A decade on from her daughter Caron’s death, Gloria Hunniford tells Gabrielle Fagan how it has led her on a mission to help others.
It’s surely a mark of Gloria Hunniford’s admirable positivity that she can claim life’s experiences - including the tragic death of her daughter, Caron from breast cancer - have made her “a better person.”
“While I’ve had a very charmed life, at the same time I’ve had to learn from the rough times, but, you know, I think those strengthen you. Losing a child changes your life completely but in some ways I might be a better person because I have more empathy,” says the veteran broadcaster who, at 74, believes she’s probably the oldest female presenter regularly on TV.
Certainly, defying her age both in looks and energy, Hunniford is rarely off our screens nowadays.
She recently joined ITV’s Loose Women panel, is currently fronting a BBC TV programme Home Away From Home, about families who swap homes for holidays, presents on consumer show, Rip Off Britain, and is one of the celebrities reminiscing about holidays on new BBC One series, Holiday of My Lifetime, presented by Strictly Come Dancing judge, Len Goodman.
Despite a formidable workload – she also counsels parents who’ve lost children and heads cancer charity, The Caron Keating Foundation – she’s found the time to reflect on her life, and the decade since her daughter died, aged 41, after a seven-year battle with cancer.
Hunniford, who takes comfort from frequently finding white feathers she believes are a sign Caron’s watching over her, says: “Someone said to me the other day, ‘do you often think of Caron?’. I said, ‘Are you joking?’. Caron is in my head all the time and I constantly think, ‘she would have loved this’ or ‘I wish I could tell her that’. I always will. I still have bad days with the pain of her loss, but I feel it’s part of my mission and part of my healing to try to help other people cope with their loss.”
Some of the wisest words she received, she says, came from another bereaved parent.
“A mother told me, ‘there will be days when you want to sit in a darkened room, look at photos of Caron and weep, but think about it if you weep until the second you die you’re never to change anything, bring her back or go out and do something positive’.
“Well, I’ve tried to do something positive. And although it’s not a positivity I would have chosen, there has been a lot of positivity from her death through the foundation which deals with all forms of cancer and my talking with bereaved parents. I receive emails and telephone calls every week which I reply to because I know it’s some comfort to be able to share your feelings of grief, loss and devastation with someone who exactly knows what you’re going through.”
She recently demonstrated her own compassion for a suffering friend when she spoke out in support of Sir Cliff Richard, who’s currently facing allegations of sexual assault.
“I’ve been a good friend of his for 45 years, and he’s been a good friend to me. I trust him with my life and I’ve never seen him put a foot wrong or heard him say a wrong word about anybody. All his friends are being supportive and I talk to him every day on the phone,” she says.
Outspoken and forthright, Hunniford’s carved out a stellar career as a queen of daytime TV since starting as a reporter in Northern Ireland in the 1960s – she still retains her soft Northern Irish lilt.
“I’ve worked from the age of eight and I’m still so full of zest for my job. Frankly, my family know I’d be hell to live with if I didn’t work! If I was doing a boring job maybe I’d be glad to retire but I talk to different people every day, and learn new things, so as long as I’m able to carry on I will,” says the presenter who’s clearly relishing the opportunity to give her views on Loose Women, alongside fellow new panellist, Judy Finnigan.
“I think they’ve brought us on because they’re moving it away from all that chat about ‘when did you last get drunk, or make love?’ or whatever. That might be funny the first time but you can get a bit tired of it,” she says.
“The show’s moving back to a format of debate on serious topics, like domestic violence, alongside fun. I think people like me bring something because I’ve been around the block, suffered like a lot of people, and tasted life in the good and bad sense. A twenty-something wouldn’t have the same believability or trustability, so age and experience does give you value.”
While her career and her charity work are a focus and undoubtedly helped prevent her being totally consumed by her grief over her daughter’s death, at the heart of Hunniford’s happiness is her family.
She lives with her second husband, Stephen Way, in Sevenoaks, Kent, close to Caron’s sons, Charlie, 20, and Gabriel, 17.
“Stephen’s a lovely man and so supportive of me in every way. It’s very important to look after your relationship, especially when it’s a second marriage, and my concession is that I don’t work every day so we have time together,” she says.
“My grandsons are fabulous and a great comfort, of course. Gabriel was only seven when Caron died, and he was like a scared little rabbit in the headlights at that time not understanding what was going on, but now he’s at college and doing really well, as is Charlie. I’m so proud of them both.
“In the summer the whole family, 18 of us – Stephen and I have 12 grand-children between us in total – holidayed together and it was brilliant. I would categorically say I’m at my best when the family is around.”
Holiday Of My Lifetime, BBC1, starts on Monday, October 20.