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Dad's Grief Survival Guide, when secret sorrow is simply too much to bear.

Byline: CAROLYN HITT COLUMNIST newsdesk@walesonline.co.uk

TOMORROW I'll be at the Hay Festival talking to a former reality television star about grief. A generic chat about mourning is straightforward. It's when you start to personalise bereavement that it gets tricky.

We like to think we can talk about anything in our anything-goes 21stcentury society. But grief is a subject that still feels awkward, uncomfortable and even slightly taboo. When someone is in the depths of loss, we mumble platitudes and hope for a swift conversational exit.

I think it stems from fear. I still feel terrific guilt that when a friend lost her father I could only manage a cursory text of condolence when I should have written a letter as beautiful as the many I received when my mother died.

But I was too frightened to re-enter the territory of parental loss. Thankfully, when I admitted this to her later she understood. She knew that membership of the bereavement club can make you behave oddly.

Once I'd joined I used to marvel that I couldn't spot fellow members easily. I remember walking through a crowded Cardiff street wondering how many people might feel like I did.

But how does the world keep turning with all these men and women weighed down by the secret sorrow of loss? In the 19th century they'd have been far easier to spot. Grief had a uniform. Two years in black for a widow. The Victorians almost fetishised bereavement with their elaborate rituals and mourning etiquette.

Yet we might have gone too far the other way.

Yes, there are fantastic counselling services, but grief is rarely explored in popular culture even though it's arguably the only experience we will all share.

When a soap opera character dies, their name fades from the script within a few episodes.

Death dominates drama - murder is the lifeblood of British television - but while the pathologists dissect the body, who examines the impact on the victim's family in any meaningful detail? And back in the real world grief is acknowledged... but only if you stick to the schedule.

Time heals. Life goes on. All the cliches that add guilt to grief if you're not quite up to speed. I didn't expect to find a profound retort in the lyrics of Katy Perry, but, fair play, the pop star nailed it with: "You said move on, where do I go?" But as someone once said: "Grief lasts longer than sympathy, which is one of the tragedies of the grieving."

Plus there's no preparation for this fundamental life experience. As author Gail Caldwell wrote: "The only education in grief that any of us ever gets is a crash course."

Yet there are people out there who are channelling their mourning into educating the rest of us on bereavement.

Inspirational people like Manon Gravell, for example. Manon was just 12 when she lost her father, Ray.

The Scarlets, Wales and Lions icon died of a sudden heart attack in 2007 during a family holiday to Spain. He had been recovering from a leg amputation following complications from diabetes.

"For me, Dad was the man you could turn to about anything," said Manon. "When he was at home he was just a normal dad. When he died it was a massive shock to the system and I felt I had to grow up overnight."

It was a loss shared by the whole of Wales, yet at the sharp end of grief, Manon found there was little provision for young people suffering bereavement.

"When Dad died we went through the different systems with the social services and I realised how little support was available," she said.

"They treated you as if you didn't understand and I think that is what upset us the most - they didn't realise how much we did understand." In 2014, with her sister, Gwenan, Manon established a website-based charity called Project 13 (https:// www.projectthirteen.cymru/) for children and young people who have lost a close member of the family. Aimed at 12- 25-year-olds, it provides a safe space for grieving young people to share their stories and draw comfort from peers going through the same experiences.

As the home page states: "It's OK not to be OK."

And as Manon explains: "I want to give young people who are grieving due to the loss of a loved one a place where they can turn to when they're feeling at their worst. Everyone grieves individually, but we all share the same emotions and Project 13 gives individuals the support and confidence to talk to others in a similar situation. Project 13 is about bringing people together in their loss and understanding that there is no need to feel alone."

Grief must be particularly cruel for children and young people. I didn't encounter it until I was 43 and for my generation, though obviously hugely painful, it is, of course, part of the cycle of middle age as we say goodbye to our parents.

When bereavement hit me with sledgehammer force it made me reflect on how charmed my young life had been, untouched by the darkness of death in the family. So I cannot contemplate how tough loss must be at a much younger age.

Prince Harry proved that no amount of royal privilege could protect him from the psychological devastation of losing his mum when he was just 12. As he revealed recently, grief took him to the edge of a breakdown until he decided to seek professional help at the age of 28.

Rio Ferdinand also gave a powerful insight into the awfulness of grief as he showed the struggles of a young family coming to terms with the death of his wife, Rebecca, mother to their three children. In the BBC documentary Being Mum and Dad, the former footballer explored the difficulties with extraordinary courage and candour.

It provoked a huge response. There to help those who inundated a phone-in on loss held by the This Morning programme the following day was another father bringing up young children in the wake of their mother's early death.

Jeff Brazier attracted a flood of Twitter plaudits for the sensitive way he advised those who rang in that day. And I'll be talking to him at the Hay Festival tomorrow about his book, The Grief Survival Guide: How to navigate loss and all that comes with it.

At first sight this winsome Essex boy with a CV full of reality television appearances - everything from X Factor to Dancing on Ice - might seem an unlikely bereavement counsellor.

But the 38-year-old has certainly had his share of grief and the challenges life after loss brings.

He has experienced bereavement in many forms: in his childhood; helping his two boys through the devastating death of their mother, Jade Goody, witnessing the anguish of his own mum when she lost both her parents, and hearing the stories of his coaching clients who are coming to terms with their loss.

A tough upbringing saw him placed in care as a toddler for two years as his teenage mother struggled to cope.

His earliest memory is of being collected from his foster home to live with his mother and the man he assumed was his birth father. Their relationship was volatile and violent. Family stress only increased with the arrival of Jeff's brother, Spencer, who has cerebral palsy.

His mother, Jeanette, finally escaped the abusive relationship, and after a spell at a women's refuge finally sat Jeff down and revealed a bombshell.

The man they had left behind was not his real father. But there was no chance of Jeff being reunited with his biological dad, Stephen Faldo, as he had died three years earlier in tragic circumstances. Faldo was the captain of the Marchioness pleasure boat which collided with the dredger Bowbelle on the Thames in 1989 - a disaster which claimed 150 lives.

Jeff's next encounter with grief was also a loss which made national headlines.

His ex-partner, Jade Goody, died of cancer in 2009 and Jeff is now raising their two sons, Freddie, aged 12, and 13-year-old Bobby.

But though his relationship with the troubled Big Brother star was played out in the tabloids, Jeff has shielded their sons from media attention while his motivation to train as a life coach came from his need to steer the boys through their grief.

He is also an ambassador for children's bereavement charity Grief Encounter.

He has opened up about the hardest aspects of parenting children who miss their mother desperately, telling a newspaper recently: "The worst possible thing I've heard from both boys would be: 'I wish it was you that was dead and not Mum.' Grief generates the worst possible feelings, it really clouds your judgement.

"The words they come out with they're not always in control of and they're just saying them because what they're actually trying to say is, 'Dad, help me'."

And Jeff hopes he can help others with The Grief Survival Guide.

Written with sensitivity and honesty, the book offers practical advice on everything from preparing for the eventuality of death to managing grief, how best to support family and friends and how to tackle moving forward.

He says there is no "one-size-fitsall" approach, recommending the best we can do is understand, cope and survive.

Talking helps too. We'll be doing plenty of that tomorrow.

Come along and listen and share your own experiences if you can.

| Jeff Brazier is at the Hay Festival with Carolyn Hitt at 1pm tomorrow.

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<B Jeff Brazier with Jade Goody in 2003. The reality TV star died in 2009 and Jeff is now raising their two sons, Freddie, aged 12, and 13-year-old Bobby
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jun 3, 2017
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