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A father and daughter who lost a wife and mother have written another chapter in their lives — with a mom and son who lost a husband and dad.
Ben Nunery’s story about love, loss and a poignant tribute to both went viral after a TODAY article in December 2013.
The young widowed father, with help from his 3-year-old daughter, re-created a series of images he first posed for with his wife, Ali, on their 2009 wedding day. The pictures were captured inside the new Cincinnati home they had just purchased the day before.
Ali died two years later, at age 31, from a rare form of lung cancer. When Ben prepared to move out of their home, he paid tribute to her by having their daughter, Olivia, pose in the same spots as her mom did years earlier, and Ali’s sister, a professional photographer, take pictures.
The photos and the story behind them struck a nerve: Ben received an outpouring of much-needed support, encouragement and inspiration from strangers around the world.
At the time, he felt certain he would never fall in love again.
“I'm going to be this sad single father for the rest of my life. That was just my destiny and I was convinced of it,” Ben, 37, told TODAY in a recent interview. “That sadness and grief was overwhelming and didn’t allow me to see beyond the immediate future.”
But he did reach beyond it, thanks to an old college friend with whom he reconnected after Ali’s death.
Lesley Amann and her husband, Mike, became friends with Ben during their college days as graphic design students. Mike and Ben went on to start a business together, but a falling out eventually drove a deep rift between them. The two went their separate ways.
Years later, they reconnected after the Amanns learned of Ali’s death.
“When something like that happens, you feel inclined to put the past behind you because all of a sudden, certain arguments seem petty,” Lesley said.
Shortly afterward, her husband was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroendocrine cancer. Lesley was eight months pregnant at the time with their first child, Kaizer.
Lesley said she initially rejected Ben's offers of support because she was determined that her family outcome would differ from his.
“It was probably a month before Mike passed away before I really started to see, ‘OK, we weren’t going to get the happy ending we wanted,’” she said. “I finally reached out to Ben and met up with him for coffee to talk about the ins and outs of being a caretaker.”
Mike passed away in November 2013.
After his death, Lesley and Ben continued to lean on each other. They went to church together with their young children, and met up for brunches and play dates.
“He was one person I didn’t have to talk about what happened with because he got it,” said Lesley, 36. “It was nice to have someone to do things with who understood, and you didn’t even have to explain anything.”
It helped that they shared a long history with each other.
“Even the bad years, when we weren’t talking, even that was something that became a building block for what we have now,” Ben said.
Eventually, their friendship progressed into something romantic.
“That’s the thing you figure out when you’re dating someone. What are they like? What’s their true character? How do they handle bad situations, good situations?” Ben said. “We already knew a lot of that. Our friendship and our personalities had already been tested.”
The couple's relationship received approval from their extended families, said Ali’s sister, Melanie Pace, the photographer whose earlier pictures of Ben and Olivia were picked up from her blog.
"We had known her for years anyway. Had it been somebody else coming into that position, I think it would have been very awkward for everyone, because they couldn’t possibly understand what it was like for all of us. But Lesley just got it,” Pace said.
“Because she had experienced that same loss, she knew she wasn’t there to replace Ali, and fill her shoes. She knows her role. She’s not trying to replace Olivia’s mom. She’s not trying to replace my sister.”
Ben and Lesley were married last June, although the couple and their children had been “behaving like a family” long beforehand.
In November, the couple welcomed another child, Nash.
Both Olivia, now 6, and Kaizer, 4, immediately took to their roles as doting siblings to their brother, who has Down syndrome. The family now share a new Kentucky home outside of Cincinnati.
Ben said he and Lesley are continually amazed by the journeys they have taken. He hopes their story will provide hope and comfort to others mourning the loss of a loved one.
“You can have joy and grief at the same time. That’s one of the big picture things I’ve learned. You just don’t have to just have one or the other,” he said. “And it doesn’t mean you betray your loved one. You can grieve them and also experience love and joy and happiness moving forward at the same time.”
Ben said looking at life based on "blessings we’ve been given versus things taken away" makes it easy to be happy.
“Honestly, it feels weird for me to refer to this as a happy ending because I know it’s not an ending. This is just another chapter in many chapters, and who knows what else is in store, but it’s definitely a happy chapter for sure.”