Matthew Meddings’ black labrador Winnie sleeps with him now, in the space where his late wife Gemma used to be.
The 40-year-old widower finds taking care of the pet, which was like a child to them both, has often been the only thing to get him up each day.
He says: “I give him a hug and kiss each evening from her and tell him his mum loves him. I get out three times a day with him, Gem would be so mad with me if he wasn’t looked after.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he’s kept me going through the most awful and darkest of times.”
Matthew lost Gemma in August 2019 when she was just 37, following a battle with cancer, first diagnosed in the breast.
His story mirrors that of Ricky Gervais’ character Tony Johnson in the Netflix drama After Life, the middle-aged journalist consumed with anger and loneliness after losing his wife, Lisa (Kerry Godliman), to breast cancer.
In what is perhaps the comic’s greatest piece of writing yet, Tony’s German shepherd, Brandy, gives him a reason to carry on as he turns to drink, drugs, and even considers suicide.
After Life is the most-watched British comedy of the decade with 100 million views and a National Television Award gong. The series returned for a third and final series yesterday and Matthew is just one of many men, and women, who have found themselves in Tony’s position after losing their own partners.
The commercial director from Inkpen, Berks, gained reassurance through watching the character’s excruciating, messy, heartrending journey, as he navigates life alone, watching his wife’s posthumous video messages.
Perhaps more surprising, so did Gemma. The couple watched series one together, attempting to cling to normality, just months before she died.
Matthew adds: “Watching it was daunting, to think this would be us in a couple of months. To think, you will be the one talking from the grave, and I will be the one picking up the pieces. Those scenes with the dog, It was like a mirror.”
Shortly before her death, Gemma revealed she had been keeping a blog which mentioned the show.
She wrote: “We started watching it without knowing what it was about, probably a good thing as I’m not sure we would have done otherwise. But it is one of the most honest, heartwarming, heartbreaking things you’ll ever watch.
“And way too close to mine and Matt’s life for my liking.”
Her words were her equivalent of Lisa’s videos.
She added: “Matt, you are Ricky Gervais in After Life, but please god don’t go down the drugs road. (lol sorry). I’m genuinely not scared of dying. What genuinely terrifies me is how much grief can affect someone and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. All I can do is promise that if you need me, I’ll be there, in your heart, always.”
Matthew and Gemma were not alone in watching After Life as they prepared to be parted.
Simon Meredith, 49, also saw it with wife Amanda before she passed away in June 2019, aged 54. Her cancer had also been primarily in the breast.
On their sofa in Poole, Dorset, they laughed and sobbed together.
Teacher Simon says: “It made it easier to sit there and ask, ‘How do we feel?’”
Amanda was worried how he would cope. Tony’s drinking and his suicidal thoughts gave her a way in.
Simon adds: “She brought that up a lot. She asked me to promise I would go on.” He gave his word. He has, he says, avoided depression in part because of the therapy of watching the show. Simon adds: “It helps me to think, ‘Would she be proud of me?’”
Since her death, watching has been “extraordinarily helpful”, he reveals, and says. “To see a man I recognised making it, with the help of people around him.”
Anthony Elliott also found comfort in Gervais’ character.
The 50-year-old, from Enderby, Leics, lost wife Elaine to cancer in October 2020 when she was 49.
The couple, with two children, had been married 23 years.
Anthony watched the show at night. He recalls: “I sobbed my heart out. I would go through that emotional turmoil Tony was going through, get all of that emotion out, and then start my day with Elaine, have a positive day with her.”
He, like all the men, sees himself in Tony. They admit, a little ruefully, it’s cathartic seeing him rudely voice his anger at the world.
Anthony adds: “He is angry, bitter, he has fallen out of love with the world. I would say they are emotions I still have.”
But, like him, they are all slowly inching forward with the lives their wives wanted them to relish.
Matthew and Anthony have tried new relationships.
Like Tony, they have struggled with guilt, but are learning it is okay. It was something their late wives discussed with them.
Matthew admits girlfriends have reacted differently.
Some have found it too difficult, others have been incredibly “caring and understanding”.
But he says: “It is hard for someone to date a widower.”
Anthony’s new partner Salma is a widow herself, which he believes helps the situation. They have been together for six months.
He admits: “There has massively been guilt.
“But it feels like there are four of us in the relationship, and for me that’s absolutely fine. I would never want her not to talk about her late husband, and I know she would not want me not to talk about Elaine.”
In the new series, he hopes Tony “softens” and embraces happiness.
It’s what all three men are trying to do. They feel it is the best way they can honour their wives.
*All three men are members of Widowed and Young (WAY), the only national charity in the UK for men and women aged 50 or under whose partner has died. For information visit widowedandyoung.org.uk
Do you have a story to sell? Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us direct 0207 29 33033.