Supreme Court pension victory woman Denise says: 'Lenny's tragic death has ultimately helped so many people'
Denise Brewster and Lenny McMullan had been together for 15 years and were busy planning many more.
It was Christmas Eve 2009, they had just got engaged and were talking about having children; the natural next step for a devoted, loving couple with their lives seemingly stretching ahead of them. Denise remembers thinking at the time that things couldn't get any better. Tragically, she was right.
On Boxing Day, instead of reflecting on yet another romantic Christmas with Lenny, a distraught, stunned Denise was preparing for his funeral.
Her dreams from only a few hours earlier had been replaced by a nightmare event she could never have envisaged.
Lenny was gone for ever. Just like that. While Denise was away visiting relatives, the 43-year-old suffered a fatal fall in the home the couple had owned and shared for the past decade.
For most people, having your world suddenly turned on its head like that is an unimaginable scenario, and kind friends did their best to assure a grieving Denise that things would eventually get better.
Yet up until yesterday, they were wrong.
Grief ultimately morphed into frustration and anger when the Coleraine woman, then 35, learned that she was to be denied access to payments from her late partner's pension.
But it wasn't the money, but rather the acute sense of unfairness - and the knowledge that she wasn't the only one in this position - that drove Denise to seek legal redress and an ultimate, historic victory in her battle to have benefits (or a 'survivor's pension') extended automatically to unmarried, bereaved partners.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph just moments after the conclusion of the landmark case - which will have seismic repercussions for countless families throughout the UK - an emotional Denise told of her relief at the end of a long and difficult journey spanning most of a decade.
"When I first started this action it was just about myself and Lenny. His death was tragic... the circumstances were tragic," she said.
"As time went on, however, I realised that this didn't only affect us; it affected thousands of other families who, like me, had been paying into these pension schemes, but weren't availing of what the actual scheme was set up for.
"It's only been a short time since the Supreme Court ruling and I still can't really believe that I've won.
"I am so grateful to everyone who has helped and supported me in any way over the last few years.
"I've done my best and, thankfully, we ended up getting the result that we wanted."
A tearful Denise said that if one good thing had emerged from Lenny's sudden and tragic death at a relatively young age, it's that so many others will benefit from that heartbreaking series of events seven years ago.
"In the end, Lenny's death has helped so many other families, and I'm particularly comforted by that thought," she explained.
"I know that Lenny would be happy that he has somehow helped other people because that is the type of guy he was.
"Lenny always said that we had met for a reason and, although I didn't really know what he meant at the time, I somehow feel that maybe this was it."
Amid the joy, there is also relief for Denise, now 42, that winning the case means she is no longer facing the prospect of re-mortgaging the house that holds so many fond memories for her.
"Lenny proposed to me in that house; he surprised me by going down on bended knee," the leisure centre supervisor and swimming teacher recalled. "We picked the ring together - a gorgeous one with three diamonds. When we came out of the shop that day there was snow everywhere.
"It was such a perfect, white Christmas. It was so special. When we got the ring, Lenny told me to look after it because his heart was in it, so when I look at it now it's more valuable than anything that I could ever own. I'll keep his love in my heart.
"I still wear it on my other hand. Sometimes I just get a glimpse of it and it makes me smile - it reminds me of him.
"It also helps me to remember that life does go on - but life with Lenny was a big part of it and it's something that I always hold on to."
Lenny - whom Denise described as "easygoing, fun-loving and full of life" - was, like her, excited at the prospect of having children.
"That was the plan," she said. "I was trying to get the house done up, ready to bring a child into our home.
"We decided to get engaged first and it was all perfect. When we came out of the jewellers, Silent Night was being played over the Tannoy and we were so excited.
"Lenny said, 'Can you believe it? Life doesn't get any better than this. This is as good as it gets'. We both thought that."
Breaking down in tears, Denise admitted it was extremely difficult to relive those memories, especially the last time she saw him alive on Christmas Day, when the conversation turned unexpectedly fatalistic.
She had gone to Lurgan to have dinner with her siblings and her mum, Patricia (78), and dad, Patrick, who was battling cancer and, by a cruel twist of fate, would himself pass away on Boxing Day of the following year, aged 80.
"When I left that morning, Lenny told me that from now on every Christmas would always belong to him and me," she continued.
"For some reason, I told him I wished I had married him sooner and I wished we'd had children sooner and he agreed. The conversation we had was very strange. I told him everything that I wanted to that day.
"I kissed him and told him that I loved everything about him. I hugged him and I don't know what came over me, but I said, 'Lenny I don't want to let go of you. This feels like the last time I'm ever going to hold you.
"But he said, 'Sure, I'll see you in a couple of days'. With that, we kissed and told one another how much we loved each other. That was the last time I saw him.
Denise tried to phone Lenny from Lurgan and when she couldn't get through she sent one of his friends to check the house, where he discovered he had fallen and died. Police officers told her the dreadful news.
"Those days were hard enough but when they told me that, as a cohabitee and not a wife, I couldn't get the pension, that was the last straw," she said.
"The court case has put me through an awful lot of stress, but my family, friends and work colleagues have been great.
"I haven't let it control my life or ruin my life, but it has always been hanging over my head for the last seven years."
Ahead of the outcome, Denise booked "an adventure" to Mongolia by herself, where she plans to go horse riding and mountain biking.
"Win or lose, I decided to take a leap of faith because I knew that if I lost the cost would be astronomical and I was going to have to remortgage this house," she explained.
"When my dad was lying on his death bed, he was still giving me advice - and he made me promise to fight this to the end."
If the late Mr Brewster and Lenny are watching, they'll know she did.