Holly Matthews: ‘You can be devastated and happy at the same time’

When Holly Matthews’ husband, Ross Blair, died from a brain tumour two years ago, she was determined about the path she’d take.

“Losing my best friend, soulmate and dad to my kids is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” says the 34-year-old actor and mum-of-two.

“But instead of focusing on what I’ve lost, I’ve chosen  to be happy,” adds Matthews, who is now pouring her energy into helping others dealing with bereavement and other life challenges.

Ross Blair with daughters, Brooke (left) and Texas (right) (Holly Matthews/PA)
Ross Blair with daughters Brooke (left) and Texas (right) (Holly Matthews/PA)

Geordie-born Matthews began her career aged 11, in children’s drama Byker Grove, later landing roles in Waterloo Road, The Bill, Doctors and Casualty.

Everything changed in 2014 though, when her husband received the shattering diagnosis of a rare grade four primitive neuroectodermal tumour (PNET).

Blair, the son of ex-Aston Villa and Coventry City footballer Andy Blair, underwent two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiotherapy in his four-year battle with the illness, but died aged 32 on July 29, 2017.

“Ross was such an extraordinary, big, quirky character. I miss him every single day and so do our girls,” says Matthews, speaking from her home in Coventry, where she lives with her daughters, Brooke, eight, and Texas, six.

“It was love at first sight for both of us and I moved in with him within a day of of our meeting,” she adds, recalling how they met. “We were together 10 years and rarely spent a day apart. I never expected to be a widow at 32, bringing up two little girls on my own, but there are some people who’ve never had that love and connection, so I feel grateful I had it for as long as I did.”

As soon as her husband was diagnosed, Matthews shelved her showbiz career so she could devote herself to her family, and instead eventually focused on what had been a long-term interest in wellbeing and self-development coaching.

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There are moments in my life when I just take stock. I look at my life and I wonder how I have got here. Our journeys are so individual, yet we all want the same thing, really. We all just want to have a nice life, that brings us joy and happiness and maybe leave the world a little brighter for our presence in it. I have high self esteem, I am confident (regardless of all my normal human insecurities, that I have to tell to shut up every once and a while) and I have no problem in saying what I am good at, but the truth is I think my biggest talent is helping others to understand that they have it within them to create a life they love. My role is to show you how you can take the lead and change your life for the better. I might shine a mirror, I may lend you my belief in you for a while. but ultimately what excites me is watching you suddenly grasp that your life can be whatever you want it to be and then making it so. This week I am lucky enough to meeting a new bunch of you at my workshop The Happy Me Project and talking you through some tools to help you take charge of your life. If you want to come along (it's in Coventry on Saturday 6th October) there are still a few tickets left but these WILL go. Come along for the day and see where it leads you. Click my bio link or GET TICKETS in my bio. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-happy-me-project-live-coventry-tickets-49342011284 Holly x #21daysmile

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“Acting’s a tough profession and I’d always been interested in learning strategies to give me resilience to cope with the inevitable rejections and knock-backs,” she says with a smile. “Before Ross became ill, I’d already  realised those [things] could help other people deal with life in general, and I found a passion for teaching and coaching.”

While her husband was ill, Matthews shared her emotional experience via writing and video blogs, which she says helped her in some ways during Blair’s traumatic final weeks in a hospice. “Talking about what I was thinking and feeling was an outlet and really helped me,” she says.

After he died, her honest and soul-baring descriptions of her grief and how she was coping – including a TV appearance on the Lorraine show – had such an overwhelming public response that she decided to set up positive mindset workshops, as part of The Happy Me Project she founded.

Matthews’ down-to-earth, practical advice, empathy and straight-talking have won her a big following, and she’s now set to speak at The Being Well Festival 2019 in Coventry on October 24.

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Well this gift really touched us. Ross and I met on a promotional job for @pimmsgb in 2008. We pretty much never left each others side since. We still have the hoodies we wore on that job and beautiful Ang who sent this cushion had also kept her own and has made it into a cushion for us. Ang is extra special in our journey too, because she was the one, that after Ross told her he liked me, told him to do something about it and we are still together today. That time changed both of our lives forever and I'm so grateful for it all. This is an extremely thoughtful gift, Ross loved it too and he really smiled when we spoke about that time. Thank you darling. #pimmsoclock #pimms08 #pimnstour #love #family #happiness #strength

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“I vowed that I couldn’t let this tragedy break me,” she recalls. “I was determined to work hard to seek a positive in this awful negative, for my sake and for the girls.

