What Losing Our First Spouses To Cancer Has Taught Us About Love

As part of our Blended Family Friday series, each week we spotlight a different stepfamily to learn how they successfully blended their two families. Our hope is that by telling their stories, we'll bring you closer to blended family bliss in your own life! Want to share your own story? Email us at divorce@huffingtonpost.com.

Joe Walko and Kim Brunson know all too well that life doesn't always go as planned. Both of their spouses died young from cancer, leaving each widowed and left to raise their children on their own. "We were both broken and befuddled before meeting each other," Joe said.

But more than a year ago, Kim found herself on Joe's blog, poring over his essays on loss and single parenting. Not long after that fateful click, they met in person and quickly fell in love. A new blog -- Broken To Blended -- charts the progress they've made in bringing their two sets of kids together.

Below, Joe takes some time out from moving preparations (the family just bought their first house together!) to tell us more of their story.

Hi Joe. Want to introduce us to your family?
Kim and I have four kids all together: Claire, 19, a freshman just off to college; Emily, 15, a sophomore in high school and a volleyball player; Jake, 14, a freshman in high school and a football player; and Trevor, 11, who's in the sixth grade and a baseball player.

(Photo by Kathleen Vargo)

How long have you and Kim been together?
We have been together well over a year, but it’s the amazing story of how we got together that is most noteworthy. Kim and I both lost our spouses of 19 years to cancer within five days of each other. I started a blog, which Kim started reading; we soon realized we had much to share, and rather amazingly, we learned that our spouses are buried close to each other. We then actually met in a bereavement support group, and the rest is history.

What are some of the biggest challenges of blended family life?
Just making the initial decision to blend was full of challenges! It was all hard in the beginning: Dating each other, introducing the kids, telling our extended families about us moving forward. Now we have to wrestle with developing a set of rules to live by, deciding on discipline and parenting strategies and managing all these very different expectations and personalities. We're just trying to figure out how four kids, three cats, two dogs and a snake will all get along under one roof!

What’s the best part about being in a blended family?
We just took Claire off to college, which was an emotionally draining experience for all. It was made a bit easier because we shared the experience. Kim and I each bring different, complementary strengths to the family and we are learning to let the other lead when appropriate. We are better people together, we bring out the best in each other, and we are certainly better parents together. We are looking forward to tackling all of life’s challenges and opportunities together.

Mostly, though, we are looking forward to big family dinners again, something that never seemed possible just two years ago. Also, we're very excited to be less-stressed-out parents. The kids are all getting older and won't be at home much longer -- that time to just live will be great! And Kim says she's looking forward to never having to shovel snow again with three boys in the house.

How do you and Kim deal with stress?
Alone, we don't deal with stress very well. Kim and I both yell and scream when the challenges and stresses start to overwhelm us. Together, we bring a division of labor that lessens the duties, and most importantly, we share a calmness and peace together that grounds us and spills over into our interactions with the kids.

Whenever the stress becomes too much, Kim and I turn to each other, escaping for a bit for some alone time in each other’s arms before facing the kids. Getting outdoors, regular exercise, quiet places and our prayer grotto and meditation help reduce the stress, too.

The kids all have different stress coping mechanisms: Jake turns to video games and sports, Claire to her art and Emily and Trevor need their quiet time -- or they occasionally watch some trash TV. But hopefully now we can all turn to each other as well.

What's your advice for other families struggling to blend?
First and foremost, follow your heart! Life is short, it is precious, listen to what your heart tells you; your soul will rejoice, and peace and happiness will follow. It may not be easy, but it will good. Don’t be afraid to work hard and take the right risks.

Second, Kim and I recognize we have been given a second chance at real love. We understand some never even get one shot, let alone a second, so maybe we appreciate this a little more than most –- it is our most precious gift.

Because we realize this, we pledged to be completely honest with each other. Full honesty means that have to recognize that we will change, and maybe grow in different directions, maybe even apart. We certainly do not anticipate that -- but we are not afraid of it, either. The only failure we are afraid of is not listening to our hearts, and not taking this once in a lifetime chance.

So we will give this relationship and this blended family our all -- all of our hearts and all of our souls, for ourselves and for each other, for these beautiful children, and for the incredible gift of a second chance.

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