Ex-Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis talks openly and honestly about the pain of losing her husband...
It’s been nearly two years since Janet Ellis’s husband John Leach passed away from lung cancer at the age of 63. Now Janet is learning to live alongside the “unimaginable” loss of her husband to whom she was married for 35 years.
Janet still lives in the London home she and John shared. The couple had two children together as well as Janet’s daughter, musician Sophie Ellis Bextor, from her first marriage. Although Janet has a loving family and the support of friends, she says the grief from the loss of soulmate John, who she smilingly describes as a “very, very sexy man” has not diminished.
“Grief doesn’t stop, it’s always present,” she says. “I’ve got several girlfriends of different ages who’ve lost husbands and all of them have said that. Life is still full of pleasures and things to look forward to, but the bottom line is the person who you wanted to share all that with, the person who made sense of it all, the person who really, really saw you isn’t there any more.”
TV producer John was first diagnosed with cancer of the tonsils in 2016. After undergoing treatment and getting the all-clear, the family received the devastating news in 2017 that John had terminal secondary lung cancer. “Once somebody is diagnosed with cancer or with anything like that really, you never quite lose the niggling sense that there could be more,” Janet says. But rather than let it define them, she says the couple carried on living their relationship as they’d always had done.
“We were guided by John because that’s how he lived too. He didn’t have to become a different person to accept his diagnosis and I think that helped me too, because neither did I. You still argue about little things or get cross or niggly, in other words you carry on as much as you were but living alongside this thing you both know.”
As the country went into the first lockdown in March 2020, John’s chemotherapy treatment was halted because of the Covid risks and he returned home to Janet. The couple remained at home until John’s death four months later in July. “I do look back on that time as rather golden for us because we were together which was something we always sought,” Janet says. “I’m very grateful we had that because I know for a lot of people it was very different.”
At the very end of John’s life, the couple were put in touch with a local hospice through Marie Curie. “We had people from the hospice coming to the house just to talk John through things.” Janet is full of praise for the support the family received. “Marie Curie really sees the person, and the family and the friends they’re helping. You don’t feel as if you’re getting a ‘one size fits all’ technique. I do feel we’re so lucky in this country to have that.”
After John’s death Janet continued to receive support. “People from the hospice rang me on a regular basis, just to check up and say: ‘We’re here if you need anything.’ I just think support networks of any sort are beyond vital.”
Normalising the conversation around death is hugely important, Janet says. “Death isn’t something people feel comfortable with. Even now when people ask me how I am and I say: ‘I’m fine, I’m sad.’ They’d just rather I said the first bit,” she laughs. “It makes life much easier for everybody! But I understand it. Marie Curie are brilliant at getting the conversation going but also saying, ‘We’re listening to you.’”
What advice would Janet give to people who are going through a similar situation or have lost a partner? “Be honest,” she says. “Don’t pretend you’re feeling something you’re not. You might feel differently this time tomorrow but if someone asks and you’re feeling awful, tell them. Give them the responsibility of looking after you for a little while. I think it’s mutual, afterwards you do feel the benefit of somebody caring. If someone is unable to cope with that, they’ll cope in their way, they might make you a cup of coffee and move on but it’s still better to be honest about it. Give yourself permission to be honest with people.”
Going out into the world again as a single person can feel like a daunting prospect after being a couple for so long, but Janet says it’s about taking things at your own pace. “If somebody asks you to go to something, take a moment to imagine it and if the thought of doing it on your own paralyses you, don’t go. I’ve put myself in situations sometimes where I’ve thought: ‘I wish I was anywhere else but here’. Don’t think you to have to tough it out, there will always be something else to go to when you feel more comfortable.”
Although the grief never leaves, Janet says there is a turning point. “What changes is that you make a decision to honour your life,” she says. “I am still here, I was very loved and had a fantastic relationship with someone and we still have children and mutual friends and things we loved together that are still here too. I wouldn’t want to become someone you wouldn’t recognise because of his loss. I want to be the person he met and fancied and got together with. That is something of a decision, otherwise it’s very tempting to think: ‘I’m finished with life, I’ll just do the basics.’ I’ve always looked for the joy in things and I was with someone who encouraged that so that’s my plan, to carry on doing that.”
Janet Ellis' husband John died in July 2020. In this special video made for the National Day of Reflection 2022, Janet reflects on their life together, what made John the man he was, and life now without him.