Published: 06:00, 14 August 2021
When Julien Lawton’s wife died aged just 38, he was left to bring up his three young children alone. Here, he tells Lydia Chantler-Hicks how he’s managed to be both mum and dad for nine years...
It’s 2012 and Julien Lawton is rummaging in a cupboard, frantically searching for a present to wrap before his seven-year-old son heads off to a party.
Such a conundrum is faced by many a parent - trying to work out where your partner has squirrelled away the birthday cards, gifts and ribbons.
But for Julien it signals something much deeper, as his wife, Sara, has died just days before.
Her death, aged just 38, has left him to single-handedly raise three children below the age of eight.
Wrapping a toy and sending his son off to a party is a small, but significant first step in his life as a single dad.
Twelve years before, he and Sara met by chance at a Maidstone nightclub.
Recalling the encounter this week, Julien, a detective inspector for Kent Police, said: “My friend dragged me out on a Thursday night.
“Nobody goes out on a Thursday night! But by pure chance Sara had been dragged there too, on a work do.
"She started a conversation, and it went from there.”
The couple soon fell in love and married, moving to Tankerton, near Whitstable, where they built a happy life together by the sea.
They had always wanted children, and soon had three - Harrison, Amelia, and Gracie.
Julien recalls happy days spent playing on the beach, picnicking outdoors and holidaying in camper vans.
“We were always doing lots of things with the children,” he said. “Our mantra was that we’re waterproof, so we’re fine in rain.”
But when their eldest child, Harrison, was just five, Sara was breastfeeding baby Gracie when she discovered a lump.
At the age of just 36, she was unexpectedly diagnosed with stage four breast cancer.
“The shock was numbing and complete,” recalls Julien.
Sara underwent gruelling chemotherapy and radiotherapy, as well as a double mastectomy.
“Sadly, just before Christmas 2011, after a year of treatment and a glimmer of stability, we received the horrific news that the cancer had spread to Sara’s brain,” said Julien, now 51.
Further radiotherapy and chemotherapy failed to stop the cancer’s spread.
“I was devastated by the loss of my beautiful wife, and had been suddenly left with three children under the age of seven...”
In 2012, the family took one final holiday together to Egypt.
“She kind of gave her last push during that holiday, doing things with the children,” said Julien. “She came back and she was just so tired.”
Shortly after returning home, Sara died in hospital, at the age of 38.
Julien was left grappling with not only his own grief, but with the prospect of filling the hole Sara’s death had left.
“I was devastated by the loss of my beautiful wife, and had been suddenly left with three children under the age of seven,” he said.
During Sara’s final months, the couple had been so preoccupied with staying positive, they hadn’t had the chance to discuss what would come next, and how Julien would face raising their children alone.
Sara had been a fun, loving, hands-on mum.
She worked at a charity that helped people battling addiction, but went part-time after having children, while Julien worked full-time.
As in many young families, she was the matriarch around whom the household orbited.
“She was the main driving force of the family,” said Julien. “She ran the home. She was incredibly close to the children. All the pictures of her since the children are born are all of her clasping a child.
“I went from being the dad who batted now and then and went out with the family on weekends, to being the main point. I had to really reconnect with them.”
Julien remembers the poignant moment that occurred the weekend after Sara’s death, when Harrison had been invited to a birthday party he was still keen to attend.
He recalled: “I suddenly thought ‘where does Sara keep stuff?’
“So I looked, and found the drawer where she kept cards, and in a cupboard she had all these presents she’d bought and put away as back-ups for children’s parties.
“From then on, it was kind of about reconnecting with the children, and creating a new normal.”
"There’s no Mrs Doubtfire who pops up and says ‘you know what Julien? I’ll take care of this'..."
While Sara’s absence was keenly felt, the three children grew used to their father taking on both parenting roles.
“They even survived my cooking!” Julien laughed. “I was determined to live our lives as Sara would have wanted.
“We kept Sara’s spirit alive by looking at photos and talking about her regularly.
“It’s a bit of a tough gig, because you don’t want to be living in the past but you need to remember the past, because she’s their mum. So it’s a balance.”
Learning to navigate the rollercoaster of parenthood alone has meant dealing with some of the trickier moments it can throw up.
“All those pivotal moments and things that normally Sara would have done, I now do,” said Julien.
“I took my daughter for her first bra fitting.
"There’s no magical auntie that turns up. There’s no Mrs Doubtfire who pops up and says ‘you know what Julien? I’ll take care of this.’
