They were middle-aged when they met and fell madly in love and for five blissful years they had a fairytale marriage, travelling the world together.
It was the first marriage for Oliver* and the third for Stephanie*. She had a daughter, Zoey*, from a previous marriage and he made an effort to include the young woman in their lives.
But in January this year, Oliver’s happy existence was turned upside down.
He lost Stephanie (50) to Covid-19 and in the days that followed his mom, sister-in-law and Stephanie’s mom all died of Covid-related complications.
Oliver (48), who’d also been hit hard by the virus, was too ill to attend the joint memorial service for his wife and mother-in-law. His only comfort was that he’d received his wife’s ashes, which he placed on her bedside table.
“I’d often have conversations with her there,” he says. “When I walked past, I’d touch the urn and say, ‘Hello, bubba.’ It helped me cope.”
Not long after, Zoey (25) moved in with him, saying it would help her to “feel closer to her mom”.
But in April the bottom fell out of Oliver’s world again when he claims the young woman stole her mother’s ashes.
The grieving widower had to lodge an urgent application with the North Gauteng high court in Pretoria to force Zoey to return the ashes.
“When the ashes were gone, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t work properly. Basically, I’d become depressed. “I believe Zoey knew that was the thing that would hurt me the most.”
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Oliver and Stephanie were introduced by his cousin in October 2012 and tied the knot three years later.
“We understood each other because of our shared Anglican background. I was always focused on my career until I met Stephanie,” says Oliver, a procurement manager who works for a construction company.
“We packed a lot into our marriage of five years. We went abroad quite a few times. We started in Mozambique, then Thailand, then the United States.
“We were happy. She was the love of my life. We used to say, ‘If only we’d met each other sooner in life.’ But we’d also say that everything happens for a reason.”
Oliver says he didn’t have any issues with Zoey while he was married to her mom.
“But with them, it was an up-and-down relationship, especially because Zoey didn’t always agree with her mom’s rules. Zoey decided to go and live with her grandmother.”
He and Stephanie had a good life together, Oliver says. “We had the same goals and we just wanted to make each other happy and have a happy home.”
When the pandemic hit last year, they both started working from home – Stephanie worked in banking – and Oliver will always treasure the extra time they spent together during lockdown.
“When I made lunch, Stephanie would often say she wasn’t hungry. But when I came back with the food, she’d politely pick and choose whatever she wanted on my plate. She always said I was the best colleague ever.”
As lockdown restrictions were relaxed near the end of last year, Oliver returned to the office while Stephanie continued to work from home.
Before travelling on 23 December to Hermanus in the Western Cape for a holiday, the couple said goodbye to family members. Shortly after Christmas Oliver’s mom, his brother’s wife and mother-in-law were all admitted to hospital with Covid.
He and Stephanie also started feeling ill and feverish.
They cut their holiday short and returned home, then on 2 January both had themselves tested for the virus.
Early on the morning of 3 January, Stephanie was hospitalised after she began struggling to breathe.
“I couldn’t be there to calm her down,” Oliver says, recalling how anxious Stephanie was when the paramedics took her away.
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Later that morning she had to be put on a ventilator, like his mom, her mom and his sister-in-law had been days earlier.
At about 5pm that day the hospital called him: things weren’t looking good and he and Zoey were told to come urgently. When they arrived, they were told Stephanie had already passed away.
The following morning, his brother let him know their mom had died, and a day later his sister- and mother-in-law also died just hours apart.
“They all died alone,” Oliver says.
It was too much for him – his wife’s ashes became his only comfort and sitting beside the urn he could pray and feel close to Stephanie.
“We had so many plans. After everything was over, we wanted to go back to America. Sometimes it strikes me again: she’s not here. And that’s such a huge shock because how can someone who was so vibrant now just be gone?”
Soon after Zoey moved in, her relationship with Oliver began to sour. Oliver says because Stephanie didn’t have a will, he and Zoey would have to share her estate equally.
“Zoey just couldn’t understand that. She wanted everything, including our house and her mom’s car.”
Zoey left the house without telling him she was leaving and cut off all contact with him.
Then one day in April, Oliver knelt alongside his bed next to his wife’s ashes to pray, as he did every day.
But when he shifted the urn, it felt lighter. Lifting the lid, he discovered the bag of ashes was gone.
“I knew immediately it was Zoey. I begged, pleaded, asked nicely for her to return them and other people tried to help too. “Eventually I had to take the legal route.”
You contacted Zoey about Oliver’s allegations but she declined to comment.
Oliver’s lawyer, Martin-Dean Hayward, says Oliver and Zoey were eventually able to reach a settlement over Stephanie’s estate.
But Oliver and his legal team had no choice but to lodge an urgent application at the high court to get Zoey to return the ashes.
“It became urgent because it appeared she’d do with the ashes as she pleased,” Hayward says.
He adds the judge ruled the application was urgent and ordered the ashes be returned, which Zoey did at the legal firm’s offices the next day.
In terms of the court order, once Covid restrictions have eased and overseas family are able to be present, Oliver must inform Zoey and other family members of the interment ceremony so they can all place the ashes in a niche at a cathedral where everyone can pay their respects and always go back to “visit” Stephanie.
Oliver is relieved it’s all over now.
“I can even sleep better now that the ashes are back and I don’t have to stress about it anymore,” he says. “I’m able to get up again, to go to work and to do things. I want to celebrate Stephanie’s life.”
*Not their real names.