When reality TV star Jade Goody died after a short battle with cervical cancer in 2009, her partner Jeff Brazier was left to raise their children alone.
In this moving and uplifting article, Jeff reveals how grief has shaped his life, and offers advice for those still in mourning.
It’s strange how my entire young adult life seems to have given me the tools to be able to cope with the future I’m facing – raising my sons, Bobby and Freddie, as a solo parent after the death of their mum, Jade, eight years ago.
Jade had a short and highly publicised battle with cervical cancer. A few weeks before she died, she told the boys from her hospital bed that god wanted her to be an angel. She explained to them that, very soon, mummy would be a big bright star in the sky on its way to heaven. At the time, our sons were four and five.
The evening Jade died, I broke the news to them at home. I walked into the garden to draw a breath and saw a single star shining in the clear night sky. I took the boys outside and didn’t need to say much. They gazed at the star, blew kisses to mummy, and went to bed. It was that simple.
My experience of grief
My first experience of grief was at the age of 21. I’d come off Channel 4’s reality show Shipwrecked to the news that my nan had died of cancer. I’d spent a large amount of my childhood experiencing a difficult family life where I was withdrawn but felt in control. Outside the church on the day of her funeral, I wailed my heart out. But I also remember feeling happy that I was sad. Crying made me feel connected. I was also particularly close to my grandad.
In the absence of my own father, who I never had a relationship with, he was like a dad. Whenever I went to grandad’s house, I was loved and looked after. We would watch The A-Team and Terrahawks on a Saturday night, then visit my nan on a Sunday, even though they were separated. I sank to my knees the moment my mum told me, shortly after Jade died, that my grandad had shot himself in the head.
I sank to my knees when my mum told me, shortly after Jade died, that my grandad had shot himself in the head
I was out in Australia at the time, so I had no choice but to rationalise grandad’s choice. Your assumption might be that I felt anger, betrayal and rejection. The truth is I very quickly decided I was proud of him. He watched his own dad die of throat cancer and saw how undignified his death was, so I respected that he took his life into his own hands. It’s important to note here that there are many suicides that I would not be able to find any level of acceptance with, because every situation is drastically different.
Not being able to say goodbye is one of the most painful feelings after a loved one dies. My biological dad died when I was 10-years-old. He was the skipper of the Marchioness pleasure boat which sank in the River Thames in 1989, killing him and 50 others. It was hard to miss a father that I didn’t have so I didn’t experience grief but I felt regret, which can be more destructive than sadness, because it’s imagined.
If you are feeling regretful, do something to fill the void created in the past. I know my life would have been enhanced by having my dad as a male role model, so I simply try to be the best dad I can to my boys. Memories can also become a celebration.
I did this when Jade was near the end. I thought: “How many things can she do with the kids to give them as many tools to be able to grieve and remember?” Sit in the moment and come up with your own list, which could include getting a family portrait photo done, taking a loved one to their favourite place, or eating at their favourite restaurant. It works in a similar way after death. On the 15th of every month, we have a Mother’s Day, where we do something fun. It attaches a memory of Jade to an experience that makes the boys smile.
On the 15th of every month we have a Mother's Day, where we do something fun. It attaches a memory of Jade to an experience that makes the boys smile
Coping with loss
There’s no one-size-fits-all journey of grief. If I asked everyone inside a packed Wembley Stadium: “What four words summarise grief?” – no two people would say the same thing. You see, grief is an umbrella term, a group of natural and overwhelming characteristics that, for me, in its purest form, include loss, loneliness, desperation, despair and disbelief.
If you’re experiencing a bereavement, compile a list of words that best describe how you feel, then separate those feelings into two columns – those you can control and those you can’t, so you know where to invest your energy. Work on each one. Focus on what you can’t control and you’ll only feel stuck.
It’s important not to impose limiting rules on yourself. For example, making negative predictions about your ability to cope. Saying “I’ll never get over this” isn’t being kind to yourself because you’re programming yourself to never get over the loss. Instead, try saying: “It’s hard but at some stage I’ll get there.”
You’ll need a prolonged period of time off normal duties to come to terms with your loss, but remember that no two days, weeks or months will be the same. Give yourself time before rushing into new relationships, a new job, or even counselling.
During grief, we often believe that being strong means staying on top of our emotions and making out that we’re OK, perhaps to protect other members of the family. In fact, being able to cry and express our feelings when we feel rubbish is the real meaning of strength, and being open and honest about our feelings gives those around us the permission to do the same.
Compared to women (who are naturally more open), men can be reserved and selective about who they share their feelings with. If you’re struggling with grief, identify your outlets. Is there a friend you can share your feelings with? Don’t worry about being a burden to those closest to you because the people in your circle are waiting for you to open up.
If you stay in denial and suppress your feelings, they’ll build like a pressure cylinder until they overwhelm you, and that can cause complications from a mental health point of view.
If you know someone who is grieving, don’t try to find the magic words to make everything OK, because only they can fix their grief.
All you need to do is listen. Also, remember to ask the person questions that illicit an interpretation of their feelings and, where possible, forget about texting. Call the person to ask how they are feeling. Grief requires the personal touch.
The mourning period
There are many filters that affect each undetermined period of grief, such as your relationship with that person (how close were you?); your acceptance of the loss (was the person’s death because of old age or cruel because you didn’t get to say goodbye?); and your relationship with yourself (will you use elements of grief to punish yourself?).
When a person is there in body, but time is limited, people experience what’s known as “anticipatory grief” – or living bereavement. If you’re losing a loved one, ask yourself these questions: how much more can I get out of that person’s time? How can I comfort them? Can they help me by sharing a memory that I will keep for ever?
Creating memories before memories are required, puts you in the driving seat of grief. When a sad trigger later taps you on the shoulder and reminds you of the special person you’ve lost – perhaps when a certain song comes on the radio, or an image of that person flashes into your mind – you can choose to overpower it with the happy memory that you have created together.
Through all my experiences of grief, I’ve learned that I’m resilient and determined. And since I retrained as a life coach, it’s been a privilege to be able to help other people going through the same thing. The reason I’m able to do that is because of the boys, my relatives who are no longer there, and my clients who have given me this incredible education. Thank you to you all.
‘The Grief Survival Guide’ by Jeff Braizer is out now.