'I buried my husband before I turned 30'
Like Michelle Dockery, Ailish Murphy was planning a happy future with the love of her life when tragedy struck and she found herself planning his funeral instead. The mum-of-two tells our reporter how honouring her late partner finally helped her move on
Michelle Dockery's Downton Abbey character Lady Mary is no stranger to tragedy, but the image of the 34-year-old on the altar of a small Cork church was certainly an arresting sight.
Paying an emotional tribute to her 34-year-old fiancé John Dineen, who died last week of brain cancer, Michelle described "my friend, my king, my hero, my everything" before singing John's favourite song, The Folks Who Live On The Hill.
Only a year previously, the handsome couple were the epitome of love's young dream, engaging in a whirlwind of social events and looking forward to a long and joyful life stretched ahead of them.
Similarly, 35-year-old Ailish Murphy from Rialto felt that she had all the time in the world when she stood in front of 40 friends and family on a Mauritian beach and wed her husband Paul.
"I remember walking up the red carpet on my wedding day, seeing his face and knowing - well, thinking - I'd be with him for the rest of my life," she says.
With a toddler and seven-week-old baby at home, 35-year-old Ailish Murphy has an active Christmas ahead of her. Yet as she admits, this is a life that, not too long ago, she could never even envisage herself having.
Like Michelle, Ailish was devastated when she lost her own "soulmate" in 2009. Setting off on a driving job to Spain, Paul's truck overturned in Kilkenny and he died at the scene.
Only eight years previously, the two had met in a pub in Germany, where they were both based.
"There was instant attraction; even thinking of it now, a shiver goes through me," recalls Ailish.
"We were both living in Germany at the time, but I was travelling with some girlfriends, and we were due to leave three weeks later. We went down to Tenerife and he came down two weeks after that and proposed for the first time.
"I moved into the barracks in Germany with him and 1,000 other men, which was some shock as you can imagine but great craic too. It was great living with my best friend."
The pair enjoyed plenty of travelling, settling initially in Australia but deciding to move to Ireland to buy a house. By 2009, they were planning a family.
"I remember that day in May like it was yesterday," says Ailish. "My period was a day late, and I remember getting up at 5am so Paul and I could share breakfast and chat before he set off on a driving job to Spain. This was very unlike me, as I was usually up at 7am for work.
"But we had a lovely time talking about our future, both of us hoping I was pregnant. He gave me a kiss and told me he'd ring me later."
Planning to follow him to Spain a day later, Ailish admits that it was a typical hectic pre-holiday day.
"I spoke to him a couple of times on the phone and went home to pack," she recalls. "Weirdly, I didn't end up packing; something took over me that day, and I still can't explain it."
That evening however, her father, uncle and brother knocked on the door.
"The guards knew I was alone in the house and they contacted my father in Kilkenny to tell him to come," explains Ailish. "As soon as I opened the door to them, I knew something had happened, but I assumed it was someone else, someone older. My dad started to tell me about what had happened, but he couldn't even say the words.
"I think a part of me was expecting it to be a hoax. I remember screaming the house down so much that all the neighbours came out to see what was happening. I just couldn't function or talk, but I knew I had to get down to him.
"Paul was in Waterford Hospital and we left as soon as I was able to pack a bag. I don't really remember that part… it's almost like you're watching yourself from above.
"When I got to the hospital, I collapsed and woke up to find some doctors around me. What I remember the most is that I wasn't allowed to touch Paul, and I begged and begged the doctor to let me hug him."
What followed was a hectic three days during which Ailish was on autopilot.
"My mum died when I was 20 so I know a bit about funerals, but I don't remember too much," she admits. "I remember asking someone on the way to the funeral, 'who organised all this?' and someone saying 'you did!'."
After the poignant funeral came the hardest part: the silence.
"I couldn't understand how people were getting on with things," she says. "My family and friends were amazing, and I'd never have gotten through it without them, but it's really something to think that your whole future has been taken away.
"I started having bad anxiety attacks the whole time and eventually I couldn't go back to work. The investigation (into Paul's accident) took eight months.
"My dad's wife left her job to be able to attend that with me. I did bereavement counselling throughout the investigation and it was amazing. I didn't expect it to work so well. After an hour of counselling I felt like I'd had eight hours' sleep, or a massage."
Needing what she calls a break for her own sanity, Ailish moved back to Germany for a much-needed change of scene.
"The one thing I couldn't handle when I told people about my widowed status were the pity eyes from others," she notes.
"I still get them now from time to time. I also got quite a bit of 'sure you're young. It doesn't matter as much'. I could write a book on the things I heard people say. But I know now that they were only trying to help.
"I joined a few private young widow groups on Facebook, which really helped on the nights I wasn't sleeping. Even if their experiences were different, they just got it.
"I think going over to Germany and having time on my own to grieve really helped. If I were to let go and cry around my family or friends, they'd only worry about me. I'd always been the strong one; the one that looks after everyone else.
"In Germany, I could be alone with my emotions. I knew that Paul would want me to get on with my life. I set myself on a mission to do Paul's own to-do list. I found loads of people he'd lost touch with, and even found his real dad. What kept me going was knowing he'd have done it for me."
While Ailish's road to recovery was far from straightforward, doing Paul's bucket list taught her that, for better or worse, life goes on.
"I never thought I would meet anyone ever again," she reflects. "I think I went on a few dates in Germany just for the company, and that was kind of the start of it. I tried to hold off on telling people about being a widow, but I'm terrible at keeping secrets.
"You see the whole shock on their faces, and some of them were even a little jealous. But I only really started dating when I got to a good place in my life."
She has now met her partner Slawomir and they have have two daughters; Holly, 3, and Ivy, seven weeks.
"I had to teach myself not to feel guilty about being with someone else," reflects Ailish. "It was hard to start a relationship all over again; I don't like the stuff at the start, everyone on their best behaviour.
"Paul is my soulmate, and I did believe that I'd never have anyone again if I didn't have Paul, but the crazy thing is that if I'd not gone through this, I wouldn't have my two little girls.
"Slawomir was previously in a car accident and is lucky to be alive. He understands my love for Paul. I live for the moment, and so does he. My girls Holly and Ivy gave me a second shot at life. I'm still in shock that I have them!
"To anyone in a similar position, I'd advise them to take every minute as it comes, not every day. It's important to know that people grieve differently. Don't let anyone else try to tell you how to think about things. Above all else, it's good to talk to others."
For more information, see the National Association of Widows in Ireland on nawi.ie