"Instead, when those things come up I just say to the children, ‘you’d be embarrassed to talk to mummy about this too. As embarrassing as it is, we have to get on with it’.
“It makes you stronger as a family. I’ve now got an extremely close relationship with my children.”
Julien says his older daughter, Amelia, has also helped out.
“I’ve never really been able to grasp how to tie proper ponytails,” he said.
“But even not long after Sara passed away, I remember Amelia doing Gracie’s hair for her.
“She was only five, but she just got on with it.”
As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child - and Julien credits his children’s schools of Wellesley House in Broadstairs and St Lawrence College in Ramsgate with helping him along the way.
“Both schools were fantastic,” said Julien. “Especially Wellesley. I knew I needed help, and they were really compassionate and kind and gave the children fantastic pastoral care.
“Half the reason why the children are the way they are is because of that school.
“I can’t thank them enough.”
Almost a decade has now passed since Sara’s death.
Harrison, Amelia and Gracie are now 16, 14, and 11, and are thriving.
“It’s amazing to see the adaptability of children,” said Julien. “The fact they’re happy, confident children is probably because I’m a reasonably happy, confident person, and vice versa.
“There isn’t the luxury of being negative in this family, and Sara’s death gave us all context.
“Nothing is as bad as what we all lived through, so we know whatever life throws at us we can face it down.”
Julien reflects that the family has been on a winding road to get to where they are today.
"Looking back now, I realise what a tremendous strain it all was," he said.
"Sara’s damning prognosis and ultimately losing her, the children's grief, Sara’s friends' and family's grief, adapting to the children and being solely responsible for all the decisions just when I needed her the most.
"If I were speaking to my younger self, I’d advise that all these feelings of hopelessness are normal..."
"I realise I left little to no room for myself, such was the enormity of the task ahead. I threw myself into work and my fitness as it was the only thing I could have some degree of control over.
"If I were speaking to my younger self, I’d advise that all these feelings of hopelessness are normal.
"There is no rule book and you will make mistakes. Take what help is offered and give yourself a break - it’s OK to find something funny and laugh without feeling guilty."
To other people who might be experiencing recent bereavement, Julien says: "There is hope. There is a future.
"Respect and acknowledge the past but life is for living and that only goes in one direction: forward.
“We go to Sara’s grave now and again, in Whitstable. At first I hated going - I despised it. And now I go, and it’s absolutely fine. It’s a positive.
“So it’s been a journey.
“When Sara was diagnosed, she was very resolute about it. She didn’t make a big song and dance - she just wanted to squeeze as much out of life as she could, while she could. That’s the kind of woman she was.
“I’m very lucky - the children have got her genes, so they’re kind of similar.
“You can’t keep living in the past and keep mourning, and Sara wouldn’t want us to. You’ve got to get on.
“Positiveness is the key in such dire situations. The life lesson is take help when it’s offered and don’t beat yourself up about the little things.
“Life very rarely goes to plan but with the right approach there’s a way forward.”
Above all, Julien says he feels grateful for the life he had with Sara, and the children she gave him.
“I was lucky to have met and fallen in love with an incredible woman,” he said. “We made some lifelong experiences and were fortunate enough to have three happy and healthy children.
“I would do it all again if it meant having that life, despite the heartache.”
Holding On, Letting Go
Julien is keen to raise awareness of charity Holding On Letting Go (HOLG), which helped support his children after Sara’s death.
All three have attended non-residential weekends held by the charity, which provides youngsters across Kent with free bereavement support.
“I had real reservations before they went,” said Julien. “I thought ‘do we really want to go back there again? Do we really want to talk about Sara in that way when we’ve already been through it?’ But it was great.
“They made memory boxes, and on the last day they could write a note for the person they’ve lost and attach it to a balloon, and off the balloon goes.
“I was in tears watching it, but they really saw it as a positive experience.
“I am so pleased I found the charity. It has brought comfort and joy to my children and my family and I know Sara would be happy.”
In a bid to raise funds for the charity and awareness of the help it can provide bereaved children, Julien and his eldest children took on the gruelling Three Peaks Challenge last month.
Over three days he, Harrison and Amelia climbed the UK’s three highest mountains - Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike, and Snowdon - raising almost £2,800 for HOLG.
Julien said: “It was tiring and the weather was terrible at times but we did it!”
To donate, visit the family's Justgiving page.