Simon Thomas is a beloved face on British TV, having presented the popular children’s show Blue Peter for six years. So when he suffered a terrible tragedy, the hearts of the nation went out to him. He told his story to This Morning presenter Holly Willoughby, another well-loved British TV host – and everyone was touched to see that she couldn’t hold back her tears when talking to him.
This Morning is one of the most watched daytime shows in Britain – and an award-winning one at that. It’s won a National Television Award for Best Daytime/Live Magazine Show eight years in a row, starting from 2011. And Holly Willoughby’s presenting style has always been an empathetic one. In fact, she’s cried on-air multiple times when she’s heard harrowing stories from callers or guests.
Simon Thomas’ story was definitely harrowing – and perhaps all the more so because a generation of children grew up with him. From 1999 to 2005 British kids followed his adventures on Blue Peter, which included him climbing the tallest mountains of Africa and Western Europe, doing more than 40 sky dives, being part of a medal ceremony at the Commonwealth Games and even meeting the Queen.
But the most important thing that happened to Simon while he was at Blue Peter was probably meeting his wife, Gemma. Gemma worked for the Oasis Charitable Trust, which Simon had also worked at before leaving for a career in presenting. And when she saw the hot new Blue Peter star on television, she was immediately taken with him and resolved to try to meet him.
What’s more, that’s exactly what she did. When the Oasis Trust threw a party in 2001, Simon was invited as a former employee, and Gemma got to meet him. The pair were immediately smitten with each other, to boot, and so they began dating. Then in 2004 they got married in a church ceremony presided over by Simon’s father, and five years later their son, Ethan, was born.
After Simon left Blue Peter, he became a presenter on Sky Sports. But although he is a popular television personality – with a Twitter account boasting over 20,000 tweets and 214,000 followers – his private life had not previously attracted much media attention. Then on November 25, 2017, his family was suddenly thrust into the spotlight in a horrible way.
On that day, Simon sent out a tweet to his followers. “Today I am crushed with indescribable pain,” he wrote. “Just three days after falling ill with Acute [Myeloid] Leukemia, my dear wife Gemma passed away yesterday evening surrounded by her family and friends. If you are a prayer – pray for my boy Ethan. Eight years, precious and in bits. Thank you.”
The response from his fans was overwhelming – in a good way. A few weeks later, on December 9, Simon tweeted another message. It read, “Two weeks on since she went. I have only been able to read a fraction of the incredible outpouring of love and support for us on here in the painful days that followed. One day, with my boy, we will read them. For now, all I can say from the depths of my heart is thank you.”
Then after a little more time had passed, Simon decided to give his first interview. He went on This Morning on February 27 – but it wasn’t just to speak about how much his wife had meant to him. It was also to raise awareness of the disease that had killed her: the terrible illness leukemia.
Acute myeloid leukemia, usually shortened to AML, is a quickly progressing cancer of the blood cells. If caught early, it can be treated with chemotherapy, and in those cases a small amount of patients do survive. But unfortunately, it was far too late for Simon’s wife Gemma. She went to the doctors three times before they worked out what the problem was, and then nothing could save her.
Simon’s interview with Holly Willoughby and her co-presenter Phil Schofield was very difficult to watch. Simon explained how he had reacted after his wife passed away. “She died at quarter to six on the Friday night, and we left about an hour later,” he explained. “I came out [of] the hospital – I think I woke up every patient there because I just screamed. Because I’m a Christian, I’m a man of faith, I screamed at God. ‘Why? Why have you left my boy without a mum?’”
Then Thomas described how he had broken the news to his young son. He recalled, “I looked into his deep brown eyes and I just said, ‘Ethan, I’m really sorry, they couldn’t make mummy better… Mummy’s died.’ He collapsed onto the floor, and I just collapsed down there with him, I just held him… I would never ever wish that on my worst, worst enemy.” It was then that Holly began to cry.
“To have to tell your kid – he’s got no brothers or sisters, we went for IVF twice, we couldn’t have any more kids… He’s been dealt a really tough, tough blow in life… That’s what I find the most heartbreaking in the whole thing,” Simon went on. Holly continued to cry, meanwhile, and Phil handed her a handful of tissues from the box on the table. “You shouldn’t be having to be comforting me!” she told Simon.
But Simon was fine with that and told Holly twice that it was all right for her to cry. She certainly wasn’t the only one doing so: all over Britain people live-tweeted the interview and shared their thoughts on the sad situation. Model Nicola McLean tweeted Simon directly and called him “a brave, lovely man and dad.”
As reported by Digital Spy, Simon finished his interview by talking about how he was going to raise awareness of blood cancer “so that no other family has to suffer the heartbreak and pain that [he] and [his] son are going through.” With more knowledge, perhaps his wife could have pulled through – though Simon isn’t so sure. “Whether or not earlier diagnosis would have saved Gemma’s life, we will never know,” he said. “But I will always be left wondering whether [if] she had started chemotherapy earlier, her story might have been a different one.”
After the interview was done, the This Morning Twitter had a message for Simon: “Sending our love to @SimonThomasSky and his son Ethan – thanks for talking to us today Simon.” To which Simon wrote in response, “Thank you so much for being so lovely.” The next day he then left a longer message for everyone who had seen the interview and responded.
“Today has been extraordinary. I am beyond touched at the response to Gemma’s tragic story. Emotionally I am exhausted and can’t respond to everyone – all I can say is thank you,” he wrote. And it was unsurprising that he was incredibly emotional, though. Ever since his wife’s death, people had offered constant support and help.
Simon had been sharing a series of notes, which he called “snacknotes,” on social media. He had been creating them for his son every day and leaving them in his snack box, reminding him of his parents’ love and trying to make him feel better. Yet while this act of kindness was sweet enough in itself, it actually inspired another one.
A complete stranger sent Simon a whole box of notes, one for every day of the year. “A guy called Dan Ritchie, [whom] I have yet to meet (but will), had seen my notes for Ethan and felt I needed some too, to encourage me and help me keep going when I feel like giving up,” Simon wrote on Instagram on January 23. It was just one example of how brilliantly people had rallied round.
Simon and Ethan have been through something terrible, but at least they know they’re not alone in their grief. Holly Willoughby’s tears were just one example of how touched many have been by his story. In fact, with the help of hundreds of people, a fundraiser that Simon started for a cancer support charity has reached £14,550 ($20,215) as of March 2018. So, although the loss was heartbreaking, the reaction to it has undoubtedly been a positive one.