The QT

Tuesday 23 July 2024

Reimagining a life after unimaginable loss

Jill Halfpenny releases her extraordinary memoir this week. Sam Wonfor spoke to her over a teapot (or two) in Tynemouth about finding a good life after loss
Jill Halfpenny has written her memoir, A Life Reimagined. Credit: Rachell Smith

On January 18, 2017, Jill Halfpenny unknowingly kissed her partner, Matt, goodbye for the last time.

In an utterly relatable scene from households everywhere, she was peeing on an ovulation stick while Matt was getting ready to leave for an early morning gym class.

Less than an hour later, Jill was awoken by someone banging on the door and saw she had 17 missed calls on her phone. Matt had suffered a cardiac arrest and paramedics were fighting to resuscitate him on the gym floor. He never regained consciousness and died the next day aged just 43.

As doctors battled to save Matt’s life, Jill called her Mam (Maureen) who, tragically, would know exactly what she was going through.

Thirty-eight years earlier, Jill’s dad, Colin left the family home in Gateshead to play football. He never came home after collapsing with a fatal heart attack on the pitch. He was 36 and had three young daughters. Jill was four – the youngest; Paula was seven and Nicola was 10.

These two devastating and eerily echoing losses frame Jill’s memoir, A Life Reimagined in which the North East actress shares her journey through the unimaginable grief she was left with after losing Matt, and how that grief helped her process the shattering loss she had suffered as a four-year-old child.

Released today (June 20), the book is about as far away from a celebrity memoir as you can get.

If you’re going to be honest about something like grief, and you’re going to be honest about where it’s taken you, you need to share the fuller picture.

Jill Halfpenny

While Jill’s successful TV and stage career punctuates the narrative – you can create a rough timeline based on mentions of the likes of Coronation Street, Eastenders, Strictly, Chicago and Dark Money  – these are almost incidental references in the midst of a searingly honest, intimate and utterly human account of grief, dovetailed with a genuine generosity of spirit.

Having moved through some of the darkest times any of us can imagine, Jill wants to share what she has learned, which in its simplest terms offers a warm and comforting assurance that there is a way through the most crippling grief; you can start to feel hopeful about life again; and even on your worst days, there is joy to be found.

“I wanted to share what had worked for me and people can see if they can find something among those things which works for them,” says Jill as we share a pot of peppermint tea while the staff at Woods in Tynemouth conduct a café-wide search for another one.

“I had been writing it in my head in the car for quite a long time… I was thinking about it in terms of a book, but just not doing anything about it, more just rattling onto myself,” she smiles.

“Obviously, when I did get the book deal, I panicked, and decided it was just going to be a small handbag book… originally it was only going to be a kind of manual, but my editor rightly convinced me that I needed to give people more of the context – how did I get to these places in the first place?”

I’ve been writing about Jill for more than 20 years and following her career for longer than that.*

*This could give the impression I’ve made it my life’s work to stalk her. I have not, but it’s always a delight to spend time in her company.

Jill has spent more than 30 years gracing our TV screens. Credit: Rachell Smith

The first time I saw her was in a rough cut for the first episode of a new children’s TV series my telly-making Mum was developing called Byker Grove. I think I still may have the VHS somewhere…

Jill played one of the ensemble leads, Nicola Dobson. It was her first TV job following years of “dancing and showing off”, performing on stage at the then Newcastle Playhouse in productions like Sweeney Todd and The Silver Chair.

Four years on Byker Grove marked the beginning of a 30+ year career (so far) which has seen Jill become a regular and much-loved fixture on our TVs as well as on stages from the West End to the Edinburgh Fringe and everywhere in between.

Take this year to date. Jill – who moved back up to the North East during the pandemic and settled in Tynemouth – has starred in Channel 5 drama, The Cuckoo; and Alibi crime thriller, The Red King. She has just wrapped on another one for Channel 5, The Feud with Larry Lamb; and she also put in a month-long turn in Shelagh Delaney’s iconic play, A Taste of Honey at the Manchester Exchange.

Yet despite having clocked up roles and trophy-winning performances in some of the nation’s favourite small screen and theatre staples, Jill has broadly managed to keep her personal life out of the public arena.

Indeed someone who has been writing about her for two decades had much to learn from A Life Reimagined*.

*I’m talking about things I didn’t know about Jill here… we haven’t got room to get into what I’ve already taken from the book as someone who regularly finds herself falling into in a puddle of grief while trying to sidestep it.

