A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
Early last summer I received an invitation from Prince Harry to attend a barbecue in the grounds of Kensington Palace. The event would bring together a number of people who had been affected by mental health issues and bereavement including Rio Ferdinand, Dame Kelly Holmes, Victoria Pendleton and Iwan Thomas.
I was expecting little more than a chat and a burger, but a conversation that happened amongst us that day went on to make headlines all around the world. Prince Harry discussed his deep regret for not speaking about the death of his mother for the first 28 years of his life and how, as a result, he believed he would need support for years to come. For a week or so it would have been a struggle to find the back of another person’s head who got more global exposure than mine – I was filmed and photographed standing next to the prince as he spoke.
I was immediately struck by his honesty and how much his voice had the potential to help others.
The whole afternoon, hosted by Heads Together, was set up to help take steps towards changing the national conversation on mental wellbeing. People of influence and experience would speak out and say it’s okay to open up and recognise when it’s time to seek help through challenging times. I couldn’t have felt less at home in my palatial surroundings, and yet I felt entirely comfortable in the company of people who all wanted to help achieve the same goals.
I didn’t really write about it at the time because I was on holiday with my son and our friends when the news broke and I really wanted a break from it all. This has happened quite a lot over the last few years; I’m not a very patient person and I often find that when things don’t happen quickly it’s easy for frustration to kick in.
Honestly, though, how do we even measure this kind of change? How do we start to understand if we are achieving our goals?
This week a number of things happened in my life that suggest we’re making progress.
I bumped into a friend on a packed commuter train earlier this week. He took his headphones out of his ears when he saw me and started talking about the Rio Ferdinand documentary that had aired the night before. We both discussed how overwhelming it was that it had resonated with so many people – that it had got people talking openly about an often unspoken subject.
He then started to tell me about all the news coming out from Heads Together once again. A series of videos featuring people including Freddie Flintoff, Professor Green, Ruby Wax and Alastair Campbell had been released to continue to tackle mental health stigma – something affecting my friend directly.
It wasn’t until I said goodbye that I realised the significance of what had just happened. Two grown men were on a train that was so busy that one of us couldn’t actually find a free rail to hold onto, and yet we stood and spoke freely about depression and grief in public without a glimmer of discomfort. It felt like an incredibly memorable moment.
Then last night I went to a gig with one of my brothers and our friends. As soon as I walked into the venue I noticed a woman staring at me. She came over and asked me if she knew me (something that always make me laugh because it’s such back to front question).
‘I’m not sure,’ I replied, ‘do you?’
‘Were you in that film about Rio Ferdinand the other night?’ she asked, the penny final dropping.
Her boyfriend came over trying to find out what was going on. At first he looked a bit annoyed that she was talking to another man, but then his face changed and he threw his arms around me.
‘I know who you are, mate!’ he said. ‘Well done to you and all the other lads in the documentary the other night.’
He then hugged my brother and my mates, too.
This happened again before the night was over. Another lad just came over and didn’t even say anything at first – he just went straight in for the hug. I’m pretty sure he’d had more than one drink, but it was incredible to experience the kindness of strangers without them getting lost in sympathy. They simply wanted to acknowledge what we had set out to do and perhaps, to some degree at least, join the conversation.
Everyone I’ve spoken to this week has opened up a little more to me than they ever have before.
‘My dad died when I was 14,’ a colleague told me after seeing the BBC One film on Tuesday, ‘and now I can finally see things from my mum’s point of view.’
‘Everyone has been talking about it in the office today,’ another widowed parent wrote to me, ‘it’s such a relief finally hearing people talk about grief.’
Sportspeople talking, royalty talking, entertainers talking, colleagues talking, friends and even strangers talking. It feels like everyone has been talking this week. Conversations that might once have felt impossibly uncomfortable or, worse still, just impossible, have started to feel quite normal. And I think it’s amazing to witness that unfold.