by Catherine O’Brien
Since the death of his ex-partner – Big Brother’s Jade Goody – in 2009, TV personality JEFF BRAZIER has been a single dad to their two sons. He opens up about life with Jade, his dysfunctional childhood and why he wants to help other families cope with grief
With his hazel eyes, honeyed complexion and sculpted hair, Jeff Brazier is distractingly handsome. As we are introduced, he tells me that he’s ‘just perfect, thanks’, and certainly there can be no denying that his winsome looks along with his larky, Essex-boy charm have been huge factors in helping sustain his television career.
Since starting out as a contestant on Channel 4’s Shipwrecked in 2001, he has cropped up on everything from The X Factor to Dancing on Ice.
If you have caught sight of his screen appearances more recently, however, you’ll have detected a shift in tone. In March, on ITV’s This Morning, he prompted a flood of Twitter plaudits after fielding a ‘coping with grief’ phone-in.
Among the callers was Kate, who has incurable cancer and is overwhelmed with the guilt of knowing that she is going to be leaving her three young children bereft. Eloquently, and with heartfelt empathy, Jeff advised Kate to set that guilt to one side and ‘use every single priceless moment you have to make memories’.
The erstwhile reality star understood something about what Kate was going through – because over eight years ago, while sitting in a side room of the Royal Marsden Hospital in West London, he faced an unenviable challenge.
At the age of just 27, his ex-partner Jade Goody – Big Brother’s most infamous housemate – was dying of cervical cancer and she and Jeff had to work out how they were going to break the news to their two sons Bobby and Freddy, who were then aged five and four. Between them, Jeff and Jade decided on a script that, at her request, would be delivered by Jade alone.
Jeff then brought the boys to their mother’s bedside before retreating while Jade gently explained that soon she would become a bright star that they would be able to see on its way to heaven.
‘She didn’t want to tell them, but she knew she had to do it because she wanted them to know the truth,’ Jeff recalls. ‘The thought of that conversation always reduces me to tears. Our poor boys. Poor Jade.’
Nothing can replace the loss of a mother and in recent weeks several high-profile men have, in their different ways, reminded us of that. Rio Ferdinand’s extraordinarily moving documentary Being Mum and Dad exposed the devastating void created by the loss of his 34-year-old wife Rebecca to cancer.
Cameras followed the former footballer as he searched for ways to best support their three young children. Prince Harry’s disclosure that he underwent counselling after years of ‘sticking his head in the sand’ about the death of his mother confirmed that there is no quick fix.
And Prince William was equally candid about the moment he learned that Princess Diana had been killed in a car crash. ‘The shock is the biggest thing and I still feel it 20 years later,’ he revealed.
Rio, Harry and William’s openness created headlines partly because of who they are, but also because it is rare for men to acknowledge so frankly the hurt, anger and confusion that comes with bereavement. Now Jeff is joining the conversation with the publication of The Grief Survival Guide: How to Navigate Loss and All That Comes With It.
It’s a book that is compassionate and practical, written not from the viewpoint of a ‘grief expert’ but by someone who has been there. ‘If Jade hadn’t died, who knows what I’d be doing now,’ he says. ‘But I know a lot about the tough side of life and in the past few years I’ve finally learnt what I’m good at and what I’m here for.’
Jeff, 38, is someone whose early years contained few predictors of the success that has since come his way. His mother Jeanette was 15 when she conceived him and clearly struggled as a single mother because when Jeff was two she placed him in care.
One of Jeff’s earliest memories is Jeanette reappearing at the front door of his foster home two years later to retrieve him. She took him back to her council flat in Romford, which by then she was sharing with a new partner Paul (not his real name), whom Jeff was led to believe for many years was his birth father.
Paul and Jeanette’s relationship was often violent and the household stress levels shot up after the arrival of Jeff’s brother Spencer, who has cerebral palsy. ‘As a child, when you lie in bed and hear screaming and shouting and you’re scared but there is nothing you can do about it, you become emotionally self-sufficient,’ Jeff says. ‘I was always mindful that Mum had it hard and I wasn’t going to create any more problems for her than she already had.’
