She was no sooner dead than ...

Friends, neighbours and society at large expect a decent interval of mourning to elapse after the death of a spouse - particularly if it has occurred suddenly and tragically. But in real life, people may fall in love immediately in the most `inappropriate' circumstances. By Ann Treneman
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Indy Lifestyle Online
As family photographs go it is a success. The grown-ups are smiling; the baby is cooing. All eyes are open and none are pinpoints of red. It looks like millions of photographs in millions of front rooms across Britain. But looks can deceive, because there is nothing ordinary about this photograph.

On one side is Mike Battenbough, a 31-year-old care worker who lives near Llanelli in south Wales. On the other is Samantha Thomas, his 23- year-old colleague and the new love of his life. The baby is Karen Louise, now a healthy 18-month-old who was born weighing just 3 pounds 2 ounces. She is named after her mother, who went into a coma after a car crash and was still in a coma when her baby was born a few months later, in May 1995. She was in the same coma when this photograph was taken, earlier this year.

She finally died last week and Mike Battenbough faced the press - with Samantha by his side. "When I heard that Karen had died I felt relief - then guilt for feeling relief," she told the Daily Mirror. "I love Mike and he and the baby are part of me now. Getting together has not been easy. Some people have said some very unpleasant things about us."

This is an understatement. Perhaps the words she was searching for were "absolutely horrific". If your average reader was "horrified" - and the letters page shows that to be the case - then you can imagine what friends and family have said.

Tongues are also busy wagging in Oxfordshire where, six weeks after his wife Vikki was murdered while out walking the dog, Jonathan Thompson, a computer software salesman, found he was more than just good friends with Vikki's best chum, Lynn Trowbridge, a next-door neighbour. Both couples are in the news - Vikki's murder remains unsolved - and we cannot help but wonder what has possessed them.

"This makes us raise our eyebrows," says Fiona Cathcart, a psychologist at Astley Ainslie hospital in Edinburgh, who has a special interest in death and bereavement. "It's like in Hamlet when he says `the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables'." We think this is unhealthy. It's too sudden." And it's very uncomfortable: how would it feel, we ask ourselves, to know that our partners could find someone else so soon after such a sudden demise?

But the kind of thing that makes for great drama and spellbinding mystery is not so easy to read in real life. The subject of grief-stricken romance is one that our universities and study centres have chosen to leave alone, it seems. Not even the women's magazines seem eager to crack it. Everyone agrees that it takes at least one to two years to mourn a spouse fully and there are obvious pitfalls if your partner is recently bereaved - all the more so if the circumstances are brutal and public. No wonder Lynn Trowbridge chose to hide out in a bedroom while her partner told The Express last week that "everything is going great in our new life. We are in love." She might not have put it quite that way.

One fact we do know is there were many more widows (about 2.9 million) than widowers (684,000) at the last count in Britain. This is partly explained by the fact that men die younger, but also because widowers are far more likely to marry, and to marry sooner. Often a dying woman will instruct her husband to find a new wife. As it turns out, this fits in perfectly with the survival instinct. "Men are healthier if they have a partner. Bereaved men are at considerable risk - it's not unusual for them to die, too. For men it can be a lifesaver if they can find another woman," says Averil Leimon, a psychologist. "Unfortunately it's not the same for the woman."

But why would women want to get involved with such men? Both Samantha and Lynn would say they just wanted to help. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think our friendship would turn into anything else," says Samantha. Lynn was Vikki Thompson's best friend and helped Jonathan through the six days that his wife lay unconscious in hospital before she died. Fiona Cathcart calls this the "buddies under fire" syndrome and compares it to cases where soldiers on the front line form a lifelong bond.

Perhaps it was all a lot easier under the strict mourning rules embraced by the Victorians. Then, you knew a widower's precise stage of mourning by the depth of his hatband and the width of the black border on his writing paper. Of course, those were also the days when widowers only had to ask and a female relative would arrive post haste, ready to run his household. These days such women are far harder to find.

