
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Kristen with Ryan and their kids in January 2016. Courtesy Ricker Kirlew Family

Michelle also urged Kristen and Michael to reach out to each other, since both were caring for a very sick spouse and raising children.

"But I didn't have time," says Kristen, of Overland Park, Kansas.

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Michael with his late wife and their kids in June 2015. Courtesy Ricker-Kirlew Family

The pair never communicated until Michelle died in February of 2016, when Kristen reached out to Michael and offered her condolences. And after Ryan died in June of that same year, Michael did the same.

"You just cannot know what it feels like," says Kristen of losing Ryan, "unless you've experienced it."

Their shared grief led to daily Facebook messages that quickly turned into many phone calls and texts each day. By November, they met in Las Vegas, and immediately hit it off — a meeting that left them both happy and conflicted.

"We were feeling the same thing — the loneliness and the guilt over wanting companionship," says Kristen.

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But the pair continued to bond over more endless phone calls, and three months later met again, this time with their children.

The kids immediately bonded, and during the trip Kristen realized she was in love with Michael, also 47, as she watched him interact with Wyatt and Ruby. But he remained ambivalent, and even ended things for 24 hours. Ultimately, he was miserable not talking to Kristen.

"I knew I wanted this woman in my life," he tells PEOPLE.

In March 2018, Michael proposed, and after moving with his three children — Mackenzie, now 14, Madison, 20, and Trevor, 23 — to live with Kristen and her kids, they married in November of that year.

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Kristen and Michael at their 2018 wedding. Jason Domingues Photography

“Michelle was my best friend,” says Michael, who spent 24 years in the Army before retiring as a sergeant first class in 2018. “And now I’m in love with my best friend again.”

Together they remember Michelle and Ryan, celebrating the late spouses' birthdays and cooking the foods they once loved. Kristen understands when Michael becomes sad over missing Michelle, and he gets it when she misses Ryan.

“If I married a man who lost his wife and I’d never experienced that myself, I think my jealousy would probably ruin the marriage," says Kristen.

“Never in a million years did I think I’d be remarried by now,” she adds, noting that both she and Michael feel that their late spouses had a hand in their love. “But there’s no timeline that says you have to wait if your heart feels ready and your kids are good with it.”

Indeed they are.

"The kids," Michael says, "have embraced this in a way that I never could have imagined."

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