Michelle Dockery is best known for playing Lady Mary Crawley on Downton Abbey, but what many may not realize is that her character’s tragic love story sadly (and unbelievably) mimics her own.
During the series’ 2012 Christmas special, Lady Mary Crawley unexpectedly lost her husband to a car crash. Following a period of mourning, she rediscovered her fighting spirit and became a pillar of strength for her family, but never forgot her first love, keeping images of him on her dresser and nightstand.
In this, Dockery’s life has heartbreakingly mirrored her on-screen persona’s. The British actress lost her fiancé in 2015 and, with time and determination, has since learned to move forward without moving on.
She found him through a friend
Michelle Dockery and Irish public relations director John Dineen began dating in 2013 after being introduced to each other by Dockery’s Downton Abbey co-star, Allen Leech.
Reminiscing about why she thought they would make a perfect match, Leech explained, “John’s like family to me and I knew he’d really get on with Michelle. She’s a great girl – probably as far from Lady Mary as you could imagine.”
He was right — and while the immensely private couple managed to mostly keep their relationship out of the public eye, they did have their official red carpet debut at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. In 2014, the actress confirmed, “I have a wonderful man in my life.”
The pair got secretly engaged around the start of 2015, but their love story came to a tragic halt on December 13, 2015 when Dineen died of cancer at the age of 34.
They fought his illness together, in secret
As Dockery’s fans eventually learned, the pair hadn’t just been secretive about their romance, they had also hidden the truth about Dineen’s health.
For 15 months he had quietly battled a terminal cancer diagnosis with his love by his side.
Telling The Guardian that she “never lost hope,” Dockery revealed how “the hardest thing was keeping it out of the press when he was sick. It took a lot,” she confessed.
Another struggle came from living the experience twice, both on and off-screen
“One of the difficult things at the time was the parallels with Mary,” she admitted. “It was just baffling, and still is to me, that my character’s storyline was so similar.”
She prioritized their finals days together
In a cruel twist of fate, Dineen’s funeral took place just one day after Dockery’s birthday — and one day before his own 35th.
During the eulogy, Dockery sang an acapella version of Peggy Lee’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and paid an emotional tribute to her late soulmate, which showcased just how deep their bond had been.
Finding strength in her unfaltering commitment to her fiancé, she praised him as an “extraordinary man” and said, “I was honored to know John. To love him and be loved by him. He was my friend, my King, my hero, my everything. We celebrate him, we honour him and we will miss him.”
In 2017, the actress publicly opened up about her tragic loss for the first time in a vulnerable and candid interview with The Guardian.
“I don’t have the vocabulary to describe what it felt like… and what it still feels like,” Dockery said and was nearly brought to tears as she explained the reality of losing your true love and the impact it has on all aspects of your life.
“I’ve never been more committed to anything in my life than to him.”
She told The Guardian, “At the time everything just shut down. Work, everything. Work didn’t matter. You suddenly become an [oncological] expert. This stuff becomes your world, and that of course was my priority.”
Putting the pieces back together through her art
Just like Lady Mary Crawley, however, she eventually found the strength to start filming again. In 2016, three months after Dineen’s passing, she went back to work to film another TV series, Good Behavior, then appeared in Netflix’s Godless and, in 2019, returned to Downton Abbey with the September release of a full-length film.
It doesn’t mean she’s forgotten or moved on, however. The couple’s bond was too strong to simply be pushed aside and, as she told The Guardian, it still weighs on her heavily.
“We were engaged, and married at heart, and so I do consider myself a widow.”
Sadly, it is a role she will have to bear throughout her lifetime.
A lesson on moving forward without forgetting
But it does get better and, as she has shown the world, it is possible to move forward and prosper while holding onto a loved one who has gone too soon.
As the American Psychological Association notes, in coping with the deep grief of loss, remembering and celebrating the departed’s life is key.
Said celebration can include everything from “framing photos of fun times, passing on a family name to a baby or planting a garden in memory.”
In Dockery’s case, it involves keeping her fiancé’s spirit alive in her heart, speaking lovingly about him to the world, and finding the strength to return to her passion: acting.
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