Helen McCrory: A poignant letter from her husband, Damian Lewis
Best known for her roles in Peaky Blinders and Harry Potter, actress Helen McCrory sadly lost her battle with cancer on 16 April 2021. She was 52. Her husband, Damian Lewis, has written a beautiful and poignant insight into her life, in particular her last few months.
It is incredibly powerful when we see famous people normalising grief and death. It allows others to celebrate the life of their loved one. Helen urged those close to her to keep living after her death. The bravery shown by Helen in these last few months is nothing short of amazing.
Here are some of the key extracts from the poignant letter, originally published in the Sunday Times.
As I sit down to write this, I can hear Helen shouting from the bed, “Keep it short, Damian, it’s not about you.”
I’ll try, but on a weekend when the papers, rightly, will be paying their respects to the Duke of Edinburgh, thousands of others around the world have been remembering m’Duchess, my Little One, royalty in her own right. And I’d like to throw in my tuppence worth... When I say “royalty”, I am of course referring to the esteem in which Helen is held in our business. Her nickname to many was Dame Helen (apologies, Dame Helen), and although we’ll never know now whether that would have become a reality, I think secretly, we do know.
She was fiercely proud of being an artist, an actress. Her OBE, recognition of her exquisite talent, made her so happy.
Helen was an even more brilliant person than she was an actress. She was a people person, sure. “I’m much more interested in who I’m with than where I am,” she would say, and innately wanted to share. But she also lived by the principle of kindness and generosity. That you put these things out into the world to make it better, to make people feel better.
I’ve never known anyone so consciously spread happiness. To say “please” and “thank you” and “you’re so kind” as much as she did. Even when dying in her last few days, when talking to our wonderful carers, she repeatedly said, “thank you so much” in her half delirious state.
She always asked people how they were, always took an interest, made each person she met feel special, as though they were the only person in the room. Gave them her full attention. Made them laugh, always. There were few funnier people — she was funny as hell.
One nurse at the Royal Marsden told me once they actually looked forward to Helen coming in because she made their day better. Asked how they were, cared about their home lives, spread joy, made them laugh. Helen would say, “Well, their job’s much more difficult than mine.” And she was dying.
She understood anger, used to tell the children not to be afraid of it. “It’s a positive emotion when you use it right.” And she had her fair share of it, let me tell you. She could be magnificently angry, imperious, dismissive. Gloriously. But also happy. Always. Some people believe happiness is a right, some people find happiness difficult. It’s an elusive emotion. Helen believed you choose happiness.
I’ve never known anyone able to enjoy life as much. Her ability to be in the present and enjoy the moment was inspirational. Nor was she interested in navel-gazing. No real interest in self- reflection; she believed in looking out, not in. Which is why she was able to turn her light so brightly on others.
She’s left our beautiful children, Manon and Gully, too early, but they have been prepared for life. They have in them the fearlessness, wit, curiosity, talent and beauty of their mother. She has exhorted us to be courageous and not afraid. As she said repeatedly to the children, “Don’t be sad, because even though I’m about to snuff it, I’ve lived the life I wanted to.”
She has been utterly heroic in her illness. Funny, of course — generous, brave, uncomplaining, constantly reminding us all of how lucky we’ve been, how blessed we are. Her generosity has extended to encouraging us three to live. Live fully, take opportunities, have adventures. Only a couple of weeks ago she said to us from her bed, “I want Daddy to have girlfriends, lots of them, you must all love again, love isn’t possessive, but you know, Damian, try at least to get through the funeral without snogging someone.”
Already I miss her. She has shone more brightly in the last months than you would imagine even the brightest star could shine. In life, too, we had to rise to meet her. But her greatest and most exquisite act of bravery and generosity has been to “normalise” her death. She’s shown no fear, no bitterness, no self-pity, only armed us with the courage to go on and insisted that no one be sad, because she is happy. I’m staggered by her. She’s been a meteor in our life.
Rest In Peace beautiful lady. You lit up the lives of many and we hope you inspire so many more with this incredible story.
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