One of the last times that her husband Jeremy Lucas was well enough to meet her at the station, Shalini Bhalla told him: “I love the fact you always meet me here. It’s like coming home. You are my home.”
When Jeremy died in July 2016, the light went out of Shalini’s world. His support and faith in her had helped her find a way through dark days of depression – and through her love of dance, launch a dance and wellbeing company helping and inspiring others. Now her soulmate was gone and she was alone.
Shalini and Jeremy, pictured shortly after he was diagnosed with cancer
“In the depths of my grief I didn’t believe I would ever be happy. I wanted to die,” Shalini, who lives in Cranleigh, Surrey, now says. Although she still carries her grief inside her, a legacy in Jeremy’s memory has helped Shalini not only survive, but learn to really live.
“You owe it to people you love to go through grief,” the 42-year old says, “and then to live.”
Shalini, who has written her story in a newly published book, Always With You met Jeremy in 1996, when as a 21-year-old she moved to England from Kenya to study at University of Surrey.
Jeremy was the love of Shalini’s life
“He live next door and it was an escaped rabbit that brought us together,” says Shalini.
The divorced dad of three’s kids’ pet had made its way into Shalini’s garden – and when he came on a rescue-mission to recover it, she felt an instant attraction.
“He had the most beautiful blue eyes and was VERY good looking,” smiles Shalini, who invited Jeremy, then 40, for drinks. Within a few weeks of their first date, the pair were an item.
Friends described Jeremy as a true gentleman: “He was kind, thoughtful and – as my family later pointed out – put me on a pedestal. It’s true, he did,” she admits.
“And I liked being there.”
Jeremy was so proud when Shalini won the Asian Women of Achievement Arts and Culture Award in 2013
Sadly, Shalini’s parents were unhappy about the relationship, which led to her estrangement from them for 12 years.
“I was a ‘good Indian girl’ and on paper, Jeremy was the most unsuitable man I could have found,” she explains.
“But love was wonderful and choosing Jeremy over my family was the best decision I could have made.”
Happily, Shalini and her family were eventually reconciled and her father not only came to approve of Jeremy, but became a firm friend.
During the years in between, Jeremy had been her rock. He supported her through an emotional breakdown that left her on the verge of suicide and which, after treatment, led her on a path to support other people through depression and anxiety.
Shalini became a voice for mental health charity MIND and was inspired to train in the mindfulness techniques that helped manage her depression, to support others.
Shalini became an accredited mindfulness practitioner
Combined with her love of classical Indian dance, she set up Just Jhoom!. The successful fitness-and-wellbeing movement, combining Bollywood-style moves and mindfulness, has won her a host of awards.
“Jeremy was always happy being behind the camera when I was centre stage,” she says. “But he was always there, supporting me. People called him *Papa Jhoom!, as he’d always be there, at my events.”
When Jeremy was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, it was devastating news. He underwent two gruelling years of treatment, until the doctors told the couple there was nothing more they could do.
Shalini couldn’t believe it, but remembers looking at her exhausted husband and seeing the strain disappear from his face. He seemed reconciled to death, while she was terrified.
Shalini was unprepared for the loneliness she endured
Ever practical, Jeremy had gently convinced Shalini when he was first diagnosed, that they marry.
“I didn’t need that piece of paper to prove our love, but he knew otherwise I’d have no rights over what happened to his body when he died, his funeral, our home... Looking back, he wanted me to live,” she says.
In the depths of my grief, I didn’t believe I would ever be happy
Yet when Jeremy died in July 2016, Shalini no longer cared if she lived or died. Mourning him was the beginning of a long period of darkness.
“In the depths of my grief, I didn’t believe I would ever be happy. I wanted to die,” she says.
“ I didn’t kill myself because I couldn’t leave my family, but I came very close.”
In February 2017, Shalini suffered another blow, when her father died. Life, she realised was too short for regretting the years before their reconciliation, but thinking about how he’d supported her education and world travels, reminded her how he, like Jeremy, had wanted her to live.
“I realised I want to live life fully and make a difference,” she says.
“I owed it to them both.”
Shalini loved to dance from a very early age
Beginning to dance again helped Shalini express her grief. It began as a gnawing hurt that even made her teeth ache, then a sharp stabbing pain in her heart. It’s now like a stone, she says, heavy in her heart, but a reminder that Jeremy is there.
Isolated in her grief and feeling even more alone because she seemed ‘too young’ to be lonely, Shalini joined WAY – Widowed and Young, a support network with social groups run by – and for – people aged 50 and under who lose a life partner.
Shalini also began to think about the legacy of the life she’d shared with Jeremy.
“A legacy is not about money, but how they will be remembered. We didn’t have children together, so I wondered, what’s ours?”
After reuniting with her family in Kenya, she and Jeremy had travelled there on many occasions and had been greatly inspired spending time at the lion reserve established by Shalini’s younger sister, Dr Shivani Bhalla, a wildlife conservationist.
Shalini, far left and Jeremy, centre, with people from Samburu involved in the Ewaso Lions conservation project. Shalini’s sister Shivani is on the far right
Focused on protecting endangered lions in Samburu, northern Kenya, Shivani set up an outreach programme to help educate local people to play an active role in their conservation. The charity, Ewaso Lions, offers primary school children the chance to spend a week on the reserve and increase their awareness as young ambassadors for the environment.
“Imagine living just a few miles from the sea and never having been to the beach,” explains Shalini.
“Many local children have never seen a lion, although they live so close to the reserve.”
Many of these children will not have the chance of a secondary education, which is not free of charge in Kenya. Shivani launched a programme to support eight local children through senior school.
Shalini realised that the education scheme her sister had begun, was the perfect legacy to remember Jeremy by.
*Schoolchildren wildlife-spotting on safari at Ewaso Lions Camp. Picture via ewasolions.org *
“I scooped up ‘her’ children and recruited more for the programme,” says Shalini, who explains that the children are supported through secondary and further education.
The two oldest children to have been supported by the Jeremy Lucas Education Fund are now at teaching college and university.
“It’s not just about putting them through secondary school, but seeing them into jobs and a point where we’re sure they will make their way in life.
I used to say I didn’t have any children – now, through the fund, I say I have twelve.”
Flying out to Kenya and seeing what’s being achieved has brought Shalini joy. Yet making an altogether shorter journey was one of the last and hardest things she had to do by herself.
“Whenever I travelled to London for work, Jeremy would be waiting for me at the station, she says.
“He never just waited in the car – he was always standing by the barrier, waiting for me. It’s hard to walk up the slope at the station and see that he isn’t there. He was my home.
Writing her book was a cathartic process for Shalini as she grieved Jeremy
Taking comfort in her spiritual beliefs, “I believe he will be waiting for me at the barrier when I die,” she says.
“But he wanted me to live and you owe it to yourself to be happy. I will grieve Jeremy for the rest of my life, but life is so fleeting. I’m holding him in my heart as I move on with mine.”
Widowed and Young is peer-to-peer support group run by a network of volunteers who have been bereaved at a young age themselves, so they understand exactly what other members are going through. Visit www.widowedandyoung.org.uk