Nuala McKeever: 'You have to face grief and you have to get through it - there is no magic wand to make things better'
Things have changed dramatically for actress and comedienne Nuala McKeever since the death of her partner Mike Moloney over three years ago. Karen Ireland finds out how she is now using her anguish for something positive and is learning how to cope with the tears behind the laughter
Belfast's queen of comedy found out that life isn't always funny three-and-a-half years ago when her partner of four years Mike Moloney passed away suddenly. "I felt like I was in a washing machine and my life was being turned upside down and inside out," explains Nuala, who wrote columns for this newspaper at the time about her grief.
"I spoke about it and wrote about it at the time, but I am not sure I actually dealt with it."
"Time moves on, but you are left with the grief," adds Nuala, who has continued to work and act over the course of the last few years.
She has recently been working on her one-woman play - In The Window - which she took to Kansas, Mumbai and Edinburgh.
"I performed the play, in which I play four different characters, at the Edinburgh Festival, and friends who I was living with at the time asked me to go to festivals in India and the United States," she explains.
"It is the story of one woman who is thinking that she has nothing left to live for when someone breaks in through her window."
In typical Nuala humour, she adds: "The idea came to me one night when I was lying in bed and I thought, 'I am so lonely I would actually welcome a burglar for company and someone to talk to'. I then got up and wrote the idea down, and it was the makings of In The Window.
She is now getting ready to tour the province with the show in November.
"I am also starting to write a new show, although I have no idea yet what it will consist of," Nuala says. "Another project is creating a new website in which I promote another side of me - communication and presentation workshops.
"I am trying to bring to good use the skills I have learnt over the last 25-plus years as an observer, a writer and performer. All with a bit of humour, of course, otherwise it wouldn't be me.
"I learnt a lot after Mike died about the importance of taking time to work and also time for myself.
"Of course, I spent three months on the sofa drinking alcohol and eating junk food before I came to any of these conclusions.
"I realised that you have to face grief and you have to go through it. There is no way around it or a magic wand to make things better.
"Slowly, I started to listen to my body and the message from it was, 'Eat more salads and move about more'.
"I gave myself permission to get off the treadmill of life and I learnt how to meditate and find quiet time."
Nuala reveals the counselling she received from Cruse Bereavement Care was her saving grace.
"They taught me that you can run, but you can't hide from grief. There ain't no cure for the pain of losing someone you love as the songs say," she says.
"At the time I was drinking a lot and drinking to get out of my head as I didn't want to be in my own head space.
"Cruse taught me the reality of losing someone - that you can't fast forward to being better. You have to walk through it until you get better, and slowly I got better. I knocked the drink on the head and I stopped eating junk food. I started to get fitter.
"I was writing and I learnt how therapeutic and cathartic that was, so I decided to offer creative writing sessions.
"I am doing some with Cruse this month as part of Older Persons' Month and I will also be running some as part of the CS Lewis EastSide Arts Festival.
"I've learnt now that life is about taking chances and risks and living.
"We need to be gentle with each other. We tend to tell people to smile or to cheer up far too often. We have no idea what other people's circumstances are. They could be going through a bereavement, or a divorce or separation, a terminal illness or just received bad news. Someone telling them to cheer up is just adding to their problems."
She adds with an obvious heavy heart: "This morning I got out of the shower and just burst into tears. Sometimes we are not in control of our emotions. I've realised now that death is part of life.
"I've learnt a lot over the past four years - not to worry about the small things in life and I've had to learn how to relax.
"I would go on holiday and be lying on the beach and think, 'I am too hot I'll go into the sea'. Then when I got into the sea I would think, 'I need to be lying in the sun getting a tan'. Then I would think, 'I am too hot I need to get under the parasol', and then I'd think 'I didn't pay all this money to be lying in the shade'.
"It's nonsense really, but I needed to learn how to really relax and just enjoy life. The other day I was in a traffic jam and I felt all peaceful and relaxed and I thought, 'It doesn't matter where you are, it is about how you feel inside'."
Throughout the last few years much of Nuala's support and strength has come from family and friends. She is the youngest of seven siblings and is very close to her elderly mother, who will be 90 in November.
"Mum is doing great," says Nuala. "She lives in a granny flat at my sister's house in Belfast and I see her every other day. She is a wonderful lady and I have a lot to thank her for. She wrote a book a few years back about her stories from her childhood and some short stories she made up, called Juking The Beetle, which was a term for mashing potatoes back in her day.
"She likes to keep me going that she was published before me. I must get my creativity from her. Her party will be something else as the whole family will be getting together. With seven of us and the extended crew it is great craic when we all get together. "
Nuala adds that right now she is happily single after having been in a much-talked about relationship for some time. Does she want it to stay that way?
"Right now I am just happy with myself - I am enjoying things like yoga and meditation and doing my own thing," she replies.
"Being with myself takes up a lot of energy, you know. I want to take up set dancing as it is a good form of exercise."
She reveals that as well as her work with Cruse, she has become an ambassador for them, something she is very proud of and excited and passionate about. She is also hosting this year's Strictly Come Dancing event for them.
Of her appointment, director of Cruse NI Paul Finnegan said: "We are so delighted that she has agreed to take up the role of ambassador.
"Unfortunately, Nuala has experienced close loss, which has given her a unique understanding of the support Cruse offers to the bereaved. Her passion is so evident and honest. It is exactly what we need as the face of Cruse.
"Her enthusiasm and empathy on recent visits to meet groups of bereaved people was evident, and she gelled with them. We look forward to many exciting events and campaigns working together."
Many years on in the industry she has very much made her own, are there any roles she would like to play or wish she had played?
"Well I think it is a bit late for the young wispy woman role to come my way," Nuala jokes.
"But I have loved the roles and characters I have played along the way. One of my favourite roles was as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd alongside Peter Corry.
"I'm not the world's best singer, but I am okay when I am on stage with other people, and I'd love to do some more singing roles.
"I'd also love to play the character of Virginia Wolfe. I think that would be a real meaty one for me to play.
"I do think there are still roles out there for women of my age, and more and more middle-aged women are starting to go to the theatre and can identify with the characters. Mainstream television is definitely going the opposite way towards the younger and newer models.
"For years we are wishing ourselves younger when there should be a total change in attitude and we should recognise there is nothing wrong with growing older, and with age comes wisdom and acceptance.
"Older women have a lot more knowledge and a lot to celebrate, so I am embracing the stage I am at and am excited about what the future has in store."
Nuala's new website can be found at www.nualamckeever.com