Jeff’s boyhood salvation was football. He played for his school, district and Sunday leagues and won a place at West Ham United’s elite academy. His training was interrupted when he was 12 and Jeanette finally summoned up the courage to leave Paul. She, Jeff and Spencer (who is seven years Jeff’s junior and has a normal IQ but no speech or use of his hands) escaped to a women’s refuge in Great Yarmouth before subsequently being secretly rehoused in the Essex village of Tiptree.
Shortly after they had settled in, Jeanette sat Jeff down and told him Paul wasn’t his real dad – his biological father was Stephen Faldo who had died three years previously in tragic circumstances. Faldo, it transpired, had been the captain of The Marchioness pleasure boat which had collided with the dredger Bowbelle on the Thames in 1989, claiming 50 lives as well as his own.
The bombshell revelation left Jeff stymied rather than sad. ‘You can’t grieve for what you’ve never had. But you can regret – and I do regret that I never got to meet the person who was 50 per cent of who I am.’ On the upside, he says, he got to meet a new set of grandparents, aunts, uncles and a half-brother – ‘I had this whole new family and I’ve been close to them ever since.’
During his teens, Jeff recovered his football career and won an apprenticeship with Leyton Orient. But although he had the requisite skills, he recognises now that he didn’t have the unassailable self-belief necessary to take him all the way as a professional player.
By his early 20s, he had been let go and was adrift, working on building sites and as a barrister’s clerk until he stumbled on to Shipwrecked – the desert-island reality show. ‘One of my Leyton teammates took part in the second series and said it was the best thing he had done.’
Jeff aced a screen test for series three and was soon on his way to the South Pacific where he spent two months cast away with 15 other contestants having ‘the greatest experience of my life’.
He had just arrived back in the UK and was trying to build on his TV success (he had stood out in Shipwrecked as the amiable peacemaker amid some gargantuan egos) when he met Jade. Indeed, he couldn’t escape her because fresh from her stint on Big Brother she moved into the house he was sharing with a mutual acquaintance.
Jeff had watched Jade on Big Brother ‘and I hadn’t thought she would be my cup of tea at all’, but they fell for each other big time. ‘There was a bit of each other in us: we were equally clueless but we also shared a hunger for a better life than the one we had had.’
Jade’s childhood had been, if anything, even more dysfunctional than Jeff’s. Her father Andrew was a pimp, robber and drug addict who had been in and out of prison and left home when Jade was two (he subsequently died of an overdose), while her mother Jackiey had been a ‘clipper’ – someone who pretends to organise an assignation with a prostitute but runs off with the money. Jackiey had lost the use of her arm and was blinded in one eye in an accident when Jade was five; Jade had often had to miss school to care for her mother.
The interesting thing is that while Jeff emerged from his foreshortened upbringing resilient, calm and thankful – ‘I’ve always felt that I am the lucky one; for me, life was about holding it together for Mum and Spencer’ – Jade’s ultimate downfall was her unending chaos.
‘To start with I felt I could take away her bad stuff and fix a few things for her,’ Jeff says, ‘but I learned the hard way that I couldn’t. And because we had children, that became upsetting and difficult. More than anything I wanted our boys to experience what we hadn’t – a stable family life. But in the end, I could only control my own behaviour because I didn’t have the answer for Jade.’
Jeff and Jade were 23 and 21 and had been together for only three months when she discovered she was pregnant with Bobby. ‘It put me in a difficult position,’ Jeff admits, ‘because, obviously, one of my first thoughts was, “God, I hardly know you.”’
His second thought was that their baby had as much of a right to live as his teenage mother had given him; and his third was that he couldn’t walk away as his birth father had done. ‘So we were always going to have our baby and I was always going to be a hands-on dad.’