I didn’t know she ditched drama school in her final year to take a role in a play called Like A Virgin; I didn’t know anything about any of her relationships aside from the fact of her former marriage to fellow North East actor Craig Conway, with whom she shares her 16-year-old son, Harvey; and I had no idea that for the past 11 years, she’d been in recovery from a damaging relationship with alcohol.

I wonder how she feels about revealing so much of herself after maintaining her privacy for so long.

“Obviously it makes me feel really vulnerable; I feel quite exposed,” she says. “People will know some of my inner thoughts and feelings, and I’m not the type of person who likes the idea of people knowing lots about me… but I think if you’re going to be honest about something like grief, and you’re going to be honest about where it’s taken you, you need to share the fuller picture.

“I felt what I put in the book was necessary and important to make people understand… it did feel strange saying it all out loud for the audio book, though,” she adds.

“I hope that it’s helpful, I hope somebody finds comfort in it. But it does feel weird that people will know those things about me. That’s why it had to be the right time for me when I wrote it.

“A year after Matt died; two years after Matt died, that was not the right time for me. I was in no position to do that, but now I feel more robust, and while I know it’s scary and I feel vulnerable, I’m okay with that feeling.”

Credit: Rachell Smith

As well as offering support to individuals trying to cope with their own grief – and some invaluable signposts for friends of people dealing with loss – Jill is also hoping that the book helps start a wider conversation about society’s attitudes to it.

“One of the things I’m very passionate about is why people don’t feel they can open up and talk about the things we do when we’re grieving,” she says.

“I think that’s maybe part of the problem… why people struggle so much in grief, because all the little behaviours that come with it, people do in secret.”

Grief which happens behind figurative closed doors is something the 48-year-old knows a lot about.

Understandably given her age at the time, her own memories of losing her Dad are muddled, but it’s only been relatively recently that she’s been able to fill in some of the gaps with her Mam and sisters.

As she says in the book: “There has never been a time when we have all sat down to piece it [that day] together…”

Jill and her sisters with their dad, Colin. Image courtesy of Jill Halfpenny

After her Dad died, there was only one photo of him in the house. Later, her Mam admitted to her that she felt if the girls weren’t reminded of him, it would be easier to live without him.

“I don’t have much memory of that time, but even in the years to come, it was like, ‘where’s the grief, where’s the pain, where’s the sorrow?’ Oh, it’s hidden. It’s hidden from me.”

Throughout the book, and during our chat, Jill is very clear that there is no blame to see here. It was the late seventies and her Mam was a widow at 33 with three young daughters to bring up – and her sisters were little kids too.

“I’m not in any way thinking that I’m blaming them, or thinking they dealt with it so badly and I’m angry. It’s more like accepting that we dealt with it in a way that probably wasn’t helpful for any of us, so let’s just try and do something different moving forward.”

I realised that a lot of my unhappiness was just my need to control outcomes. A lot of that was to do with having lost my Dad, and thinking that no one was going to be there for me

Jill Halfpenny

When Matt died, Jill says she “made a promise very early on that I was going to walk straight through the centre of my grief. No shortcuts and definitely no avoidance. I needed to do what I had not been able to do with Dad. I wanted to feel it all.

“I also knew it was important that Harvey understood,” she adds. “He’d lost Matt too. He was about 10 so very much old enough to be totally aware of what’s happening, but also still just 10, so it was still weird and confusing.

“I just kept saying to him, ‘I’m not okay, but I will be okay’ and making sure he knew even if I was crying and sad, and finding a day really difficult, that doesn’t mean to say I’m not going to get up tomorrow, that I’m not going to be able to do all the things that I usually do… I can do those things, I just can’t do them with the same amount of lightness at the moment.”

In the years between her first AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting and her first date with Matt, Jill had started having therapy – something she says she is incredibly grateful for.

“When I started to do much more of a deep dive in therapy, that set me up massively for what I had to face,” she says.

Jill and Matt. Image courtesy of Jill Halfpenny

“Without sounding like cliche, I’ve been on that journey pretty much my whole life, like searching for answers. What is it? Why do I not feel completely at ease? Why do I feel empty when I get what I thought I wanted?

“Maybe about a year into being in recovery, I realised that a lot of my unhappiness was just my need to control outcomes. A lot of that was to do with having lost my Dad, and thinking that no one was going to be there for me, no one could save me, no one could help me. I had to do it all myself.