The media today is doing its best to set its own death rituals: there are interviews and updates and tearful press conferences. Sometimes the grieving relatives seem to be almost hooked on telling us everything (though this is not the case with couples such as Lynn and Jonathan, who know the world would not approve). In all cases, the reporters eventually stop knocking, and the cameras find someone new. Then the grieving begins in earnest. While violent death is undoubtedly more difficult than a simple if unexpected heart attack, say, and experts say that grief is too personal for comparisons, they do agree that men and women handle it differently.

There are signs that the New Man is having an effect here and there are even a few widower support groups to match the many for widows. Cruse, the bereavement counselling service, says that more and more men are coming forward. This year widowers made up 14.5 per cent of their clients, an increase over last year of some 3 percentage points, or 1,000 men.

But while widows are likely to have a network of supportive friends and family, a man is still stuck down the stereotypical pub discussing the weather and the football scores rather than his wife. "No one at the pub wants to hear about their feelings about their dead wife," says one counsellor. However, often there may be a woman who does. "A man who is newly bereaved is feeling vulnerable and wants to pour out his feelings," says Dr Maryon Tysoe, author of The Good Relationship Guide. "Research shows that women like expressive men, and that could be very attractive to women."

Susan Wallbank of Cruse agrees: "A grieving man can be sensitive, caring and expressive. Women who start off as friends and carers can suddenly find themselves more involved. To be alongside such a man can be a privileged place to be."

But it can also be hell. First there is the Rebecca syndrome. Daphne du Maurier said it all when she placed the new Mrs de Winter at her charismatic but deceased predecessor's desk: "At any moment she might come back into the room and she would see me there, sitting before her open drawer, which I had no right to touch." This is not living in another woman's shadow, it is being eclipsed by it. Death differs significantly from divorce here: it is much easier to remove traces of a former wife who is alive and heartily disliked.

There is also the family. Mrs Danvers would have nothing on many a real- life employee, friend or relative. These are the ones who will never let you forget what you have done, nor do they see why they should. Adult children can split with their remaining parent; the former in-laws cannot hide their dismay.

But giving them the pariah treatment often has the opposite of the intended effect. Ms Wallbank, author of The Empty Bed: Bereavement and the Loss of Love, says: "People do turn against them - they say things like, `Can you believe she's going out with so and so?' - so suddenly the pool of support that did exist is withdrawn and what happens is that the new partner becomes the only person whom they can trust."

Samantha Thomas said, earlier this year: "I agree with people who say we should have resisted, stayed apart. But our feelings were just too strong. At first it felt wrong but now it is starting to feel right. I still haven't come to terms with all the guilt ... I love Karen Louise more than any other child I know but I'd never want to replace her mother."

Some people never get around to such soul-searching. For instance, there was the neighbour who sidled up to a daughter at the mother's funeral. "I thought you'd like to know that your father has just proposed to me," she told the shocked girl.

"It really is normal to want another relationship. People are still primarily animals, and we need this. If there is a void in your life, you want to fill it up," says Dr Petrusca Clarkson, a psychotherapist and author. "On the whole it is a wise idea to give space to complete the grieving process, but there is nothing intrinsic that makes these relationships bad."

No one knows for certain whether the bereaved are less successful in their new relationships than others embarking for the second or third time round. Jonathan Thompson says he and Lynn are making a fresh start in a new house and a new village. As for Samantha and Mike, only time will tell. "Part of my heart will always belong to Karen, but it is time to move on," said Mike earlier this year. "You have to live for the moment, take what happiness you can."

And the woman's point of view? One counsellor spoke openly but insisted her name not be used: "Why would a woman get involved with a newly bereaved man? Well, I suppose you could say she's found a man who is a pretty good bet. He's the marrying kind. He's been house-trained and he's proven himself capable of a warm, intimate relationship. He is used to being in a relationship and he wants a new one." One can almost see the new family portrait on the mantelpiece.

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