Bobby was born in June 2003 and Jeff and Jade split up the following year, only for Jade to discover soon afterwards that she was expecting Freddy. With renewed optimism, they gave their relationship another go, but separated for good early in 2005 when Freddy was six months old.
From then on, they shared custody – Jeff had the boys three nights a week, Jade had them for the other four – and, despite their often heated differences, ‘Jade never used the children as a weapon against me,’ Jeff says.
Jade was diagnosed with cervical cancer in August 2008. Her disease was a consequence of contracting the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV) in her teens. If she had had the HPV vaccination (the NHS added the vaccine to its national immunisation programme in September 2008), or had undergone regular smear tests, her prognosis could have been very different.
‘It was all so avoidable,’ Jeff concedes, ‘and I regret that for her and for the boys because they shouldn’t have to be going through their childhood without her.’
One of the saddest memories Jeff had to relive when writing his book was the day that Jade died – on Mother’s Day in 2009. ‘I knew I had to be the one to tell Bobby and Freddy, but I wasn’t sure how to do it,’ he recalls. ‘I waited until bedtime and called them outside. In the end, I didn’t have to say anything because the stars were out and they said, “Is that one Mummy?” They knew.’
Bobby and Freddy are now 13 and 12. For several years, Jeff insisted they stayed out of the public eye but recently he has started posting photographs and video clips of them on Twitter and Instagram. They look exceptionally well.
‘They’re turning into fine young men,’ he agrees proudly. ‘But I am always conscious that I have just one shot at their childhood.’ His quest to be the best parent he can be while steering the boys through their grief is what motivated him three years ago to complete a life-coaching course and qualify as a neuro linguistic programming (NLP) practitioner.
‘I’ve learnt that there is no such thing as failure, just experiences that you can use to do things better next time.’
One of the first decisions Jeff made after Jade died, against the advice of some, was to keep Bobby and Freddy away from her funeral. Instead, he took them to Australia: ‘It was a reflex response – I knew it would be a media circus and I wanted to protect them from that.’
He also knew that it would be difficult for the boys to believe Mummy was a star in the sky ‘if they saw a box with her in it being lowered into the ground’. Being the surviving parent of bereaved children is often lonely, he explains, ‘but I have an alarm bell in my stomach that tells me when something doesn’t feel right’.
He remembers that Bobby and Freddy didn’t seem to be affected by Jade’s death for the first six months, but ten months later, they were in turmoil and he was their punchbag. ‘When they say to you, “I wish you were dead and not Mummy,” there’s not a lot that can save you from being utterly knocked out. But as emotions simmer down, you realise that none of that is ever meant to hurt me, it is always to show me how hurt they are.’
Like Rio Ferdinand, Jeff consulted counsellors early on and he has since become patron of Grief Encounter, the charity that has supported them. While Freddy engaged with the counselling process for five years, Bobby refused to entertain any more sessions after five months.
‘Freddy is very open, but Bobby doesn’t talk so much about his feelings – the last time I saw him cry was at an Olly Murs concert two years ago. He’s doing well at school, he’s popular and he talks about his mum – but my sense is that there is still a lot of anger in there, which is why I wish I hadn’t let him pull the plug on the counselling and I am working on how to get him back into it.’
Jeff has a long list of things he would change if he could turn back the clock. A couple of years ago, they relocated from Essex to Brighton, partly so that Bobby could attend a performing-arts school.
There were some bullying issues, Bobby didn’t settle well and they are now back in Essex ‘because I learned the hard way that one of the most important things is that your bereaved children are around other kids who love and accept them’. As a father, he strives to be consistent, but he’s sure that there have been many times when he has cut the boys too much slack: ‘It is hard not to when you are playing good cop, bad cop and everything-in-between cop.’
And he has to remind himself to be the fun dad he would naturally be if Jade was still around, ‘which means making time to wrestle in the living room, play board games and not be constantly telling them to tidy their rooms’.
