Summer of Love: After their spouses die from cancer, an Overland Park couple finds love after loss

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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Sometimes the only way out is through.

That’s certainly the case for Michael and Kristen Kirlew who found love and a new sense of family after loss and grief.

Michael found out his wife Michelle was diagnosed with pancreatic ductal cancer in 2013 — just as he was about to deploy to Afghanistan.

“I was on a plane or just about to get on a plane to go into Afghanistan, and she told me she was sick and the Army immediately sent me home,” he said. “And when I got home right before Christmas, she was diagnosed with cancer.”

The Kirlews and their three children lived in Arizona, where Michael served in the Army.

Hundreds of miles away in Overland Park, Michelle’s high school friend, Kristen Ricker, saw Michelle’s diagnosis on Facebook and reached out to encourage and support her.

“She was just somebody you would drop everything for because that`s what she would have done for you,” Kristen said.

The two women picked up their friendship again.

“And then little did I know my husband would be diagnosed with cancer,” Kristen said.

Kristen’s husband Ryan was diagnosed with leukemia in 2015, and that took the friendship to a whole new level. Two spouses struggling with cancer. Two spouses struggling with care-giving.

“She would say you really should reach out to my husband. You`re both caregivers, and kids, and juggling everything, and I just didn’t have the time,” Kristen said.

Kristen and Michael never spoke, never met, never reached out — until after their spouses died in 2016.

“I reached out to him when Michelle passed away and offered my condolences, and he did the same when Ryan passed,” Kristen said.

They didn’t reach out again for some time until some of the challenges of being a young widow showed up and conversation struck once again.

Eventually they decided to meet in person during a weekend in Las Vegas.

“That’s when things started to change for me, was being on that trip — and it was terrifying,” Kristen said.

“And then we took a break for about 24 hours. We broke up for 24 hours. Silly,” Michael said. “But I couldn’t not talk to her.”

They each noticed growing feelings for one another, but still struggled with grief and with guilt at the idea of moving forward.

“But what I learned, and what I pass along to other widows regardless of age, is there is no rule book to being a widow, and I think I felt like there was,” Kristen said. “Like I had to let a certain amount of time pass before I could have certain feelings.”

But it was difficult enjoying moments they had originally planned to live with someone else.

Then Michael got orders from the Army to deploy.

“I was about to go to Turkey, and my youngest son didn’t want me to go, and I ended up backing out of it,” he said. “And my bosses, knowing what I had just went through with my wife said, ‘No problem, it`s not an issue. You’re not going.'”

“So the first person I called was Kristen, and we both cried together.”

Kristen offered to help care for his kids, so they decided it was time for everyone to meet. They took all five of their children to Disneyland together.

“I watched all the kids play together, and I just knew that she was the one. She completed everything that I had lost and gave me so much more,” Michael said.

As they watched their children becoming fast friends, they each knew something special was happening. They married in November 2018.

Michael and Kristen said they wanted to share their love story to give hope to other people who are widowed young.

“There is a higher power, and there is a life written for you,” Kristen said. “And you may not know how you’re going to get to each chapter. Was it the outcome I prayed for? No. But that’s not for me to decide. And I had to let that go.”

They learned there is no rule book for widowhood and found that they had to learn to trust themselves and the processes of grieving and learning to love again.

“My past has made me the person that I am today, and I think going through what Kristen and I have gone through have made us better parents and better partners — and it`s made me the man that I am today,” Michael said.

It’s not the path they had planned.

“But it’s beautiful, and it`s the best love story out there because it provides so much hope. Through the darkness, came light, and the light is bright,” Michael said. “And I am so grateful.”

We want to thank all of you who reached out to tell FOX4 your love stories this summer.

We had so many we weren’t able to tell them all, but you can see the ones we’ve shared here.

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