'Our husbands died when we were pregnant – she helped me find joy again'

Welcome to Soul Mates, Metro.co.uk’s weekly series where friends share the stories of how they met.

Orlanda Bryars, 40, had known her colleague, Julian, for 10 years, before they finally realised they were more than friends.

The pair became a couple in 2017, bonding over their love of music. Like something out of a romcom, Julian would write songs, and Orlanda, a classically trained singer, would perform them.

Orlanda, who lives in London, says: ‘When you know, you know. Three months later, we moved in together.

‘Julian was extremely intelligent, and a genius with technology – but he was just so fun too. He loved to laugh, and was known for his big smile and twinkly eyes. He was a bit of a rebel when he wanted to be.’

Keen to start a family, they found out they were expecting in December 2018, and soon, it was time for the 20 week scan.

‘We found out we were having a girl,’ Orlanda says. ‘The scan was lovely – we were very calm and Julian was able to feel a couple of kicks. We chose the name Cassia. It means cinnamon – a mix of sugar and spice.’

The next day, April 13, 2019, Orlanda and Julian flew out to Chamonix, for a skiing holiday with friends.

‘That night, I got out of bed to go to the bathroom, and I saw Julian on the bathroom floor,’ says Orlanda.

‘I thought maybe he hadn’t been feeling well, and then he’d fallen asleep on the floor. My mind just didn’t go to the worst case scenario.’

The paramedics were called, but nothing could be done. A postmortem later revealed that Julian had a fatal heart attack. He died, aged 47.

‘When they told me he’d died, I was just in shock. I wasn’t sure how to react so I remember looking at the face of one of the paramedics and just copying her. In my mind, none of it was real.

‘I remember feeling really faint, and I had no appetite – but I knew I had to force food down for the baby.’

Back home, Orlanda says she compartmentalised the fact that she pregnant. ‘It was just all too much to deal with,’ she says. ‘I was still in total shock – I lost the ability to read at one point.

‘I couldn’t look further ahead than the next 30 minutes. I refused to go to NCT classes and when visitors came to the house, my mum and sister told them not to mention the baby.

‘People always wanted to discuss the pregnancy as a ‘bright side’ to this horrible situation. I really, really wanted Cassia, but this wasn’t how I was supposed to have a baby, this wasn’t what we’d planned. I felt incredibly isolated and alone.’

Cassia was born in August 2019. ‘I had been worried that Cassia would look like Julian when she was born – I didn’t want to be face to face with what I’d lost. But actually she did, and it was wonderful.’

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Orlanda says that, being a new mum, she didn’t have time to grieve. ‘It was exhausting. I had a mental health midwife who recommended I set aside time to cry, so I could at least have that release.’

It was a doctor that told Orlanda about Widowed and Young (WAY), a charity that offers bereavement support and a community for anyone who has lost a partner before their 51st birthday.

‘I joined a few Facebook groups and gradually got more involved with WAY. Then, when Cassia was about 18-months-old, I featured in a Mother’s Day video, about women who had been widowed while pregnant.’

It was this video that Rachel Horne, 34, stumbled upon on Instagram. ‘It was the first time I heard anyone talking about being in the same situation as me,’ she says.

Rachel, also living in London, knew exactly what Orlanda was going through. Her husband, Nick, died in July 2019, aged 28, when she was eight months pregnant.

‘I met Nick on a night out at Cardiff Uni’s student union – where all the best romances start!’ says Rachel.

‘I was 21, in my final year, and didn’t really want a boyfriend. But then I met Nick, and something changed. Almost immediately, I knew he was one of the best people I’d ever met.

‘He had a knack for always seeing the good in people, and in every situation. He radiated happiness. He was clever and kind, but so funny too. We used to jokingly compete over who was funnier, me or him.

‘It’s hard to put into words how amazing he was.’

The pair got married in April 2018. ‘I found out I was pregnant in December 2018,’ says Rachel. ‘We were excited to have a mini-us.

‘Nick was always terrible with names, so we joked that if we had a boy, it’d be Nick, and a girl would be Nicola, so he wouldn’t forget.’

But on July 18, 2019, Rachel was visiting family in Wales, when a ‘good morning’ text to Nick went unanswered.

She says: ‘He had a bit of a habit of oversleeping if I wasn’t there, so at first I wasn’t worried.

‘But by lunchtime, I still hadn’t heard anything, and his colleagues were messaging me, asking where he was.

‘I asked them to go around to check on him, and the next thing I knew, two police officers turned up at the door.

‘They told me Nick had died in his sleep. I remember focusing on my breathing, telling myself I still had to breathe for the baby.’

After two post mortems, it was decided that Nick had an issue with his heart. Rachel says her husband’s death, and the birth of her daughter, Mabel, are ‘interwoven.’

‘Nick’s funeral was three days after Mabel was born. I was having contractions while I was finishing writing his eulogy.

‘I stayed with family for the first six week’s of Mabel’s life. Having a newborn is all consuming, so it was easy to focus on her, and stay in the present, rather than the loss.

‘Mabel was amazing from the start. Nick had shaped me into the adult that I was – he’d given me so much love and, in turn, I felt that I could give that to Mabel.’

But like Orlanda, Rachel struggled with feelings of loneliness. ‘People would focus on Mabel, rather than talk about Nick,’ she says.

‘I remember feeling really angry about that. I wanted to remind everyone that someone had died, this hadn’t been the plan.’

Rachel was also directed to WAY for support, but hadn’t come across anyone who had been widowed while pregnant – until she saw Orlanda’s video.

‘I slid into her DMs,’ says Rachel. ‘We exchanged a few messages online, and then agreed to meet in Regent’s Park with the girls.’

Both Rachel and Orlanda say they hit it off straight away. ‘Nothing was off limits,’ says Orlanda.

‘I remember Rachel saying that to anyone else in the park, we looked like two normal mums with toddlers. But actually, we were having a conversation about our husbands’ post-mortems.’

Rachel adds: ‘Finally, I’d found someone who understood what I was going through.’

The women quickly grew close, texting each other regularly and meeting up. ‘My favourite thing about Orlanda is her openness,’ says Rachel. ‘If I need her help or advice, she’ll give it to me straight – she doesn’t pander to me as a “sad widowed mum”.’

While Orlanda says she loves Rachel’s dark sense of humour. ‘After everything we’ve been through, sometimes you have no choice but to laugh. She’s never rude or flippant, but it’s her way of showing she understands you.

‘We also stumble upon the same obstacles at the same time. For example, when the girls were going to nursery, we both had to fill out a form with their emergency contact numbers. It was an unexpected reminder of what we’d both lost – but we went through it together.’

The pair have been on weekends away, along with another close friend, Pamela, and their daughters, both three, are growing close too.

‘We were at Center Parcs, when, out of the blue, Mabel said, “My dad’s died.” Cassia looked up and said, “My dad’s died too.” They quickly carried on with whatever they were doing, but it was a small moment of recognition. I hope they’ll have a companion in each other, like Orlanda and I do,’ says Rachel.

For both women, their friendship is something positive that came out of so much heartbreak.

‘I believe we were meant to meet,’ says Rachel. ‘She’s helped me rediscover who I am and has helped me find joy again.’

Orlanda adds: ‘She understands me in a way no one else does. She’s inspiring, and I’m so glad she came into my life.’

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