“It doesn’t mean I pretend the tough stuff isn’t happening. It means looking the tiger in the eye, facing life head-on, and choosing happiness regardless. When he was ill, we focused on living in the now, not thinking about what might happen in the future, which is a very healthy way to be.”

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Well, today is the first day I have really taken a breath and looked at the thousands of messages I have received and you are good people. I don't think I have to really go into how painful right now is, because it's fairly f*cking obvious, but I have the very best people surrounding me and looking out for me, so I know I will be OK (not now, but eventually) The girls are also OK and just the most incredible little people in the world. The The Myton Hospices total is over £10,000 which wells me up and I'm so glad. To get things clear about Ross' funeral, for those of you who wish to attend it will be held next Wednesday 9th August, at 3.45pm Nuneaton Crematorium, Eastboro Way, Nuneaton CV11 6WZ What I will ask though is that you understand that there will be very few seats and those seats have nearly all been allocated to family and very close friends. These people will have been told they have a seat and we have had to be brutal about who they are given to, because there aren't many seats. I'm fairly sure you are all understanding and intelligent enough to understand this anyway and the doors will be open, with speakers outside, so you will all be included regardless. We also ask that you wear a football shirt if you are attending (Ross' wishes) as long as they aren't Sunderland or Sheffield United. We want to make this a time to celebrate the amazing person my husband was (not yet comfortable with the past tense sh*t) and cry our bloody hearts out at what we have all lost. My beautiful girls will be by my side and completely and utterly supported. I cannot possibly respond to everyone right now but at some point I will take time out to read through everything. I just need to take things in bitesize chunks and breath. I know you care though, you're good people. x @mytonhospices @covtelegraph @dailymirror

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She doesn’t disguise how hard the last two years have been. “The first year was a blur but in the second, the reality that the person really isn’t coming back really hits you,” she says.

“Of course, I cry sometimes. It’s particularly hard for me not being able to share with Ross the girls’ milestones – like them learning to swim or ride bikes – but me and the girls also laugh a lot too.”

Unhelpful, she believes, are perceptions of “how you should be” when you’re bereaved.

“All I could find online in my searches on grief and bereavement was the prospect of being broken and crushed by it,” she says.

“It’s as though you should only wear black and cry all the time. I opened up about my journey to show we all grieve in our own very different ways – and that’s OK. You can be happy – but being happy doesn’t mean you’re fine. You can be devastated and happy at the same time – that’s grief. ”

Her inspiration is her late-husband’s lack of self-pity and courage in the face of his illness, she explains. “We were determined not to feel sorry for ourselves while he was ill, and I don’t feel sorry for myself now. I know Ross wouldn’t have wanted us to stop living.

“Loving him helps me cope with the pain and carry on living life to the full, as he would have wanted. So I put on make-up, laugh, move forward, and have fun times with the girls.”

She takes comfort from the fact that throughout Blair’s illness, they were completely honest with each other about their feelings.

“He was only given a 50/50 chance of surviving more than five years when he was diagnosed, so we knew what we were facing and Ross was realistic that the cancer would kill him,” she says.

“We talked everything through, so I have no need to look back and think, ‘I wish I’d said that’, or, ‘What would he say or think about that?’.”

She finds comfort in drawing on a ‘bank of memories’ of good times they shared before his illness and during it. His tumour remained stable for the first two years after  he responded well to treatment initially, but in May 2017, after a family holiday in the Caribbean, he suffered a seizure and deteriorated rapidly.

“Telling the girls shortly before Ross died that we were losing him was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Matthews. “He was a wonderful dad and is still a constant presence in our lives. We talk about him all the time and look at videos and photos, and they’re coping really well. They’re really cool little people,” she adds proudly.

Meditating daily, as well as taking time to think about the things she’s grateful for, and running, practising yoga and going to the gym, all help her stay fit mentally and physically.

Her priority is to bring their daughters up just as she and Blair had planned – to be happy, confident individuals. “I try to gently instil in them that we really do have to  appreciate people while they’re here, and to enjoy moments because nothing – good or bad – stays the same forever. It’s what’s helped me get through this,” says Matthews.

“My obsession with wanting to help people has grown even stronger since Ross has gone, and it helps me make sense of it all.

“I don’t profess to be an oracle on anything. I just offer a straight-talking view of the world and a bag of mental tools that help me, and maybe other people can use when life is tough and they’re not feeling great.”

Holly Matthews will be at the Being Well Festival at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena on Thursday, October 24, and aims to promote happier, healthier lives by educating people about their health and general wellness. The event is free but visitors need to book tickets. Visit beingwellfestival2019.eventbrite.co.uk

Photo of Holly Matthews by Kayleigh Pope.

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