“I had to realise that I can do all the work, and I can do all the training, and I can put in all the effort, but once I’ve done that, I can’t control the actual outcome.

“I can’t control the person that presses the button or says you’ve got the part, or here’s the money, or there’s the house or there’s the boyfriend. All I can do is be whatever version of me I want to be that I’m proud of… and after that, the next bit is out of my control.

Jill and Matt in New York. Image courtesy of Jill Halfpenny

“Thank God that when I lost Matt, I felt I was already pretty evolved… although of course you could never ever say you were prepared to deal with anything like that.”

In the aftermath of Matt’s death, Jill worked and walked through her grief in many different ways including realising the healing power of walking, of meditation, of talking, of writing a gratitude journal and of taking intensive time out at a grief retreat.

“I recognise that the help I got isn’t available to everyone and I feel very grateful that I was in a position to access it,” says Jill. “But I hope that there are things in the book that everyone could try for themselves.”

The Gratitude Journal would be a good example, in which you commit to writing 10 things at the end of every day that you are grateful for.

“Finding those tiny things was quite something,” Jill smiles, “because some days you would dismiss the day as being just a sh** day… but then you would have to write a gratitude list.

Jill was first introduced to TV audiences as Nicola Dobson in Byker Grove when she was a teenager

“So it might be that a cup of tea had been nice… then the more I did that, the more I realised that even though I thought the whole day had been awful, actually there had been 30 seconds when I did have a tiny bit of joy.

“And while  I know this seems like very slim pickings at first, once you learn that power of gratitude, and realise that even on your sh**test day, you can find 10 things to be grateful for, that is quite a realisation.”

Although Jill isn’t expecting everyone to find comfort in all the things which have helped her in the seven years since Matt died, she does have a piece of universal advice that we should all take on board (although I couldn’t help feeling she was looking straight into my soul as she was saying it).

“I think one of the things to keep in mind is that we all just want to feel better really quickly – and so we give up on things very, very quickly, because they haven’t made us feel better immediately… or don’t try them because they sound awkward or possibly uncomfortable.

“So I would say you should try things – and give them a proper try – before you decide whether they’re for you or not.”

Now, while there were a lot of points in the book where I found myself feeling very sad, there was one particular bit, concerning the aforementioned grief retreat Jill attended (and found transformative, by the way) which did make me giggle.

In it, Jill recounts a session in which participants were asked to truly dance like nobody was watching and she talks about it taking a while for her to overcome feeling self-conscious and let go.

I couldn’t help feeling for the people alongside her in the space… confronted with reality of dancing in their most vulnerable state – alongside a Strictly champion.

Jill laughs. “Or think about it the other way – I’ve won Strictly… is everyone expecting me to bust out some moves or do my jive?”

Jill Halfpenny at the post screening Q&A for The Red King in Alnwick earlier this year. Credit: Barry Pells

Doing all the work and allowing herself to feel everything she was feeling has brought Jill to where we find her today – happy and in a good place.

“Realising that you don’t just have to go, well, I’ll just be terribly sad for the rest of my life, and I’ll never be able to find any joy… rather you accept that will be sad about what happened for the rest of your life, but you will find ways to be really happy about other things.”

Alongside the photos of Jill and her Dad and Jill and Matt, the book’s last page of photos feature Jill with her new partner, Ian who she met in 2023.

 “It’s really nice to just feel in a of nice, safe and really lovely relationship, you know? Because I think there was a part of me that just thought it just would never happen. But I’m really glad it has. Things are good.”

Coming to the end of our peppermint tea (they did find a second teapot, we’ve not been drinking like sparrows) Jill is preparing to go back home to do a couple of online interviews before an evening book event at Newcastle’s Biscuit Factory. Then she’s got appearances on The One Show, This Morning and BBC Woman’s Hour to tick off her list – as well as a couple of podcasts.

Maybe there’s a new career strand in the offing?

“I’m not writing another book,” she laughs. “It was really hard and I found it quite a lonely process, but in terms of anything else which comes of it – who knows?

“I’ve never really been a planner. I’m always just sort of followed my instincts, and then I don’t really think so much after that about what will come of it or what it might lead to.

“My experiences of losing Matt and Dad have really cemented for me that we really don’t know what’s going to happen.

“But it’s always good to just remind yourself of where you’ve been and where you’re at now, to think, ‘you know what? I’m all right. I’ve done all right’. For so long, I never really did that.”

Jill Halfpenny: A Life Reimagined is out now. You can follow Jill on Instagram here.


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