Holly Matthews: 'Ross was such an extraordinary, big, quirky character... I miss him every single day and so do our girls'
Becoming a widow in her early-30s was a shattering blow, but as Holly Matthews tells Gabrielle Fagan, opening up about her grief helped in coping with her loss
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 actress 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.
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 (8) and Texas (6).
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"It was love at first sight for both of us and I moved in with him within a day 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.
"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.
"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."
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 explains.
"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 to 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. Visit beingwellfestival2019.eventbrite.co.uk