In What Works For Me – a series of articles considering how we can find balance in our lives – we talk to celebrities about wellbeing and self-care.
It’s been two years since Michelle Ackerley received a call from her father’s hospice to say he’d died during the night, but The One Show presenter says the global pandemic has renewed her grief.
“It feels like the grief has reared its head again, because a lot of us have got more time to reflect on things,” says Michelle, who recently joined the Loose Women panel. ”I think people assume at two years you’ll be over it and back to normal, when actually, grief can come in so many different waves. I personally feel like I’ve found it harder recently.”
Michelle’s dad, Marcus, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in summer 2017. He died in March 2018.
The diagnosis came as a huge shock to the family. “I remember us being taken into this really lovely room in the hospital with calming wallpaper, soft furnishings, beautiful pictures on the walls and a box of tissues on the table,” says Michelle. “I suddenly felt cold and thought: ‘This is serious.’”
The news floored Michelle, who says she experienced shock, sadness and anger all at once. “It was so much information to take in, I just went a bit numb,” she recalls. “It’s like a computer programme in your brain that just doesn’t work when you’re feeling so many emotions. I remember walking out of the room and I broke down in the corridor.”
Michelle had two tactics for looking after her mental health while her father received treatment to prolong his life: stay practical and stay present.
She busied herself by learning everything possible about chemotherapy –speaking to doctors about how her dad was likely to feel after each round and how to best support him. That day-by-day, step-by-step pragmatic approach helped her avoid thinking “my dad is going to die”, she says.
When her dad was well enough, the pair would spend whole days sitting outside coffee shops chatting. Being present in those moments was a vital coping mechanism, says Michelle.
“We both knew time was of the essence, so it was about really appreciating those moments,” she says. “And not just spending time with my dad, which I did a lot of anyway, but learning to enjoy sitting in the chair, tasting the tea, and recognising the way the sun feels on your face.
“We always feel like time is running away from us and we’re on a countdown – but sometimes I almost felt like the diagnosis was the opposite of that. It helped me to appreciate time.”
Although Michelle cut down her working hours to spend time with her father in the hospice, she continued to travel to London to film The One Show at his insistence.
“He was such an advocate of my career and he’d really look forward to those days when I was filming,” she says. ”He was the one pushing me to do things. That gave him a focus as well, because it gave us something exciting and different to talk about the next morning.”
Was it hard to keep up the show’s jovial, light-hearted tone with so much going on at home?
“It’s a funny one because on the one hand, it felt like part of my life was falling apart, but on the other, having some kind of structure in my life was good,” says Michelle. ”With live television, you’ve got to be very present in that moment. It allowed me to have that half and hour where I was very focussed on the chat I was having, or the interview I was doing. It was a bit of a sense of normality.”
Working on the show also provided Michelle with the opportunity to talk about her feelings with someone outside of her family – something a Macmillan nurse at the hospice had recommended. She bonded with one of the make-up artists, who’d lost both her parents to cancer.
By this point, Marcus had made friends with other residents and they, alongside the Macmillan nurses at the hospice, would regularly gather around his bed to watch Michelle on TV. “I’d say: ’If you watch I’ll tap my left ear at a certain point and that’ll be me saying: ‘Love you dad!’” she says.
The news her dad had died was “very difficult”, but the immediate aftermath where friends and family descended en masse to offer support and share happy memories gave her a lot of comfort. It was weeks later, when people started to “go back to their normal lives”, that the grief really hit.
“I went through a period of thinking about all the traumatic things that happened during dad’s passing: seeing him so terribly ill, losing weight and crying – all those things were flooding my memories,” she says.
“One of my friend’s said: ’Let’s try and write down five things you can think about that make you smile when you think about your dad, because you don’t want to only look back on the [traumatic memories].’”
Michelle found the concept useful and still keeps a gratitude diary to help her stay positive. The loneliness of lockdown and a lack of routine during the pandemic has renewed some of the harder emotions, though.
“There’s a big life-changing moment that’s happening with us all at the minute and I keep thinking: ‘Gosh, I can’t believe all this has happened in the world and dad’s not here to experience it,’” says Michelle. “It makes him feel like part of the past.”
The first step in dealing with this, she says, is simply to acknowledge and accept that some days will be easier than others.
“Some days I can listen to a piece of music he liked and it’ll make me smile or laugh and I’ll feel so grateful that although he’s not here anymore, I’ve had that amazing person in my life,” she says. “Other days I’ll feel the complete opposite. I’ll feel upset and lonely and like there’s nothing anyone can say that will take that sense of loss away.”
Exercise has formed a key part of Michelle’s self-care routine when these harder days hit, as she’s learned that curling up under a duvet doesn’t work for her. She’s currently in Cardiff filming The Crimewatch Roadshow, so she’s been hitting the gym in the afternoon to keep her spirits up.
When she’s at home in London, she’ll head out for a walk to Richmond Park. Her favourite spot is a bench by the duck pond, where she’ll take a breather and watch dogs charging into the water.
“Some of them will be playing with other dogs or the owners will start throwing balls in,” says Michelle. “It’s such a simple thing, but having that distraction, connecting with nature and watching that simple play is brilliant. It really puts a smile on my face and has helped me no end.”
By the time she gets home after her walk, Michelle says the “big knotted web of thoughts” in her head becomes unravelled.
It’s taken a long time to develop these strategies for dealing with grief, though. Michelle’s advice for anyone recently bereaved is not to rush the process. “Don’t put a time limit on how you feel about things, because I started to do that this year,” she says. “Saying: ‘It’s been two years, you should be over it now, you shouldn’t be so consumed by it’ doesn’t help.”
She also advocates talking about your feelings with a bereavement counsellor or someone you trust, if you feel unable to open up with friends and family.
“Grief, it’s like the word ‘cancer’ – people think it’s so negative and don’t want to talk about it, but sharing grief can make you feel a bit more comforted, supported and make you feel a bit better in that moment,” she says.
Whenever you take part in Coffee Morning this year, you’ll be helping millions of people living with cancer, who need us more than ever. Find out how you can still get involved at coffee.macmillan.org.uk