Among Jeff’s most innovative initiatives is what he calls ‘dictating to grief’. It means, he explains, ‘squaring up to it, rather than running away’. On the 15th of every month – a date that has no particular relevance – he and the boys take time out to talk about Jade, look at photographs and discuss how they are feeling.
‘It’s a bit like having your in-laws over but rather than letting them drop by, you invite them in at a time of your choosing. And, actually, you find that you end up enjoying their company because it puts you on the front foot, rather than catching you unawares.’
His book contains many such tips and reassurances which come from his parenting experiences and also from clients he has coached. One thing you won’t find him dwelling on, however, is his own sense of loss. He tells me he ‘absolutely loved Jade’ but that it is complicated. ‘I never wanted to steal the boys’ grief,’ he explains. ‘And Jade and I weren’t together when she died, so it could never be about me.’
There was just one occasion when he can recall feeling truly overwhelmed. ‘I was on my own, driving up a motorway when I found myself sobbing, and those tears were for Jade because it was just so unfair on her – she’d had these two beautiful boys, whom she loved and adored, and her dream was to make her own childhood right through them and that was cruelly taken away.’
Today Jeff is in a long-term relationship with Kate Dwyer, a 28-year-old publicist. He insisted, as he has done with all his girlfriends, that they were together for six months before she had the ‘privilege’ of meeting his sons. ‘Balancing their needs with the needs of your partner – well, it’s a lot to fit in,’ he says. He and Kate don’t live together yet, but he likes the idea ‘when the time is right’ of starting over and having more children.
For now, though, it’s all about Bobby and Freddy. ‘The greatest lesson any of us can take from grief is to make the most of life,’ he says.
‘Their childhood is flashing by and I want to bank those precious memories before they’re walking out of my door.’
How to ‘post’ your grief: an extract from Jeff’s book
Social media has changed the way we grieve today. In my opinion, expressing your grief on Facebook or Twitter can – as long as it doesn’t become the only place of sanctuary – be a positive thing and part of how you manage it. It’s all about balance. Nothing, in my view, is a substitute for real-life interaction, but there are some benefits for posting what’s on your mind on social media.
Social media and its many shortcuts – A post on Facebook or Twitter can take the place of 50 or more conversations. You may have dreaded the thought of telling people over and over again about a death or how you are coping, but social media gives you the opportunity to tell people all at once. And posting tributes about your loved one can be very cathartic and allows a wide group of your friends and family to get to know them and share their memories.
Online groups and forums – One of the benefits of social media is that by posting or searching you can find others in a position similar to yours – those who have lost, say, a child or a parent – and these people can become your support and advice group. Nobody quite understands your loss better than those who have walked a mile in your shoes; being able to access them at the press of a button and share your feelings is invaluable. People make lasting friendships in online groups and forums because they have supported each other through incredibly tough times.
Say what you mean – Sharing your grief is a positive step but you should also look at why you have shared it and what your desired outcome is. While you could just be letting everyone know how you feel, you might also be crying for help, in which case you should state clearly in your post what it is you require or need, so that you get that help.
Access to memories – Social media can deliver archived pictures or posts from the past, precious memories that can cheer you up on a bad day.
Comforting Stories – It can be uplifting when people from far and wide are able to share memories of your loved ones and you realise how many people cared for them. This is especially the case with children. I have set up an account for my boys so that invited people can post memories of their mum for them to read now and for the rest of their lives.
Special Occasions – Mother’s Day, anniversaries, birthdays – any special occasion can hurt like hell, even after many years. On special days – or maybe just because you’re missing your loved one – you can take great comfort in typing a message just for them and sending it out into the great wide world.
This is an edited extract from The Grief Survival Guide: How to Navigate Loss and All That Comes With It by Jeff Brazier, which will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on 4 June, price £16.99. To order a copy for £12.74 (a 25 per cent discount) until 11 June, go to you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15.